Slumdog Millionaire (originally published as Q&A), by Vikas Swarup

17 Mar

Slumdog Millionaire (originally published as Q&A), by Vikas Swarup

In the wake of all the buzz about the movie of the same name, the original novel was both renamed and reissued. My neighbor immediately bought it and, after spending the night up reading it, lent it to me-with admonishments to return it promptly and in good shape (which, hello? totally unnecessary, woman! *huff* really!)

Erm…so yes, on to the review, but first the back cover blurb:

Ram Mohammad Thomas has been arrested. Because how can a poor orphan who has never read a newspaper or gone to school correctly answer all twelve questions on the television game show Who Will Win a Billion?-unless he has cheated?

As the story unfolds, Ram explains to his lawyer how he knew the answer to each question by telling a chapter of his amazing life-from the day he was salvaged from a dustbin to his meeting with a security-crazed Australian army colonel while performing as an overly creative tour guide at the Taj Majal. Stunning a television audience of millions, Ram draws on a store of street wisdom and accidental encounters that provides him with the essential keys not only to the quiz but also to life itself.

In a beguiling blend of high comedy and poignancy, Vikas Swarup has created a kaleidoscopic vision of the struggle of good against evil, and what happens when one boy has no other choice in life but to survive.

The narrative is competent, even if the structure of the book is slightly confusing. Or perhaps it seemed confusing because it took me a couple of weeks (and a number of other books in between) to finish the novel.

Narrated in the first person, we have passages following three different timelines. There is the current timeline narrated *ahem* in present tense. In it, Ram recounts events from his own life, which are also told in the present tense, even though it’s clear they have happened at different times in the past. There are also a series of scenes from the show, also narrated by Ram, also in the present tense.

Ram’s memories serve as a vehicle to snapshots of life in India. With each incident, the reader gets a glimpse into a culture that, for many of us, is utterly alien-and yet, not so much. Cruelty, corruption, poverty, abuse, hunger, addictions, fear, pain, these all part of the human condition regardless of setting.

I found the narrator and protagonist to be slightly too… well, just a bit too perceptive and too perfect. He not only sees what is going on around him, he extrapolates and interprets things in a much larger context than that of his own life. Because it’s all in present tense, it would seem that the six year old Ram had the same grasp of life and power of observation than the eighteen year old Ram. That was, to say the least, jarring.

Mostly, though, what I felt was detachment. Even though Ram is narrating his life, with emphasis on those events which drastically and radically touched him, and changed the course of his life, there is a distance between narrator and narrative that makes me, the reader, feel distant from him.

By the end of the novel, I’m left with a certain dissatisfaction with the story, with Ram, and with myself.

Slumdog Millionaire gets 6 out of 10

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