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Q & A: A Novel Hardcover – August 2, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
When Ram Mohammad Thomas, an orphaned, uneducated waiter from Mumbai, wins a billion rupees on a quiz show, he finds himself thrown in jail. (Unable to pay out the prize, the program's producers bribed local authorities to declare Ram a cheater.) Enter attractive lawyer Smita Shah, to get Ram out of prison and listen to him explain, via flashbacks, how he knew the answers to all the show's questions. Indian diplomat Swarup's fanciful debut is based on a sound premise: you learn a lot about the world by living in it (Ram has survived abandonment, child abuse, murder). And just as the quiz show format is meant to distill his life story (each question prompts a separate flashback), Ram's life seems intended to distill the predicament of India's underclass in general. Rushdie's Midnight's Children may have been a model: Ram's brash yet innocent voice recalls that of Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's narrator, and the sheer number of Ram's near-death adventures represents the life of the underprivileged in India, just as Saleem wore a map of India, quite literally, on his face. But Swarup's prose is sometimes flat and the story's picaresque form turns predictable. Ram is a likable fellow, but this q&a with him, though clever, grows wearying.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Swarup's inventive debut traces the fortunes of Ram Mohammad Thomas from "Asia's biggest slum" to his sudden acquisition of enormous wealth as the biggest winner on the popular quiz show, Who Will Win a Billion? A poor, uneducated waiter, Ram is arrested after the final episode in the belief that he must have cheated. In jail he shares his hardscrabble life with his lawyer: his abandonment at birth in a used clothing bin, the church orphanage where he was dubbed an "idiot orphan boy," the foster home where children were purposely crippled and forced to beg, the estate of an Australian diplomat who was really a spy, the home of an aging Bollywood actress, and his meager waiter job. Each chapter in Ram's life provided him with a correct answer on the show, as a la Forrest Gump, he has been in the right place at the right time. Ram's funny and poignant odyssey explores the causes of good and evil and illustrates how, with a little luck, the best man sometimes wins. Deborah Donovan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
First, why do I consider both versions to be closer to reality - In the book, there is a gay priest and a priest with a secret marriage. My hometown in Andhra Pradesh, India had both of them or quite a few of them. As kids, we were aware of teenagers getting gifts and foreign cigarrettes from this gay italian priest. And there is the priest who had sexual relations with the maid and supporting her family with cash. In the movie, the girl Latika getting scarred on her face, although throwing acid is more common in real life.
Vikas Swarup choose to tell the story in a very plain language, the few metaphors used in the book, I suspect were slipped in by the editors. He borrowed the story telling style from RK Narayan's "Guide", which starts in the middle of the story line, goes the beginning and then the end. Vikas took it to a whole new level by weaving the story between different episodes of the protagonists life in 13 chapters. The author included plenty of observations he made in his life. Every Indian has seen domestic child labor (as maids), blind kids begging on a busy street corner, police brutality etc. There is so much misery around, an average indian gets immune to it. Vikas was courageous enought to write about it and tell a gripping story too.
The author also borrowed a few items from Indian movies, like the double headed coin (from the movie Sholay). Is Neelima Kumari the real life actress Meena Kumari, or is it Parvin Bhabi who committed suicide? My suspicion is, the author borrowed a lot from his observations as a diplomat, world traveller and as an Indian. He wove them into a beautiful story, a wonderful fabric with many colors, details and designs.
It is a shame that this books did not win awards. Boring, long drawn books by indian authors won pulitzers. I guess, they were heavily promoted or had guiding hands from their parents who were 3rd class writers. It also tells a lot about the book reviewers. It took Danny Boyle to recognize the book and create a gem of a movie.
Having said that, except the story telling style, there is no commonality between the movie and the book. The book is very secular, from the protagonist's name "Ram Mohammed Thomas" to the misery around him. Secular that there is misery and deceit from the priests to the nefarious creatures who blind children, from westerners to indians, from rich to poor. This is missing in the movie. I suspect the changes were made in the movie for two reasons. One, to make it palatable to the western audience such as removing references to gay priests from England or to australlian diplomats running a spy ring. Second, Lovely Tandon (the co-director) and Anil Kapoor (game show host) Bollywoodised the movie with a "heroine" and also making the role of Prem Kumar the game show host a less nefarious charachter. With the galaxy size egos in Bollywood, it is not unimaginable that Anil Kapoor has demanded a modification of his charachter.
Except for the protaganits winning the money, the movie is a documentary of the plight of the under privlleged kids world wide, not only Indian. It is the story of Ismael Beah in Congo or any other kid in projects close to Manhattan or Chicago.
Two problems with the movie - The scene where Jamaal jumps into human excrement was unnecessary and not in the book. This is what angered most indians, both rich and poor. The second, in all the movies that I have seen so far, only the Hindus are shown attacking Muslims during a religious riot. The truth is, it is more complex. There are idiots on all sides creating trouble for the peace loving majority. I guess, the movie makers are just plain afraid to show a muslim being the perpetrator of a riot.
Other items I see as a correlation to real life are observations from my own experience as a kid: One of my neighbhours, a beautiful young doctor was abused by her husband, a drunk. Only when she committed suicide the rumor spread that she had cigarrette burns all over her body. Second, babies stolen from government hospitals to be sold to beggar mafia, Atleast there are news reports once in a while about stolen babies. You cannot round a busy street without encountering a girl with a drugged baby begging for money. Third, Guides in any tourist spot through out the world giving wonderfully altered versions of the history.
Next, street kids being smarter than kids going to school. There was this nine yeal old banana seller on the street who I met in my hometown a couple of years ago. You should see the sharpness of his mind to be believed, he can not only calculate the profit margin in %, prices, hedging against prices from the wholesale market, interest rates from the money lender a school kid cannot. It is needed for his survival. My family volunteered to pay for his education. He shouted back he makes Rs. 120 a day and has a sick mother, a young sister to feed. Who will earn the money if he goes to school? We tried to talk to him several times after that, but his assessment of the daily needs of his family were as accurate his math.
So, this is a documentary, not a fiction.
Contrast this to booksmart kids from middle class and rich class. It was nicely contrasted in the book, when Akshay a middle class kid knows that there is no Sony PS3 yet (2004), but gives away the survival skill of Ram Mohammed Thomas hiding cash in his underwear.
Great movie, great book.
Now, the ugliest of the ugliest truths, worse than the exploitation detailed in the movie - Child actors who played the roles of Salim and Latika, who were originally from the slums are paid a pittance. Danny Boyle and Fox movies did a PR stunt saying three times the local daily wages was paid. So, is it 150 rupees a day, 3 dollars a day? Sure they can have done a lot better than that. Money deoposited in the bank for the actors to cash out when they turn 18? How much was deposited? The truth needs to come out. The children and their families cannot live in a 6ftx6ft dwelling and lead the same life of daily survival as a challenge, waiting for some one to turn 18.
So, who is the best actor in the movie? The young Salim without any question. Better than Benjamin Button and Milk and 18 year Dev Patel combined. He deserves a better living, atleast after he demonstrated his artistic talent.