Vikas Swarup's spectacular debut, which provided the inspiration for the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, is a page-turning and beguiling story of love, perseverance, and drama.
Vikas Swarup's remarkable debut novel opens in a jail cell in Mumbai, India, where Ram Mohammad Thomas is being held after correctly answering all twelve questions on India's biggest quiz show, Who Will Win a Billion? It is hard to believe that a poor orphan who has never read a newspaper or gone to school could win such a contest. But through a series of exhilarating tales Ram explains to his lawyer how episodes in his life gave him the answer to each question.
Ram takes us on an amazing review of his own history—from the day he was found as a baby in the clothes donation box of a Delhi church to his employment by a faded Bollywood star to his adventure with a security-crazed Australian army colonel to his career as an overly creative tour guide at the Taj Mahal.
Swarup's Q & A is a charming blend of high comedy, drama, and romance that reveals how we know what we know—not just about trivia, but about life itself. Cutting across humanity in all its squalor and glory, Vikas Swarup presents a kaleidoscopic vision of the struggle between good and evil—and what happens when one boy has no other choice in life but to survive.
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About the Author
Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat who has served in Turkey, the United States, Ethiopia, and Great Britain. Q & A, his first novel, was translated into eighteen languages and adapted into the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Swarup currently works in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.
Read an Excerpt
The third bell has sounded. The purple velvet curtain is about to be raised. The lights are progressively dimming, till only the red signs showing EXIT remain, glowing like embers in the darkened hall. Popcorn sellers and cold-drinks vendors begin to leave. Salim and I settle down in our seats.
The first thing you must know about Salim is that he is my best friend. The second is that he is crazy about Hindi films. But not all Hindi films. Just the ones featuring Armaan Ali.
They say that first there was Amitabh Bachchan. Then there was Shahrukh Khan. Now there is Armaan Ali. The ultimate action hero. The Indian Greek god. The heartthrob of millions.
Salim loves Armaan. Or, more accurately, he worships Armaan. His tiny room in the chawl is a shrine. It is lined with posters of all kinds depicting the hero in various poses. Armaan in a leather jacket. Armaan on a motorbike. Armaan with his shirt off, baring his hairy chest. Armaan with a gun. Armaan on a horse. Armaan in a pool, surrounded by a bevy of beauties.
We are occupying seats A21 and A22 in the very first row of the dress circle in Regal Talkies in Bandra. We shouldn't really be sitting here. The tickets in my front pocket do not say DRESS CIRCLE RS. 150. They say FRONT STALL RS. 25. The usher was in a good mood today and did us a favor. He told us to go and enjoy the balcony because the stalls were practically deserted. Even the balcony is almost empty. Apart from Salim and me, there are no more than two dozen people in the rows ahead of us.
When Salim and I go to the movies, we usually sit in the front stalls, where we can make catcalls and whistle. Salim believes the nearer you sit to the screen, the closer you are to the action. He says he can lean forward and almost touch Armaan. He can count the veins on Armaan's biceps, he can see the whites of Armaan's hazel-green eyes, the fine stubble on Armaan's cleft chin, the little black mole on Armaan's chiseled nose.
I am not particularly fond of Armaan Ali. I think he acts the same way in every movie. But I, too, like to sit in the front rows, as close to the giant screen as possible. The heroine's breasts appear more voluptuous from there.
The curtain has now lifted, and the screen flickers to life. First we have the advertisements. Four sponsored by private companies and one by the government. We are told how to come first at school and become champions in cricket by eating cornflakes for breakfast. How to drive fast cars and win gorgeous girls by using Spice cologne. ("That's the perfume used by Armaan," exclaims Salim.) How to get a promotion and have shiny white clothes by using Roma soap. How to live life like a king by drinking Red & White whisky. And how to die of lung cancer by smoking cigarettes.
After the adverts, there is a little pause while the reels are changed. We cough and clear our throats. And then the censor certificate appears on the CinemaScope screen. It tells us that the film has been certified U/A, has seventeen reels and a length of 4,639.15 meters. The certificate is signed by one Mrs. M. Kane, chairman of the Censor Board. She is the one who signs all censor certificates. Salim has often asked me about this lady. He really envies her job. She gets to see Armaan's pictures before anyone else.
The opening credits begin to roll. Salim knows everyone in this film. He knows who is the wardrobe man, who is the hairstylist, who is the makeup man. He knows the names of the production manager, the finance controller, the sound recordist, and all the assistants. He doesn't speak English very well, but he can read names, even the ones in really small print. He has watched this film eight times already, and every time he memorizes a new name. But if you were to see the concentration on his face right now, you would think he was watching the First Day First Show with black-market tickets.
Within two minutes, Armaan Ali makes his grand entrance by jumping down from a blue-and-white helicopter. Salim's eyes light up. I see the same innocent excitement on his face as when he first saw Armaan, a year ago. In person.
Salim comes running through the door and collapses facedown on the bed.
