From the Monitor archives: "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup

The brisk, breezy novel that inspired the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire."

Q & A: A Novel By Vikas Swarup Scribner 318 pp., $24

[The Monitor occasionally reprints book reviews of current interest. This review originally ran on Aug. 30, 2005.] If ever a game-show contestant should have chosen what was behind Door No. 2, it's Ram Mohammed Thomas. The 18-year-old waiter became the first contestant to correctly answer all 12 questions on "Who Will Win a Billion?" (Ah, inflation.)

His reward? He's promptly arrested for cheating and tortured by the police, who are determined to figure out how an unschooled orphan from the slums of Dharavi mastered a quiz show.

You see, the TV producers don't actually have a billion rupees (roughly $23 million), but they do have enough to bribe the local cops to brutalize an impoverished teenager.

"There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself by dabbling in that quiz show," Ram says. "After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use."

Clearly, none of these killjoys would be Americans, who turn trivia buffs like Ken Jennings - and far less appealing reality-show contestants - into quasi-celebrities. And there's a can-do optimism driving the hero of Q&A: A Novel, Vikas Swarup's enjoyable debut, that translates well for US audiences, even if the book itself is ultimately uneven.

Fortunately for both Ram and squeamish readers, a female defense attorney barges into the interrogation and gets him released.

Although, really, the faint of heart might as well put the novel down right now and go switch on the soothing tones of Alex Trebek, because they won't be able to handle Ram's version of "Jeopardy." (Last bad game-show pun, I promise.)

The rest of the novel consists of Ram's conversation with the defense attorney, explaining how his life up until then had taught him the answers to each question.

For example, from the kind priest who gave Ram his Hindu/Muslim/Chris- tian name and taught him English, he learned the initials written above the cross.

The aging Bollywood "tragedy queen" for whom he worked as a servant appears in another question. A hit man who's an avid cricket fan gives him yet another answer. And his stint as a tour guide at the Taj Mahal also comes in handy.

(The chapters are named for the amount of money he won for each correct answer.)

But Ram's itinerant lifestyle offers more than the chance to pick up all kinds of trivia. It allows Swarup to explore a wide range of hardships facing India's lower classes: from the boy who dies of rabies for lack of money to pay for treatment, to the girl whose brother forced her into prostitution at age 12.

Then of course, there's the wealthy "benefactor" of orphan boys who makes Fagin look like foster father of the year. You don't want me to go into more detail - Dickensian doesn't even begin to cover it.

Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat. His debut novel stars an Indian waiter who wins a contest.

Interestingly, rather than widespread social change on a governmental level, Swarup, an Indian diplomat, seems to espouse individual decency as a cure for these ills. Ram, even when living without running water or indoor plumbing, always has a few rupees to spare for his neighbors.

What mars "Q & A" can best be described as a tonal problem. While this reader appreciated Ram's unwillingness to wallow in despair, many of the events he describes are so harrowing that the novel's brisk, even breezy, pace can seem disconcerting.

As Ram comments at one point, "What should have been a tragedy has become a farce."

And the surprise twist that caused Ram to become a contestant in the first place stretches plausibility.

But there's no denying the novel's clever conceit, or that Swarup has created a hero readers will happily cheer for. As rags to riches tales go, Horatio Alger would have approved.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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