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Q and A By Vikas Swarup, book reviewA couple of years ago I got hooked on one a Radio 4’s serialisation of a novel. For two weeks my life revolved around making sure that I would always be within earshot of a radio at 7.45 pm each weekday evening. The book was Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q&A‘ and it won a ‘Best Drama’ award for the BBC at the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2008, and perhaps more importantly for me, it went instantly onto my Amazon ‘wish list’ where it stayed a long time whilst I waited for a reasonable price.

Then a couple of months back, I started to read reviews of the new film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and immediately thought that this sounded like a knock-off of ‘Q&A‘. Different names, different situations but surely more than just coincidence that both the book and the film dealt with the success of a poor slum-dweller in a ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ style quiz. A bit of googling soon solved the mystery – Slumdog was indeed inspired by Vikas Swarup’s novel so I was, of course, even more interested to see the film.

So I headed off to the cinema and whilst I’d agree it was a great film, it was totally spoiled for me because I knew the original story was so much better. I hated that the book had been almost totally ignored in the creation of the film. The script writers had taken the body of the book, stripped away the flesh, sinew and blood of the original and rebuilt a completely different body on the skeleton. The depths of plot build and the breadth of experience of the protagonist were all lost in the tidying up and prettification required to get this film into the cinemas and to appeal to a European teen/young adult audience. I wanted the book even more after seeing the film, but then I was terrified that I’d order the wrong version and pick up a ‘book of the film’ and not the original story.

And so it came to pass that luck shone on me last Tuesday evening. Walking past a discount bookstore at Cheshire Oaks (the massive outlet centre in Ellesmere Port), I spotted Q&A in the window and, with the kind of luck that drives the book and the film, I got exactly what I wanted for the bargain price of £2.99. I couldn’t wait to get home and get started.

The Plot

When a waiter from the slums of Mumbai answers 12 questions correctly to become the first ever winner of “Who Wants to Win a Billion?” (or W3B), the television company can’t believe their bad luck and insist that there’s no way he could have done it without cheating. He’s arrested and tortured to try to get a confession until suddenly a young woman, Smita Shah, turns up at the police station claiming to be his lawyer. She takes him back to her apartment with a DVD copy of the show and over 12 further chapters, we learn the life story of Ram Mohammed Thomas as he reveals how each of the 12 questions was linked to an event in his young life, thereby explaining why he knew the answers to all but one of the questions. And in the very final chapter, we learn why RMT wasn’t on the show to win money but had a very different objective in mind.

Ram Mohammed Thomas

The hero of our tale is as much an enigma as his name – which comprises a blend of Hindu, Muslim and Christian elements. This ambiguity comes in handy, enabling him to adapt to the religion of those around him. He’s simultaneously both nobody and everybody – a composite of the modern poor Indian with the experiences of all the religions mixed together.

We learn he was abandoned as a baby – his mother left him in a dustbin – and he was brought up by a kindly Catholic priest whom he thought of as literally his ‘father’. When circumstances dictate that he can no longer stay with Father Thomas, Ram is forced to explore, discover and survive the world of the Mumbai slums with periods in New Delhi and Agra along the way. Living cheek by jowl with violence, incest, prostitution, molestation, begging , voodoo, dacoitry and corruption, RMT picks up the sort of knowledge that schools can’t and don’t teach.

As a boy alone with almost nobody except his friend Salim to depend upon, Ram has to adapt and morph to the environment around him, being whatever he needs to be in order to get by. His story is harsher than the film character that Danny Boyle developed from him – with a darker past than even the shocking film portrayal. RMT is no innocent and has plenty of secrets he can’t afford to trust to anyone but which he must share with Smita, the lawyer, in order to establish his innocence.

Ram Mohammed Thomas’s life hasn’t all been bad though. He has good times as a servant to an Australian family and again as the live-in assistant of a fading Bollywood beauty but these are interspersed with bad times in dangerous and violent settings. Along the way, he manages to fall in love with the most unlikely of women, in a tale that’s very different from the fairy tale love story of Slumdog Millionaire. It’s very hard to imagine a song and dance routine at the end of this book.

Slumdog or not?

Now at this point if you’ve seen the film, you’ll recognise that not only has his name changed, but almost the entire plot is different. From memory, I don’t think any of the questions in the film is sourced from the book and very few of the scenarios (with the exception of the crippling of young street children) made it from the page to the screen. For this reason, there’s no reason to think you can’t buy this book because you’ve seen the film. Quite the opposite would be the case. If you liked the film, you should love the book – but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way round. The book is so much stronger than the film that the latter risks disappointment.

Vikas Swarup

Vikas Swarup was born in 1963, the son of a family of lawyers, he joined the Indian Foreign Service after university and has held diplomatic roles around the world. Q&A was Swarup’s first book and I think it’s fair to say it’s not autobiographical although he does have one chapter about foreign diplomats that could be drawn from experience. However, despite coming from a very different world than his hero, his writing is compelling and enjoyable – if not entirely believable – at all stages. He doesn’t fall into the trap of making Ram Mohammed Thomas entirely a good-boy; he lies, cheats, steals and even kills when he has to and if he didn’t he’d be less believable as a hero. I’ve just ordered Swarup’s second novel, ‘Six Suspects’ and I’m confident I’ll be in for another good read.


It would be fair to say that I read an awful lot of books about India or by Indian writers and they aren’t always everybody’s cup of tea. Often you need to know a lot about India to get the most out of them but this book is an exception. You really can read this with very limited knowledge because it’s not full of complex Hindi words that you won’t understand and the writing style is very straight-forward. The device of basing each chapter around one question on the quiz show means you can dip in and out if you can’t face reading it all in one go.

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by Vikas Swarup

2 Comments on "Q&A"

  1. Aseem
    17/07/2012 at 10:36 Permalink

    Hi, I also listened to that radio play so long ago and thought it was excellent. I would now like to re listen to it but can’t find it anywhere. Could you help me if you have an amazon history or can remember what it was called/where I could find it??!
    Thanks Aseem

  2. koshkha
    18/07/2012 at 06:35 Permalink

    Hi Aseem, I heard it on BBC Radio 4 about 5 or 6 years ago and it was repeated on one of the BBC digital channels last year. It was recorded for them by a production company in Mumbai, I believe. I would suggest you contact the BBC publications department (or just general customer care) and see if anyone can help you. If you have success, please come back and let me know as I’d love to hear it again. I think the original story is much better than the adaptation that was made for the film of Slumdog Millionaire.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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