I am alarmed. "Salim!...Salim!" I shout. "What's happened to you? How come you are back so early?" I turn him on his back. He is laughing.
"The most amazing thing has happened today. This is the happiest day of my life," he declares.
"What is it? Have you won a lottery?"
"No. Something even better than winning a lottery. I have seen Armaan Ali."
Bit by breathless bit, the whole story comes out. How Salim caught a glimpse of Armaan Ali while doing his daily round in Ghatkopar. The star was alighting from his Mercedes-Benz to enter a five-star hotel. Salim was traveling on a bus to deliver his last tiffin box to a customer. The moment he spotted Armaan, he jumped down from the speeding vehicle, narrowly missing being run down by a car, and ran toward the actor, who was passing through the hotel's revolving door. He was stopped by the tall, strapping uniformed guard and prevented from entering the hotel. "Armaan!" Salim called, trying desperately to catch the star's attention. Armaan heard the cry, stopped in his tracks, and turned around. His eyes made contact with Salim's. He gave a faint smile, a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment, and continued walking into the lobby. Salim forgot all about the tiffin and came racing home to give me the news of his dream having come true. A customer of Gawli Tiffin Carriers went hungry that afternoon.
"Does Armaan look different from the way he appears on-screen?" I ask.
"No. He is even better in real life," says Salim. "He is taller and more handsome. My ambition in life is to shake his hand, at least once. I probably won't wash it for a month after that."
I reflect on how good it is to have simple, uncomplicated ambitions. Like shaking a film star's hand.
Meanwhile, on-screen, that hand is holding a gun and pointing it at a group of three policemen. Armaan plays a gangster in this movie. A gangster with a good heart. He loots the rich and distributes money to the poor. In between he falls in love with the heroine, Priya Kapoor, an up-and-coming actress, sings six songs, and fulfills his beloved mother's wish by taking her on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Vaishno Devi. At least, that's the story till the interval.
Priya Kapoor's entry in the film is greeted with catcalls from the stalls. She is a tall, good-looking actress who won the Miss World title a few years ago. Her body is sculpted like that of a classical beauty, with heavy breasts and a slim waist. She is my favorite actress these days. She pouts a lot in the film and keeps on saying "Shut up" to the comedian. We laugh.
"Your ambition is to shake Armaan's hand," I say to Salim. "But what do you think is Armaan's ambition in life? He seems to have it all face, fame, and fortune."
"You are wrong," Salim replies solemnly. "He does not have Urvashi."
The papers are full of the Armaan-Urvashi breakup, after a whirlwind romance lasting nine months. There is speculation that Armaan is completely heartbroken. That he has stopped eating and drinking. That he might be suicidal. Urvashi Randhawa has returned to her modeling career.
I see Salim crying. His eyes are red and wet with tears. He has not eaten all day. The heart-shaped glass frame containing a picture of Armaan and Urvashi, on which he had spent almost half his meager salary, lies on the ground, shattered into a hundred pieces.
"Look, Salim, you are being childish. There is nothing you can do about it," I tell him.
"If only I could meet Armaan. I want to comfort him. To hold his hand and let him cry on my shoulder. They say crying makes the heart lighter."
"And what good will that do? Urvashi will not come back to Armaan."
Suddenly Salim looks up. "Do you think I could speak to her? Maybe I could persuade her to come back to Armaan. Tell her that it was all a mistake. Tell her how sad and contrite he is."
I shake my head. I don't want Salim tramping all over Mumbai looking for Urvashi Randhawa. "It's not a good idea to poke your nose into other people's affairs, or make other people's troubles your own, Salim. Armaan Ali is a mature man. He will deal with his troubles in his own way."
"At least I will send him a gift," says Salim.
He goes and buys a large bottle of Fevicol glue and sets about sticking the shattered pieces of the heart-shaped frame back together again. It takes him a week, but finally the heart is whole, a grid of crisscrossing black streaks the only reminder of the fault lines on which it broke.
"I will now send it to Armaan," he says. "It is a symbol that even a broken heart can be put together again."
"With Fevicol?" I ask.
"No. With love and care."
Salim wraps it up in cloth and sends it to Armaan Ali's home address.
I don't know whether it reached Armaan or not. Whether it was broken by the postal department, smashed by the security guards, or trashed by Armaan's secretary. The important thing is that Salim believes it reached his hero and helped to heal his wound. It made Armaan whole again and enabled him to resume giving blockbusters, such as this one. Which I am seeing for the first time and Salim for the ninth.
A devotional song is playing on the screen. Armaan and his mother are climbing toward the shrine of Vaishno Devi.
"They say if you ask Mata Vaishno Devi sincerely for anything, she grants your wish. Tell me, what would you ask?" I say to Salim.
"What would you ask?" he counters.
"I guess I would ask for money," I say.
"I would ask for Armaan to be reunited with Urvashi," he says, without thinking for even a second.
The screen says INTERVAL in bold red letters.
