One reason I read fiction is that it puts me into a dream state, enriching and challenging my life in a way no other art form does. Another reason for investing in another person’s tale is that the story is interesting and has a slice of truth that informs my worldview. And lastly, I read fiction because it gives me pleasure: words that are chosen artfully, sentences that are constructed like great architecture, characters who have life breathed into them, dialogue that brings out deep inner thoughts, and settings that are established with descriptive detail. When the various elements of fine fiction come together in an aesthetically appealing manner, they give the dream a stamp of authenticity.
Vikas Swarup’s Q & A is a novel that gives pleasure at one level but fails to sustain a satisfying dream. The novel’s premise is that India’s teeming chawls have produced from their ghetto bosom a paisa-less teenager—Ram Mohammad Thomas—who has won a billion rupees on a quiz show. For fans of the American Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or the Indian Kaun Banega Crorepati, the rags-to-riches surface story of this ecumenically named hero is enough to warrant a deeper look. The novel begins interestingly enough with a prologue that establishes the basis for the 12 chapters that follow. Each chapter is a short story that ends with a question from Who Will Win a Billion (W3B), the quiz show that Swarup fabricates to try and give life to Ram Mohammad Thomas as one in a billion.
The stories are loosely linked to suggest a novel-length narrative. But it is only the artifice of the quiz-show questions that serves as a unifying scaffold for this collection of short stories aspiring to be a novel. As Thomas progresses from the first question worth Rs. 1,000 to the last worth Rs. 1,000,000,000, the stories expose the underbelly of Indian society like fingers picking at a scab. Villains are marched onto the pages as stick-figure characters who prop up Swarup’s simplistic world of good and evil: the movie star who fondles kids in darkened theaters segues into a homosexual priest who in turn yields to the story of an abusive father. The sad parade is tiresome. With the exception of Neelima Kumari, an aging actress in “Tragedy Queen,” there is little depth to these cardboard cutouts. Swarup uses the characters not to discover his sense of what is true, but rather to build gimmicky questions for the quiz show. There is very little tension outside of guessing which part of the plot will become a W3B question. The conflict in the stories is almost always predictably resolved comic-book style.
This is not to denigrate the comic-book genre. But Swarup might consider listening to his own character, Neelima Kumari. The “tragedy queen” explains to Thomas, “A good film has to respect its genre … . A character has to be consistent.” This is similarly true for high and low literature. Even Spiderman and Batman are consistent, giving them some authenticity. Q & A could be forgiven its many flaws as the errors of a first novel if Ram Mohammad Thomas had a consistent, authentic voice. Instead, the reader is burdened with a highly undependable man-child narrator—sometimes all-knowing, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes sophisticated, and sometimes crude. An orphaned teenager, living in the slums of Mumbai, doesn’t talk or think like this: “Train journeys are about possibilities. They denote a change in state.”
As it turns out, it is diplomats-cum-writers who talk, think, and write that way. Notwithstanding the formulaic nature of his flawed novel and its underdeveloped characters, Swarup, an Indian diplomat, still might have won over this reader if he had taken into account the reason why I read fiction by Indian writers. I take considerable pleasure in dreaming about people and places that I care about. The words on the page need to make my senses come alive: the smell and sound of rain slapping on earth recall Mumbai’s monsoon; pani puris from a Kolkata street vendor explode in my mouth; the rhythmic dhadak-dhadak of trains crossing the flat, dry countryside tranquilly encourages sleep on railway journeys to loved ones in Jodhpur; perfumed talcum powder loses valiantly in its effort to stave off Hyderabad’s prickly heat; and protective hugs and ashirwaads in response to touching the weather-beaten feet of elder relatives tell me that I’m home, if only in my dreams.