Sunday, February 12, 2006

But we don't want to give you that...

Q & A, by Vikas Swarup (2005)

I used to be a bit of a quiz show groupie, back in the day. Not just the obvious ones (Mastermind, Weakest Link, Brain Of Britain, University Challenge) but forgotten stuff like Win Beadle’s Money and BackDate (with the lovely Valerie Singleton) and Defectors.

However, I’ve never made it onto Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which provides the blueprint for the fictional Who Will Win A Billion? (W3B), the show at the heart of Vikas Swarup’s debut. The saga of the disgraced Major Ingram is a clear influence on Swarup’s yarn, but he sensibly opts for a fake show. This avoids the problem that David Nicholls ran into when writing the University Challenge novel Starter For Ten; when the rules of the original show didn’t fit Nicholls’ narrative requirements, he changed them. The fictional show also allows Swarup to concoct a truly loathsome, corrupt host in Prem Kumar. Since the Indian edition was hosted by national treasure Amitabh Bachchan, a fictional show is the only means by which he could have made the presenter so venal.

Most quizzers and trivia junkies will tell you that the most annoying question they get from non-addicts is the incredulous “How the hell do you know that?”; the problem being that, most of the time, we don’t know. It’s just kinda there. Swarup’s hero, Ram Mohammed Thomas (whose multicultural name offers a microcosm of his rootless upbringing) knows exactly how he came by each answer as he climbs each level towards his goal of a billion rupees, and these experiences provide the meat of the story.

The structure, with the hero recounting his picaresque story to a benevolent authority figure, owes something to The Life Of Pi, and there’s a nagging doubt as to whether Ram Mohammed is a similarly unreliable narrator. In the event, Swarup turns out to be playing a straight hand, without any self-consciously po-mo tricks. Everything is rounded up a little too neatly at the end, possibly in a conscious nod to the structure of the Bollywood movies that provide numerous points of reference; there’s one unlikely revelation of identity at the end that will have most Western readers snorting with derision.

But a more respectable model is Dickens. Swarup’s goodies either triumph, or perish in an appropriately pathetic, tearjerking, Smike-like manner. The baddies face destruction, or at best, humiliation. But the more deep seated evil remains in place. Indeed, the depiction of the sheer bloody unfairness of Indian society is unrelenting. The police are corrupt and brutal; teachers, parents and priests are exploiters and abusers worthy of Dotheboys Hall; the TV company behind W3B is as filthy as a Mumbai sewer. Movie heroes, when they step off the screen, are empty shells or fraudulent perverts. Waiters, maids and whores, by contrast, are paragons of humble decency. What’s more surprising is that the author is a successful Indian diplomat in his day job, but reserves his most vicious contempt for the ‘haves’ of his country.

Q & A breaks little literary ground, but it does offer a resonant, entertaining trawl through the underside of a billion-strong society. The Bollywood version, inevitably, is imminent.

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