Salim and I stand up and stretch our arms and legs. We buy two soggy samosas from the food vendor. The boy selling soft drinks looks at the empty seats mournfully. He will not make a good profit today. We decide to go to the toilet. It has nice white tiles, banks of urinals, and clean washbasins. We each have a designated stall. Salim always goes to the one on the extreme right, and I always take the sole urinal on the left side wall. I empty my bladder and read the graffiti on the wall. FUCK ME...TINU PISSED HERE...SHEENA IS A WHORE...I LOVE PRIYANKA.
Priyanka? I rail against the graffiti artist who has defaced the last inscription. I spit into my hand and try to remove the extra letters, but they have been written with permanent black marker and refuse to budge. Eventually I use my nails to scratch them off the wall and succeed in restoring the graffiti to its original state, just as I had inscribed it four months ago: I LOVE PRIYA.
The second bell sounds. The interval is over. The film is about to resume. Salim has already briefed me on the remaining plot. Armaan and Priya will now sing a song in Switzerland, before Priya is murdered by a rival gang. Then Armaan will kill hundreds of bad guys in revenge, expose corrupt politicians and police officers, and finally die a hero's death.
We return to A21 and A22. The hall goes dark again. Suddenly, a tall man enters through the balcony door and takes the seat next to Salim. A20. He has two hundred seats to choose from, but he selects A20. It is impossible to see his face, but I can make out that he is an old man with a long, flowing beard. He is wearing what appears to be a pathan suit.
I am curious about this man. Why is he joining the film halfway through? Did he pay half price for his ticket? Salim is not bothered. He is craning forward in anticipation of the love scene between Armaan and Priya which is about to begin.
Armaan has come to Switzerland, ostensibly to locate a contact but actually to romance Priya and sing a song, in which he is joined by twenty white female dancers wearing traditional costumes that are rather skimpy for a cold, mountainous country. The song and dance over, he is now sitting in his hotel room, where a crackling fire burns in the fireplace.
Priya is taking a bath. We hear the sound of running water and Priya humming a tune, and then we see her in the bath. She applies soap to her legs and back. She raises a leg covered in bubbles and uses the showerhead to wash it clean. I hope she will also use it on her ample chest and make all the bubbles disappear, but she disappoints me.
Finally, she emerges from the bath with just a pink towel around her body. Her jet-black hair hangs loose behind her shoulders, glistening with moisture. Her long legs are smooth and hairless. Armaan takes her in his arms and smothers her face with kisses. His lips move down to the hollow of her neck. Soft romantic music begins to play. Priya undoes the buttons on his shirt, and Armaan slips out of it languidly, exposing his manly chest. The glow of the fire envelops the two lovers in a golden tint. Priya makes soft moaning noises. She arches her back and allows Armaan to caress her throat. His hand snakes to her back and tugs at her towel. The pink fabric loosens and falls at her feet. There is a tantalizing glimpse of thigh and back, but no shot of breasts. Salim believes this is where the censors inserted a cut. And why he envies Mrs. Kane.
Armaan has now locked Priya in his embrace. We are shown the swell of her breasts, her heavy breathing, the perspiration forming on her forehead. There are catcalls and whistles from the stalls. The old man sitting next to Salim shifts uncomfortably in his seat, crossing his legs. I am not sure, but I think his hand is massaging his crotch.
"The oldie next to you is getting frisky," I whisper to Salim. But he is oblivious to the old man and me. He is gaping at the intertwined bodies thrusting in synchronized rhythm to the music in the background. The camera pans over Armaan's heaving back and zooms in on the fireplace, where golden yellow flames are licking the logs with increasing abandon. Fade to black.
There is a fire of similar proportions in our kitchen when I enter the chawl, but instead of logs, Salim is using paper. "Bastards!...Dogs!" he mutters while tearing a thick sheaf of glossy paper into pieces.
"What are you doing, Salim?" I ask in alarm.
"I am taking revenge on the bastards who have maligned Armaan," he says as he tosses more sheets of paper into the pyre.
I notice that Salim is tearing pages from a magazine.
"Which magazine is this? It looks new."
"It is the latest issue of Starburst. I will destroy as many copies as I can lay my hands on. I could buy only ten from the newsstand."
I grab a copy that has not yet been mangled. It has Armaan Ali on the cover, with a screaming headline: "The Naked Truth About This Man."
"But it has your idol on the cover. Why are you destroying it?" I cry.
"Because of what they say inside about Armaan."
"But you can't read."
"I read enough and I can hear. I overheard Mrs. Barve and Mrs. Shirke discussing the scurrilous accusations made against Armaan in this issue."
"That Urvashi left him because he could not satisfy her. That he is gay."
"You think they can abuse my hero in this fashion and get away with it? I know this report is a load of nonsense. Armaan's rivals in the industry are jealous of his success. They have hatched this plot to destroy his reputation. I will not allow them to succeed. I will go to the Starburst office and set fire to it."
