My first encounter with this novel was in my second year at University when I was buying my textbooks for the year. Q & A had just become one of the required readings in the first year set work. I was gutted that I wouldn’t get to study it and by the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time.
I had watched Slumdog Millionaire when it came out as well, but had a very poor recollection of it by the time I began reading this (which I was thankful for).
From the very first word in the prologue to the very last word in the epilogue, I was with, for and enthralled by Ram Mohammed Thomas, the protagonist in this brilliant read. One of the first things that stuck out to me was the structure of each chapter in the book. Each chapter revealed more about some of the harsh circumstances in which Ram grew up but on the flipside also revealed how going through those very specific circumstances helped him answer the game show questions posed at the end of each chapter.
Perhaps I should explain a little here – Ram was a contestant on game show modelled on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but in his case one billion rupees were up for grabs. He miraculously answers all the questions right and wins the one billion. Each chapter of the book serves as an explanation of sorts as to how his street smarts enabled him to answer the questions asked on the show.
This quote from the first chapter in the book speaks to his University of Life degree:
“A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.”
The world being as it is, the powers that be behind the show try to frame Ram as being a cheat because they cannot afford to pay him the money owed to him for winning. He is arrested shortly after the show is recorded and that is how this novel began. A genius start I rate, I don’t know if it would have worked if it had started there.
Structure aside, each chapter tackled very tough themes – everything from disability, to rape, murder, poverty, and even love. There was a twist in every chapter that had me gasping and exclaiming in sheer shock or in some cases just setting the book down for the day because what I had read was just too much. There were some truly terrible moments littered throughout the book, moments that made me realise how universal injustice and suffering are. Even though I knew the stories to be fictional, I know that pain like that isn’t only imagined, it is some peoples, too many peoples lived realities.
Ram speaks about heroes throughout the novel but never seems to think of himself as one. His chequered past seems to be in the way of that. But he is one, through and through. Even when he makes mistakes, they are often done trying to protect others. He is one of the nicest characters I have ever encountered, despite all the things he goes through. That was really inspirational to me, that someone who had been abandoned, cheated and treated less than human over and over again, could strive to get through it all and never give up even in the face of the most trying situations.
It was masterfully written and I applaud Vikas Swarup for this magnificent piece of literature. As depressing a read as it was, it also left me with so much hope and taught me a thing or two about perseverance and fearlessness. Another important thing I learnt was to never let ‘The Man’ win – to challenge him and perhaps beat him at his own game.