Saturday, May 11, 2024

Q & A

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18-year-old waiter Ram Mohammad Thomas is arrested by police at Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum at the heart of Mumbai, after he is accused of cheating his way into winning the one billion rupee jackpot prize on a game show called W3B. According to the producers, there is no logical explanation for a mere waiter without an education to breeze through 12 difficult questions and laugh his way to the bank. Tortured to provide a confession, Ram almost gives up until a young lady by the name of Smita, posing as his lawyer, intervenes and takes him back to her flat to review the DVD of the episode. Asked to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, he links each round of Q&A to separate episodes of his own life, from escaping a syndicate planning to blind him and his best friend Salim to time he spent working for has-been film star Neelima Kumari. Can he prove his innocence and get his money or will he rot in jail for a crime he did not commit?

The film took some artistic license and omitted some subplots that perhaps did not jive well with the screenplay. Neelima Kumari, for example, is an important plot device in the book but glaringly absent in the onscreen rendition. Where the book surpasses Danny Boyle’s Oscar winner, though, is through its non-linear narration, with the game show format proving to be an effective tool not just for transition but also for compartmentalizing every colorful episode of the protagonist’s life. This creates more exciting revelations when information previously held back comes to light as the bigger picture emerges.

Much of the poverty porn criticism has been leveled against the film version, and not without reason, since it’s a film about India from the eyes of a foreigner. One might think that the novel would be immune to this, except that there are similar criticisms against Swarup, in particular with regard to his description of poverty in India considering that he comes from a privileged background and has lived much of his life abroad as a foreign service officer. Needless to say, the narrative is indeed guilty of some romanticization of poverty here and there, as if trivialized for convenience to suit a gripping underdog storyline.

The combined final chapter and epilogue are really short at just around 20 pages, which is a significant reduction from the penultimate chapter with a whopping 70. Since the author found it necessary to bludgeon his readers with one twist right after another in quick succession, those final pages just come at you like a rushed series finale compressed in less than half an hour. He could have taken his time and let the twists marinate for a few chapters more for an even better payoff. Unfortunately, it fails somehow and cheapens the emotional investment you’ve built with the characters in the last 200 pages or so.

At that point the narrative simply ends up feeling like a telenovela that embraces contrivance to a fault. Perhaps many readers would even argue that this is one of Swarup’s storytelling dilemmas. Consistency. The characters he introduces are either hit or miss, with the likes of Salim and Shankar standing out and begging to be remembered long after their chapters wrap up, while others such as the Australian Defence Attaché and Neelima Kumari somehow come across as caricatures or clichés. Eventually, you get a collection of characters that you love and some that are just hard to believe to be true.

Is Q & A entertaining? Wildly. Sometimes too much for its own good. Poverty porn criticisms aside, there is no doubt that Swarup has what it takes to entertain his reader, grabbing your attention right away from the very first line of the prologue. What you get is your typical underdog story, set in the organized chaos of Agra, Delhi, and Mumbai. The suspension of disbelief for this one is a tall order, but something that can lead to a really fun read if you just let go. If you are looking for something philosophical and profound, this isn’t it. But if you are looking for enjoyable reading material, then this might just fit the bill.

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