Q & A, by Vikas Swarup, is the story of the unusual orphan Ram Muhammad Thomas. Set in various cities in India, Ram/Muhammad/Thomas moves from family to family, trying to earn enough money to eat and be independent of his life of minimum wage work.
The book opens with his admission that he won a game show. He is subsequently accused of cheating and arrested, as the studio bosses cannot believe that a poor orphan from the slums was able to answer all of the questions correctly, as no one has ever done before. Ram is rescued by a lawyer, who urges him to tell her how he knew the answers to all of the questions. Each chapter is headed according to the question, in which a story explains how Ram knew the answer.
This means that each chapter is not in chronological order, but instead follows the order of the gameshow. As confusing as that may sound, the stories are a good mix of time setting and closed narrative, as people come into Ram’s life and out of it, leaving him with that all important piece of knowledge that will one day help him win a billion rupees.
Sounds like a familiar story, doesn’t it? That’s because it was turned into the multi award winning, Danny Boyle directed film Slumdog Millionaire. The film adaptation is well done, but it has to miss out characters, amalgamate experiences and distil the book down to a manageable couple of hours. Instead of a little brother, Ram has another orphan as his best friend. Rather than one girl he has pined over his whole life, who sees him as a meal ticket out of prostitution, there are many girls who parade through his life in different roles.
I found this to be much more satisfying than the film, to be honest. Although I don’t want to give too much away, Ram has better reasons for entering the competition than ‘that girl might see me on telly’, and there are better stories behind why he knew the answers to the slightly different questions.
One of the central themes is that of luck versus sheer force of will. Ram has a lucky coin that he uses in all of his decisions, and this seems to show him the way to good choices. However, there are plenty of stories where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as when he was robbed of his life savings by railway bandits.
Even his name is more interesting – Ram is Hindu, Muhammad is Islamic and Thomas is Christian. The reason for this is given in the early chapters, but it is something that marks him out as different in a country where your name is literally your identity – your religion, your caste, your colour. This makes it more believable that in a country of billions of people, he will still be noticed.
If you enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, I’d recommend the book. If, like me, the twee title of ‘Feelgood hit of the year’ was irritating when paired with the violence and sheer hopelessness throughout 90% of the film, I’d recommend this book. It adds weight where there was none, and it illuminates the author’s intention more clearly.