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.)

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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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