Salim's anger is white hot. And I know why. He hates gays. To tarnish his idol with the brush of homosexuality is the ultimate insult in his book.
I, too, know of perverts and what they do to unsuspecting boys. In dark halls. In public toilets. In municipal gardens. In juvenile homes.
Luckily, Starburst retracts its allegation in the next issue. And saves a dabbawallah from becoming an arsonist.
Meanwhile, things are hotting up offscreen, in seat A20. The old man slides closer to Salim. His leg casually brushes against Salim's. The first time, Salim thinks it is his own fault. The second time, he thinks it is an accident. The third time, he is convinced it is deliberate.
"Mohammad," he whispers to me, "I am going to give a tight kick to the bastard sitting next to me if he doesn't stop his wandering leg."
"Look how old he is, Salim. It's probably just tremors in his leg," I counsel.
The fight sequence has started and Salim is busy watching the action. Armaan has entered the villain's den and all hell is breaking loose. The hero uses all manner of feints and tackles boxing, karate, kung fu to give his opponents a licking.
The old man's hands are also getting into action. He presses his elbow against the common armrest and lets his arm slide next to Salim's, touching it ever so lightly. Salim hardly notices this. He is engrossed in the film, which is reaching its climax.
The most famous scene of the movie is about to happen. The one in which Armaan Ali dies after killing all the bad guys. His vest is soaked in blood. There are bullet wounds all over his body. His trousers are coated with dust and grime. He drags himself along the ground toward his mother, who has just arrived on the scene.
Salim is in tears. He leans forward and says poignantly, "Mother, I hope I have been a good son. Don't cry for me. Remember, dying an honorable death is better than living a coward's life."
Armaan's head is in his mother's lap. He is mimicking Salim: "Mother, I hope I have been a good son. Don't cry for me. Remember, dying an honorable death is better than living a coward's life." The mother is crying too as she cradles his bleeding head in her lap. Tears fall from her eyes on Armaan Ali's face. He grips her hand. His chest convulses.
Tears fall into my lap. I see another mother who kisses her baby many times on his forehead before placing him in a clothes bin, rearranging the clothes around him. In the background the wind howls. Sirens sound. The police have arrived, as usual, too late. After the hero has done all the work for them. They cannot do anything for him now.
I see that the bearded man's left hand has moved. It is now placed in Salim's lap and rests there gently. Salim is so engrossed in the death scene he does not register it. The old man is emboldened. He rubs his palm against Salim's jeans. As Armaan takes his last few breaths, the man increases his pressure on Salim's crotch, till he is almost gripping it.
Salim erupts. "You bloody motherfucker! You filthy pervert! I am going to kill you!" he screams and slaps the man's face. Hard.
The man hastily removes his hand from Salim's lap and tries to get up from his seat. But before he can lift himself completely, Salim makes a grab for him. He fails to catch the man's collar but gets hold of his beard. As Salim tugs, it comes off in his hand. The man leaps out of his seat with a strangled cry and dashes toward the exit, which is hardly twenty feet away.
At that very instant the electrical power in the theater fails and the generator kicks in. The screen goes blank, and the dark hall is dazzled as the emergency lights flick on. The man is caught unawares, like a deer in a car's headlamps. He whirls around, unsure of himself.
Just as suddenly, the power comes back. It was only a momentary interruption. The film resumes on the screen, the emergency lights are extinguished. The man rushes past the black curtains to the red EXIT sign, slams open the door, and disappears.
But in that split second Salim and I have seen a flash of hazel-green eyes. A chiseled nose. A cleft chin.
As the credits begin to roll over the screen, Salim is left holding a mass of tangled gray hair smelling vaguely of cologne and spirit gum. This time he does not see the names of the publicity designer and the PRO, the light men and the spot boys, the fight director and the cameraman. He is weeping.
Armaan Ali, his hero, has died.
Smita is staring at me with skeptical eyes. "When exactly did this incident happen?"
"About six years ago. When Salim and I used to live in a chawl in Ghatkopar."
"And do you realize the significance of what you have just recounted to me?"
"That if this incident was made public, it could destroy Armaan Ali, end his film career. Of course, that will happen only if what you just told me is true."
"So you still don't believe me?"
"I didn't say that."
"I can see the doubt in your eyes. If you still don't believe me, you do so at your own peril. But you cannot disregard the evidence on this DVD. Should we see the first question?"
Smita nods her head and presses PLAY on the remote.
The studio lights have been dimmed. I can hardly see the audience sitting around me in a circle. The hall is illuminated by one spotlight in the center, where I sit in a leather revolving chair opposite Prem Kumar. We are separated by a semicircular table. There is a large screen in front of me on which the questions will be projected. The studio sign is lit up. It says SILENCE.
"Cameras rolling. Three, two, one, you're on."
The signature tune comes on, and Prem Kumar's booming voice fills the hall. "Here we are once again, ready to find out who will make history today by winning the biggest prize ever offered on earth. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to find out Who Will Win a Billion!"
