Published in 2005, Q&A was Vikas Swarup’s debut novel, and went on to be adapted into the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire. Hopping between Delhi and Mumbai, it features Ram, a young orphan who finds himself the unexpected winner of Who Will Win a Billion? – India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Arrested on suspicion of cheating by the show’s organisers, Ram finds himself telling much of his life story in order to explain how a poor, uneducated orphan could know the answers to the quiz show’s questions.
Each of the book’s chapters begins with Ram telling the story of one of his many adventures – from working for a Bollywood actress in the twilight of her career, to his time as a tour guide at the Taj Mahal – before returning to the TV studio and the slimy chat show host, the particular relevance of each tale only becoming clear once the next question is revealed. Things bounce around chronologically to fit the order of the questions, gradually building up a picture of Ram’s character and history, and the supporting cast of his life so far. Initially a touch confusing, the chronology soon fits together and the whole thing works beautifully – Ram’s potentially unreliable narration of the wonderfully bizarre string of events that have made up his life so far, and the slow reveal of what exactly he was doing on a national TV quiz show.
As Ram spins his stories, Swarup paints a vivid picture of India, showing both its beauty and its corruption. There’s a real sense of vibrancy to the country, despite the privations that Ram lives through as he struggles with poverty and his place in society. Throughout the book there are clear themes of friendship and loyalty, of morality and how it’s affected by poverty, and of hope and positivity. At times it can get quite dark, with some pretty awful issues tackled head on, but Ram is written as determined, positive, and his outlook – as well as his straight-up delivery, and acceptance of what has happened – helps to keep the book feeling light and easy to read. Swarup chooses not to go into too much detail with the issues he looks at, instead maintaining a fast pace that might leave some readers wanting more depth but gives the book a real feel of forward motion and excitement.
Reading through, it’s no surprise that Hollywood picked this story up for adaptation, as it’s such a clever, thought-provoking story. Sure, the fundamental concept requires some suspension of disbelief – the idea that Ram might have lived through such a crazy string of bizarre events, that just happen to give him the answers to the questions – and it’s certainly not perfect – supporting characters fade in and out and largely remain a little thinly-drawn, and there’s the occasional bum note where Swarup relies a little too much on stereotype or slightly old-fashioned thinking. Accept its flaws however, and embrace the sheer exuberance of the story, and you’re rewarded with a rich, entertaining novel that will keep you turning the page and racing through to find out what happened.