Originally published as q & a, Vikas Swarup’s debut novel is the story of Ram Mohammed Thomas, a 19-year-old orphan from the slums of Bombay. When the novel opens, he is a) a billionaire, having won the billion-rupee prize in a game show, and, b) in jail, the producers having charged him with fraud. He is in jail because the producers of the show have no money to pay him, a fact you are made aware of on page seven.
As a lawyer comes to the young orphan’s assistance, Swarup unfolds the almost Dickensian tale in first person, told over the course of a single night in 12 chapters, each a short story in its own right dealing out interesting vignettes of the protagonist’s fractured life and the many people who helped shape his world view. As a plot device, it works. Swarup paints different settings for his protagonist and uses humor to underline his insightful commentary on the social fabric of contemporary India.
The chapters are not in chronological order, though. The first-person narrative weaves back and forth, and as each chapter unfolds, Thomas explains just how the crucial events each provide a key to the show’s twelve questions.
This is not a book for the squeamish. There is enough foul language, sex, murder, battle and sudden death to keep a dozen novels going. What works in its defense is that Slumdog Millionaire is a fast-paced read, and right from the protagonist’s three names is absolutely cinematic in scope. There is also an impish reference to a well-known plot device from a 1970’s blockbuster. Hindi film aficionados will recognize the scene.
A diplomat by profession, Vikas Swarup shows a tremendous grasp of the underbelly of contemporary Indian life and takes sardonic, sometimes savage digs at the abuses that are rampant in 21st-century India. While you can dismiss the frequency with which these abuses seem to happen in the short life of his protagonist as plot device, they are very real and mirror a reality that most of us would prefer to ignore.
Swarup weaves all 12 somewhat implausible strands into one believable though intricate whole. Though coincidences run riot, his writing skills are good enough to make you suspend disbelief. This is truly a fantastic yarn, with well-constructed characters who make you empathize with them.
Finally, though, the story is about the age-old fight between good and evil, and how spirit triumphs over adversity. It has all the ingredients of a wonderful potboiler - bad guys and white knights, diplomats and film stars, poverty and exploitation, pain and redemption and everything else that you can throw into the mix. Stirred up and served by a wonderfully articulate author in a language so simple that it reminds you of simplicity’s charm, you are willing to forgive the slight melodrama and the various plot contrivances. It is to Swarup’s credit that he ties up all the loose ends in a convincing manner, leaving us with a novel that is all that a novel should be, but so often is not: a tale well-told.