The studio sign changes to APPLAUSE. The audience begins clapping. There are some cheers and whistles, too.
The signature tune fades out. Prem Kumar says, "We have three lucky contestants with us tonight, who have been selected at random by our computer. Contestant number three is Kapil Chowdhary from Malda in West Bengal. Contestant number two is Professor Hari Parikh from Ahmedabad, but our first contestant tonight is eighteen-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas from our very own Mumbai. Ladies and gentlemen, please give him a big round of applause."
Everyone claps. After the applause dies down, Prem Kumar turns to me. "Ram Mohammad Thomas, now that's a very interesting name, expressing the richness and diversity of India. What do you do, Mr. Thomas?"
"I am a waiter in Jimmy's Bar and Restaurant in Colaba."
"A waiter! Now, isn't that interesting! Tell me, how much do you make every month?"
"Around nine hundred rupees."
"That's all? And what will you do if you win today?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
Prem Kumar scowls at me. I am not following the script. I am supposed to "vibe" and be "entertaining" during the "small talk." I should have said I will buy a restaurant, or a plane, or a country. I could have said I will host a big party. Marry Miss India. Travel to Timbuktu.
"Okay. Let me explain the rules to you. You will be asked twelve questions, and if you answer each one correctly, you stand to win the biggest jackpot on earth: one billion rupees! You are free to quit at any point up until question number nine and take whatever you have earned up to then, but you cannot quit beyond question number nine. After that, it is either Play or Pay. But let's talk about that when we come to that stage. If you don't know the answer to a question, don't panic, because you have two Lifeboats available to you a Friendly Tip and Half-and-Half. So I think we are all set for the first question, for one thousand rupees. Are you ready?"
"Yes, I am ready," I reply.
"Okay, here comes question number one. A nice easy one on popular cinema, I am sure everyone in the audience can answer. Now we all know that Armaan Ali and Priya Kapoor have formed one of the most successful screen pairings of recent times. But can you name the blockbusting film in which Armaan Ali starred with Priya Kapoor for the very first time? Was it (a) Fire, (b) Hero, (c) Hunger, or (d) Betrayal?"
The music in the background changes to a suspense tune, with the sound of a ticking time bomb superimposed over it.
"D. Betrayal," I reply.
"Do you go to the movies?"
"And did you see Betrayal?"
"Are you absolutely, one hundred percent sure of your answer?"
There is a crescendo of drums. The correct answer flashes on the screen.
"Absolutely, one hundred percent correct! You've just won one thousand rupees! We will now take a quick commercial break," declares Prem Kumar.
The studio sign changes to APPLAUSE. The audience claps. Prem Kumar smiles. I don't.
Copyright © 2005 by Vikas Swarup
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Why is a penniless waiter from Mumbai sitting in a prison cell?
Is it because:
a) he has punched a customer;
b) he has drunk too much whisky;
c) he has stolen money from the till; or
d) he is the biggest quiz-show winner in history?
Ram Mohammad Thomas has been arrested. For answering twelve questions correctly on “Who Will Win a Billion?” Because a poor orphan who has never read a newspaper or gone to school cannot know the smallest planet in the solar system, or the location of the Pyramids, or the plays of Shakespeare. Unless he has cheated.
Ram is rescued from the police cell where he has been interrogated all night, by what he can only imagine is an angel, though she is posing as a lawyer. Ram prepares his defense by reviewing television footage of his flawless performance. One at a time, he explains how he knew the answer to each question by telling a chapter of his amazing life—from the day he is salvaged from a dustbin, to his employment by a faded Bollywood star, to his meeting with a security-crazed Australian colonel, by way of a career as an over-creative tour guide at the Taj Mahal. Stunning a TV audience, he draws on a store of street wisdom, trivia, and accidental encounters to provide him with the essential keys, not only to the quiz show, but to life itself.
Set in modern India, Q &A is a beguiling blend of high comedy and touching melancholy. Cutting across humanity in all its squalor and glory, Vikas Swarup presents 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.
- Why does Vikas Swarup choose the name “Ram Mohammad Thomas” for his protagonist? The names represent three different religions—besides displaying India’s diversity, what does this say about Ram Mohammad Thomas as a person?
- When Ram recounts the story of Father Timothy, he repeatedly refers to himself as an “idiot orphan boy” (pg. 49). Considering how well Father Timothy treats him, why does he describe himself in this manner?
- Ram has a recurring dream of a tall woman with black hair that obscures her face. At what moments does he have this dream, and why? What does this woman represent? Is she his biological mother? A symbol of hope? Abandonment?
- In telling Gudiya’s story, Ram asks “But what was Gudiya’s crime? Simply that she was born a girl and Shantaram was her father?” (pg. 68). Are there other women in this novel who are treated poorly simply because of their sex? Do any female characters not need Ram’s protection? How would you describe his relationships with women?
