Once in a while, a literary creator disengages from tried and tested formulas and succeeds in crafting a stunning prose. As the author narrates the positive and negative images of the plot, one cannot help but reflect on the real world and all its intricacies. It is no wonder why this novel served as the inspiration for the Oscar award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”.
Writing about the stark realities of life, Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup launches a delicious piece in his debut novel “Q & A”. A heart-rending story about a young man who does the impossible by winning the biggest prize in history amounting to one billion rupees, the tale is filled with symbolic undertones – with a style that is both unique and enthralling.
The young man, Ram Mohammad Thomas, is just like most of us. We all aspire to improve our lives, sometimes with utter desperation. We simply employ different means – in Ram’s case he joins a quiz contest in order to pursue his quest. It is quite surprising that he actually has a different agenda for joining the contest which is revealed in the end (I will not reveal it here so as not to spoil the fun). The tale of bad luck, however, is enriched by the values that are instilled in the reader’s consciousness.
Ram was imprisoned and tortured, because the producers of the show “Who Will Win a Billion?” believe he cheated on his way to winning. Ram is uneducated, dirt-poor, and ignorant. How the hell could he have answered all twelve questions on the show? The producers try to test Ram by asking another set of multiple choice questions, which Ram could not answer correctly. This makes the police suspicious, and they resort to inflicting physical pain so that Ram would spill the beans. The poor kid is about to sign an admission of guilt at the police station, when he is saved by a young female lawyer, Smita. After a heated argument with the scalawags, she takes Ram away from the police station, feeds him, and asks Ram to give a detailed account on how he did the impossible so she could defend him in court. What follows is a colorful, bittersweet journey through the life of an orphan in the slums of India. A combination of Ram’s past experiences enabled him to give the correct responses. He just happened to know all the answers!
Ram is not perfect. He has voyeuristic tendencies. He is inclined to be dishonest and violent. Despite his weaknesses, he is perfectly human – a characteristic that endears. He feels for his fellowmen. He resorts to creative ways to earn a living. And when he gets into trouble, he is saved by the wonderful deeds he performed in the past. Ram makes us believe in the innate power of goodness – that we must plant seeds of kindness all the time without expecting anything in return.
We can learn a lot of things from Ram. He is a good friend, in sickness and in health. He fights for people’s rights. He cannot bear iniquities but would not go to the extent of cursing the rich because of his situation. Lastly, he loves just like you and me – throwing caution to the wind just to find that perfect person to share one’s future with. And it doesn’t matter if that person sells her body to the world just to make ends meet.
Q & A is replete with thugs – the no-good people – the scum of the earth. Rapists, arsonists, pedophiles, sex addicts, corrupt officials – you name it, they are part of the tale. Sometimes things get to feel so real and it makes you wonder whether a Supreme Being does exist. In the slums of India, it appears that nothing positive can come out. Notwithstanding the inhuman living conditions, however, there are still individuals who emerge from their experiences and strive to make things right. Ram’s female lawyer, Smita, is a prime example. Her character is a beautiful sidelight and a surprising twist that makes us realize how we can change lives by loving and caring.
Leafing through Q & A’s pages provide a smorgasbord of emotions. For instance, you will find yourself giggling at Ram as he acts as an unofficial tour guide at the Taj Mahal, providing hilarious information to a Japanese tourist about the place and how it was built. Laughter turns to anger as Ram describes how a heartless mother neglects her differently-abled child who gets stricken by rabies. Tears will start flowing down your face when Ram narrates the unthinkable ordeal of Mumbai’s streetchildren, who are debilitated by syndicates in order to fetch a sizable pittance as they roam the city’s thoroughfares. Swarup even managed to sprinkle some titillating “scenes” to tickle your imagination, just for good measure. I guess it is no different from the way our local TV producers infuse all kinds of images in soap operas in order to sustain interest and viewership. But unlike some of the trashy boob tube offerings we get almost everyday, the social significance of Q & A’s story cannot be ignored.
In the end, Q & A impresses upon its readers that luck is not based on destiny – we create it. It is what we make of what we have that matters – play the cards right and good things happen. Make the right decisions by thinking of others instead of one’s self. And believe that even in negative moments, things happen for a reason. Who knows, our fortunes may eventually turn out for the better with an upcoming string of good luck. In the midst of our misery, we must always be hopeful and confident that salvation and upliftment are just around the corner. To find the A to all of life’s Q’s, all we have to do is trust, believe, and surrender to our Creator.