Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Q & A / Vikas Swarup
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Saturday, 21 July 2007
Ram Mohammad Thomas, a poor, young waiter from Mumbai, wins the grand prize of a billion rupees on a quiz show. What are the odds of him really knowing the answers — or was he aided by someone on the audience, or found some other way to cheat? The authorities seem to assume the latter, and Ram is arrested and interrogated to discover how did he manage to rig the game. He is saved from medieval-like questioning tactics only by the appearance of a mysterious lawyer, who vouches for him and takes him home for the night.

The quiz show presented by Mr. Swarup is blatantly fashioned after “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, right down to the concept of Lifelines. My guess is that Swarup would have preferred the original game, except that a million, in rupees, is not that much money — at least, considering the problems that Ram Mohammad Thomas faces.

But it not only the in-book quiz show that is fashioned after the better-known show; the book itself is similarly fashioned. In each chapter, Ram tells his mystery lawyer of another episode in his turbulent life. Each chapter ends with the question he was asked in the quiz show, to which uneducated Ram knows the answer just because, by pure chance, it touches something that he learned “the hard way” in his life.

This narrative framework is a stroke of brilliance; it manages to re-create much of the tension of watching the show. In fact, the chapters are numbered by question values (“1,000 rupees”, “2,000 rupees”, etc.) rather than by normal ordinals. This framework also makes it possible for Swarup to tell us of Ram’s life in an un-ordered manner: by the order of the questions rather than a chronological, or otherwise logical, order. And Ram’s life was indeed a fascinating one.

Still, even with this wonderful framework, the book is a failure. It is a rare book indeed that I consider putting down while halfway through. The problem is the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required for the plot to work. I’m not talking about the implausibility of Ram’s life; by their very nature, heroes of fictional books are often extraordinary characters that had extraordinary lives. It is Ram’s unfathomable memory for details that bothered me. He himself, in the 100,000,000 rupees chapter, vouches for his own bad memory: within a few minutes after hearing the story of Taj Mahal, he confuses the details to a pure mess when he tries to re-tell it for the benefit of Japanese tourists. So how come he can remember, for example, the story of a war veteran, which he had heard years ago in a shelter — remember it downright not only to the name of every other soldier, but also to the name and number of each Indian and Pakistani division, regiment and brigade (of which there were many involved)? It is the manner in which he tells his life to the lawyer that makes the whole concept fall apart. This is not how an uneducated, barely-read, poor boy would talk. (But come to think about it, the book will make for an excellent movie, where — rather than hearing him tell his life story in his own words — we will only get to see flashbacks.)

Find this book
Disliked by Indians
Interestingly, the life that Ram retells is not a happy one, and it presents a very bleak picture of modern-day India. Not surprisingly, while many readers and reviewers around the world seem to have liked the book very much, Indian readers found it repelling and “unworthy of publication.”

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FUEHRER writes:
This review is a bullshit.
The book was awesome and so was the delivery of the author. The witty one liners are worth reading and provide a distinct flavor to the overall material. A worth read book for those who want to know some revelations about Indian system and life in the suburban slums.
[356] Posted on Friday, 05 December 2008 at 17:11 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Unaiza Dalvi writes:
Awesome Book
Absolutely Awesome, a part of my book collection. Just loved reading this book. So engrossing you want to know what happens next.
Will readers who have not appreciated this book give credit to the writer Vikas Swarup or the director Danny Boyle for the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
[361] Posted on Monday, 26 January 2009 at 7:25 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

j?r?mie writes:
last questions
hi i want to know if somebody can help me, I'm looking for the last question in the novel because i know that it is different that the one in the movie thanks
[392] Posted on Thursday, 28 May 2009 at 3:34 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

tj writes:

The last question in the book is:

''Western classical music! Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 29, opus 106, also know as the Hammerklavier Sonata, is in which key? Is it in (a) B-flat major, (b) G minor, (c) E-flat major, or (d) C minor?''

The ''hint'' to answer this question is:

''I said I can't tell you the answer, but there's nothing in my contract which prevents me from dropping a hint. Now listen carefully. I am going to the railway station immediately after this show, and I am going to board a train. I have been invited to visit four friends, in Allahabad, Baroda, Cochin, and Delhi, but I can visit only one of them,. So I have decided to got to Allahabad, to wash off all my sins by taking a dip in the Sangam. Okay?''

How does this hint help answer the question?
[442] Posted on Friday, 27 November 2009 at 16:11 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to tj:
Hint for last question
The four places he can visit are Allahabad, Baroda, Cochin, and Delhi.
[443] Posted on Friday, 27 November 2009 at 18:15 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

anum masood writes in reply to tj:
as there are four names of the cities in India but you chose the first 1 which was allahabad so that shows that you are referring to answer a)
[744] Posted on Sunday, 13 January 2013 at 12:32 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

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