Profile in India Today
10 January 2005 SOCIETY & THE ARTS: BOOKS Road Rage An IFS officer's first novel about a boy's adventure through the streets of urban India catches international attention By Charmy Harikrishnan There is a midnight knock in Dharavi and the police drag an 18-year-old into the waiting jeep. The question: how did the illiterate waiter Ram Mohammed Thomas win a billion rupees in a television quiz show? Vikas Swarup's debut novel Q and A (Doubleday, pp 298, £20) is the slum boy's confessional in a night-an extraordinary narrative in which familiar Kaun Banega Crorepati questions require existential explanations. The book, which bagged a fancy six-figure advance ("in pounds"), has already been translated into 15 languages worldwide. An abridged audio edition and a musical are on the way, making it the latest literary sensation from the subcontinent. "I am neither a Bengali nor am I from Delhi's St Stephen's," says Swarup, 43, a director at the Ministry of External Affairs. "I am an Allahabad boy." William Dalrymple must be happy to discover another "mofussil" writer on the block. But unlike the post-Arundhati Roy breed of first novelists who marched back to the villages, Swarup makes an expedition through Indian cities. Ram Mohammed Thomas is Everyboy, an orphan who was given the unusual name by Father Timothy when Hindu priests and mullahs argued that he could be of their faith. He is also the literary counterpart of Amar Akbar Anthony and the Bollywood brand of nationalism-sans the hyperbole. "Hindi films have been a great influence," says Swarup. When the producers of Who Will Win a Billion try to prove that Thomas cheated to win the jackpot, he has to explain how he knew the answers to all 12 questions. In 12 chapters, the story of his life unspools. A boy born on Christmas, who becomes Mohammed to his friend Salim, Thomas to the Australian diplomat and Ram to the tragedy queen Neelima. Scheherazade-like, each story gives Thomas reprieve from the case. The novel began simply enough for Swarup. When South Block turned into a writers' bloc, with its mandarins, from Nirupama Menon Rao to Navtej Sarna, publishing books, writer Humphrey Hawksley prompted Swarup, "There are not many Indian diplomats who are not in need of a publisher". The Q & A format came naturally to the avid quizzer. Says Swarup: "The 'Q' is often simple enough but the 'A' is always determined by many factors. And it has many dimensions to it." From the Sphinx which waylaid the Thebean travellers with questions to Amitabh Bachchan's baritone queries which had a nation hooked to the TV, turning a quiz to pop culture's ultimate extravaganza as well as the consumerist Indian's answer to the epics, the Q and A has a history of its own. "I am not into the unrealistic realm of magic realism where birds talk," says Swarup. Q and A is a picaresque through the underbelly of urban India where evil hides in the most ordinary places. There is paedophilia in the church, incest in a chawl, murder in a train. This omniscience of evil is matched by kernels of wisdom that manifest in a street child. Thomas is nevertheless wiser than his age, larger than life, a hero who would be at home in a 70 mm Hindi movie. He wants to save the prostitute he has fallen in love with, help a girl from her father who tries to assault her. The possibility of a film version is so palpable that Film Four of the UK has bought the rights to make it into an English movie. Swarup, however, would rather see his tribute to Bollywood recreated by the industry itself and has inserted a clause for a possible Indian remake later. "I did not want to write about the privileged class," says Swarup. "I wanted to explore the core of contentment in the under class. It is something that you have seen in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay." But not often in Indian novels. Even the editors of the American edition found Dharavi "too negative". However, Asia's biggest slum cannot be easily purged, as Swarup says. Despite an overdose of darkness, of the evil's endless trysts with a boy, the novel is for most parts stripped of overt sentimentality. "The challenge was not to adopt a patronising tone nor a syrupy style," says Swarup. It is the terseness of narrative that gives the book a contemporaneity. Like the diplomat himself who would rather be precise than philosophical. Searching for highfalutin in his prose or wrinkles on his suit will be futile. So, is the dapper bureaucrat the next poster boy of Indian fiction? In a bookshop in The Netherlands, the Dutch translation of Q and A has inched out The Da Vinci Code. "That was my greatest moment," exults Swarup. It could be a sign of things to come. It could also be that the everyday riddles of metropolises-the diplomat who trades state secrets, Delhi's red-light district where Thomas experiences lust and discovers love, the betting syndicate where Ahmed Khan puts money on Sachin Malvankar's 37th Test century and the beggars' conglomerate which sends children to the streets-are as engaging as the alleged secrets of theology. From Dharavi to the Taj Mahal, it is an Indian panorama, bleak and grand by turns. As street children Salim and Thomas sit on the front row of Regal Talkies, consuming the other-worldly fare-Salim dreaming of becoming a star; Thomas fantasising about the heroine. It is a world that they finally break into and as the twin strands of real and reel, of a biography and a TV quiz show merge, Q and A ends in-what else-a perfect Sholay moment. It is the tale of new millennium's just-turned adults, the heirs to midnight's overgrown children.