- Several characters, especially Ram and Salim, are big movie fans. Is there a reason for this? Do films help them escape their frequently dreary lives, is it simply a significant part of their culture, or is there another reason?
- What are Ram’s ambitions in life? Why does he tell Prem Kumar he doesn’t know how he’s going to spend the billion rupees?
- Why does Ram turn in Colonel Taylor? Is this retribution for the colonel’s spying, his derogatory comments about Indians, or for the way he treats his family? Or does Ram simply want to collect his wages before returning to Mumbai?
- “The city may have chosen to ignore the ugly growth of Dharavi, but a cancer cannot be stopped simply by being declared illegal” (pg. 134). Are there any other problems that go unacknowledged because they’re too painful to face? If so, what impact does this have on the characters?
- What do you think of Salim’s decision to give Ahmed, the hit man, a picture of Maman? Did Salim have another choice? Is he guilty of murder? Did Ram have other options besides throwing Shantaram down the stairs? Are these violent acts justifiable considering the behavior of the victims?
- Consider the impact of Western culture on Ram. He dreams of eating at places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and he practices “speaking Australian.” Why is this important to him?
- Why does Ram want to have “manageable dreams” (pg. 279)? What does he mean by this? And does this conflict with him appearing on a game show to win one billion rupees?
- Considering he believes he’s already murdered two people, why is Ram unable to kill Prem Kumar?
- How do you think Ram changes, if at all, during his eighteen years? Is he a stronger person at the end of Q&A than he was as a boy? Which journey had the greatest impact on him, either for better or worse?
- “I realized a long time ago that dreams have power only over your own mind; but with money you can have power over the minds of others” (pg. 316). In relation to this novel, would you agree with this statement? Are there characters without money that are able to influence others?
- Despite his lack of formal education, Ram is able to answer twelve questions correctly in order to win a billion rupees. Was this pure luck, or do you think he’ll always be able to find the answers to life’s many questions? What do you envision the future holds for Ram?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Play your own version of “Who Will Win a Billion!” Create questions of increasing difficulty that relate to Q&A, and then have one book club member be the contestant and one the host. The other members can be available as “lifeboats.”
- Ram greatly enjoys being an unofficial tour guide at the Taj Mahal. Do your own research on the Eight Wonders of the World, and then share your results with the rest of the group. Don’t forget to include pictures!
- Ram, Salim and many others are fans of Indian movies. Before your book club discussion, enjoy authentic Indian cuisine while watching a classic Bollywood film. You can find the latest releases at http://www.indiahuthouse.com/new/hindi/.
1. Why does Vikas Swarup choose the name "Ram Mohammad Thomas" for his protagonist?
2. Ram has a recurring dream of a tall woman with black hair that obscures her face. At what moments does he have this dream, and why? What does this woman represent? Is she his biological mother? A symbol of hope? Abandonment?
3. In telling Gudiya's story, Ram asks, "But what was Gudiya's crime? Simply that she was born a girl and Shantaram was her father?" (p. 68). Are there other women in this novel who are treated poorly simply because of their sex? Do any female characters not need Ram's protection? How would you describe his relationships with women?
4. Several characters, especially Ram and Salim, are big movie fans. Are movies simply a form of escapism or do they carry a more significant role in the culture?
5. What are Ram's ambitions in life? Why does he tell Prem Kumar he doesn't know how he's going to spend the billion rupees?
6. Why does Ram turn in Colonel Taylor? Is this retribution for the colonel's spying, his derogatory comments about Indians, or for the way he treats his family? Or does Ram just want to collect his wages before returning to Mumbai?
7. "The city may have chosen to ignore the ugly growth of Dharavi, but a cancer cannot be stopped simply by being declared illegal" (p. 134). Are there any other problems that go unacknowledged because they're too painful to face? If so, what impact does this have on the characters?
8. What do you think of Salim's decision to give Ahmed, the hit man, a picture of Maman? Did Salim have another choice? Is he guilty of murder? Did Ram have other options besides throwing Shantaram down thestairs? Are these violent acts justifiable considering the behavior of the victims?
9. Consider the impact of Western culture on Ram. He dreams of eating at places such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut, and he practices "speaking Australian." Why is this important to him? What does the West signify to him?
10. Why does Ram want to have "manageable dreams" (p. 279)? What does he mean by this? And does this conflict with him appearing on a game show to win one billion rupees?
11. Considering he believes he's already murdered two people, why is Ram unable to kill Prem Kumar?
12. How do you think Ram changes, if at all, during his eighteen years? Which journey had the greatest impact on him, either for better or worse?
13. "I realized a long time ago that dreams have power only over your own mind; but with money you can have power over the minds of others" (p. 316). In relation to this novel, would you agree with this statement? Are there characters without money that are able to influence others?
14. Despite his lack of formal education, Ram is able to answer twelve questions correctly in order to win a billion rupees. What do you envision the future holds for Ram?
1. Play your own version of Who Will Win a Billion? Create questions of increasing difficulty that relate to Q & A, and then have one book club member be the contestant and one the host. The other members can be available as "Lifeboats."
