A QUIZ show seems like an unusual premise to build a novel around, but Vikas Swarup managed to cram quite a backstory around India’s fictional version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in his debut novel.
Originally published in 2005 as Q&A, Swarup’s novel has been reprinted as Slumdog Millionaire in a bid to cash in on the success of its cinematic adaptation. With each chapter in protagonist Ram Mohammed Thomas’ life neatly interspersed with a question from the quiz, readers would be forgiven for thinking it was written with a film in mind.
The novel follows the various escapades of Ram, an orphan boy whose various brushes with the law and the lawless see him traverse the Indian subcontinent between Mumbai and Delhi, living in poverty and occasionally rubbing shoulders with privileged employers.3
When Ram becomes the first winner of the somewhat overambitious Who Will Win a Billion? the show’s producers bribe police to charge him with cheating, largely because they don’t have the billion rupees prize money, but also because they are incredulous that an uneducated young waiter from the slums was able to answer all the questions.
Enter Smita Shah, an enigmatic young lawyer who rescues Ram from his police cell and embarks on a journey through the young vagrant’s life which reveals how his adventures - and a sometimes uncanny ability to retain minor details - resulted in his knowing the answers to all the quiz questions.
Through Ram’s story, Swarup builds a picture of India’s poorest communities, and the crime and corruption which blight the lives of people struggling to survive in the slums and chawls of the big cities.
Ram’s name presents him as an Indian everyman, embodying the Hindu and Muslim traditions as well as India’s colonial past. Slumdog is for the most part an uplifting tale though - Ram’s adventures are largely undertaken to escape deprivation, and even prosecution, but tinged with an element of fantasy which makes this a lighthearted tale.