2. Ram greatly enjoys being an unofficial tour guide at the Taj Mahal. Do your own research on the Eight Wonders of the World, and then share your results with the rest of the group. Don't forget to include pictures!
3. Ram, Salim, and many others are fans of Indian movies. Before your book club discussion, enjoy authentic Indian cuisine while watching a classic Bollywood film. You can find the latest releases at http://www.indiahuthouse.com/new/hindi/.
4. Good news, movie fans! In 2009, Q & A will be turned into a movie, now being called Slumdog Millionaire. To track the film's progress, check out http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1010048/.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is incredible. Not only is this book entertaining and inticing but its also funny and sarcastic and gives you a real look on what life is like in modern day India. It is nothing like slumdog millionaire (which is still a great movie) but the book is better.
What a clever book. The author compels you to read at break-neck speed to discover how the 'contestant' knew the next questions answer. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel.
This is an amazing book. A high-concept novel which tells the life story of an impoverished boy through the structure of a quiz show. Very ingenious, very gripping, and very well written. I can't wait for the Danny Boyle film to come out.
Who ever thought life's stories would pay off in the end? A great book that shows we learn more from our personal experiences than we do through education.
It was different which made me want to always read more.
A very simple concept leads to an entertaining tale of a young poorly-educated man who wins India's TV equivalent of'Who wants to be a Millionaire', and is charged with cheating. A review of the TV show-video with his lawyer, demonstrates how even a man with his difficult upbringing can have the experiences to allow his correct responses. A very enjoyable read, proves a popular gift for friends. A likely 'word of mouth' bestseller. Not confined to lovers of Indian literature alone.
Much better than the movie! I really enjoyed reading this book. It was easy to get interested in, and hard to put down once I got started reading. I would definitely recommend it.
I really loved the format of this - what could have been a few separate stories is cleverly woven into a cohesive narrative, which describe certain aspects of Indian society (at least the lower echelons).Our narrator, Ram Mohammad Thomas, is a street-wise orphan who manages to get himself into and out of various tight situations, sometimes with more and sometimes with less success. The stories are not chronological (they follow the order of the gameshow-questions) so sometimes it can be difficult to figure out the sequence of events in Ram's life.Although some of the stories are quite improbable, the narrator's innocent voice make them believable, but the ending is so neatly tied together it's almost annoying. It feels like the author wanted to make sure that his characters had happy endings after all the misery he has put them through. However, the Prem Kumar-solution is simply too much of a coincidence to be satisfying.Note: The movie Slumdog Millionaire was loosely based on this novel, but the only things they have in common are the frame-story and a few details - most of the characters and events are quite different.
I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can't say how the book compares. A good but not great novel about an uneducated young man who is accused of cheating to win the Indian equivalent of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" because no one can believe that he would know so many answers otherwise. Swarup uses an interesting structure: as Ram Mohammed Thomas reviews the show's tapes with his lawyer, he relates the events in his life that led to his knowing the correct answer for each. Although his story is one of cruelty and hardship, his optimism and good nature persist. The ending is full of happy coincidences and quite a few surprises.
Challenging, cleverly written with twists, turns and great humour. I loved this book :)
I found Q & A enjoyable for a couple of reasons. First, I am interested in Indian culture¿and this book just drops you right in. Second, because I like books that encompass social justice and poverty issues. Q & A describes some of the things kids on the streets in India face. As for the quality of the book¿the writing was pretty average. The flow between ¿now¿ and ¿then¿ kind of forced the dialog a bit. Also, the book tends towards Bollywood mellowdrama, but that may be intentional. I think it adds to the whole Bollywood theme of the plot. The interesting subject matter and plot make up for the average writing. Q & A is well worth reading!
Powerful story of coincidence, survival, and loyalty. This is an amazing story of a young man's survival in modern day society. This young man learns life lessons on his own through different experiences.
I think I'm in the minority when I say that the movie was a disappointment after reading this book. I enjoyed this novel quite a lot. With a unique timeline plot, which was a bit confusing for me at times, it ultimately pulled the book together in a necessary & fulfilling way, with a few surprises that I wasn't expecting thrown into the mix. Having watched the movie immediately after finishing the book & expecting so much after all of the awards & hype, I thought the movie would've been better had it been adapted more closely to the book. The basic elements were there, but a lot was different & I had trouble coming to terms with that. But this is a book review & not a movie review, after all, so after all is said & done, I thought this was an excellent read. It was at times unrealistic & maybe a little bit too coincidental, but it ultimately ended up being a feel-good book, in my opinion.
Q & A was the basis of Slumdog Millionaire. I have still not seen the movie, but I loved the book. The premise is brilliant and simple: a poor waiter in Mumbai lands on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and he wins. The producers are convinced he cheated; how could this uneducated young man possibly know the answers to all these questions? The book takes us through his life, question by question. The chapters go in the order of the game show, so it's not chronological in Ram's life.The book was an absolute joy to read. It was a beautifully haunting look at the unglamorous realities of life in India. As I love to say about great novels, the plot is not truly what it's about. Aren't we all representations of our collective knowledge from surprisingly and usual places? I love to ask the question, "how do you know that?" because it so often leads to great stories of happenstance.
Interesting premise. An Indian waiter, Ram Mohammed Thomas, wins the big prize in a television game show and is promptly arrested. Game show producers claim he cheated to win, but it is not secret the prize will bankrupt the production company, so the cheating charge is pretty much a necessity. The arrested young man is visited by a stranger, a woman who says she wants to help him. She wants him to explain how someone with so little formal education could have won the game show quiz. He tells her that the answers to the questions form his life story. She puts the recording of the show into a player, but before she presses play so they can review the show, he begins his life story. The reader learns early that major events in Ram Mohammed Thomas' life is the answer to the question he faces on the game show. His story is a Jeopardy-esque telling where the game show question is only revealed after the answer to that question. The reader must figure out first what part of the story is the answer, and then what the question is.This way of storytelling is an interesting conceit and is fun for most of the story, but it gets quite tired at the end when coincidence and willing suspension of disbelief are taken just a bit too far. And the ending is just too perfect.
i felt that this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. while some of the characters are really only touched upon, the primary character, ram, was well developed and many facets of his personality were presented, making him very realistic. indian culture waswell presented and i feel that i have learned not only about the people of india, but relationships between people of different nationalities and ethnicities as well. i'm glad to have been given the chance to read this book.
This is possibly the BEST book that I've had to read in English. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves novels with loose-ends and suspensful event. Very interesting read with a very inciteful view on poverty in India.
This book changed my life. You should read it. It is the greatest book ever written.
I found Q & A enjoyable for a couple of reasons. First, I am interested in Indian culture-and this book just drops you right in. Second, because I like books that encompass social justice and poverty issues. Q & A describes some of the things kids on the streets in India face. As for the quality of the book-the writing was pretty average. The flow between "now" and "then" kind of forced the dialog a bit. Also, the book tends towards Bollywood mellowdrama, but that may be intentional. I think it adds to the whole Bollywood theme of the plot. The interesting subject matter and plot make up for the average writing. Q & A is well worth reading!
The audio is an acceptable substitute for the movie, if one is constrained. The movie was remarkably faithful to the novel, and the author deserves much credit. However, the movie brought the story to life in such a way as to produce a qualitatively different result. Witness it's worldwide success. However, should one desire to see what produced the movie, or re-experience the film, the original story on audio is an acceptable substitute.
A teenage waiter has won the quiz show with nine zeros after one. To pay the price, he had been arrested for cheating. Vikas Swarup's Q&A is a rags-to-riches novel that is certainly far removed from the fairy tale of Cinderella. In the "biggest slums of Asia," we find Ram Muhammad Thomas - a name branded as nonsense for mixing up all the religions - being interrogated by both the police and the producers of a quiz show. These producers actually have something up in their sleeves and would prefer to stick to the script than believe in that stroke of luck, especially if their own credibility is found suddenly hanging on the line. With this penniless eighteen-year-old waiter suddenly standing in their way, they would go to the limits of using the justice system itself, already tilted towards those who put more gold on the bucket, to force him to admit something he did not do. But in the midst of the police interrogation, a mysterious lawyer Smita Shah barges in and saves Ram from complete demise, by going through questions once again, to find the answers which the entire India seemed eager to know. From here, Swarup takes the readers to a detour of interesting flashbacks, vividly sketching the life of a normal boy born in slums. Swarup's style may seem too prolific with words, but they are stringed together to form a reality-based background that effectively served as a powerful element in his writing. Swarup further brings to readers series of events that almost has little to do with the answers found in the quiz show, but made sure that the impact stayed on the protagonist's memory to his advantage. You'll find that in each chapter, entitled with prize money for each questions, Swarup would relate a life that reveals more than what his answers can give. However, readers may find themselves flipping back pages to check the names correctly, since they would all seemed to sound alike, from the names of various characters that we can relate to, to the names of cities and rural areas found in India. A reader could also find himself swimming in different bodies of water for every chapter because each of it has a stand-alone story to tell. And with 13 chapters and an epilogue to go through - series of lives in a life - reading it may seem like a chore. The only clear chain linking them would be the quiz show itself. But Swarup's twists make it possible for readers to glide through the story, as if watching a story unfold. Putting it down may not be easy for readers since the story is short with commercial breaks or boring spots. Q&A is a book bounded by fate and providence found in choices and bets a man makes in his life. Some may have to buy thousands of tickets to win in lotto, some may choose to do violence to gain his living. For Ram, luck took shape in the form of his life to answer all twelve questions correctly. And while one path may lead to the life he was wishing for, he had to endure one last question to truly realize what he came for. So was it divine providence? Was it the luck of his coin? You decide what.