Q & A
Q & A, written by an Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, has a very interesting plot. As the book opens, Ram Mohammad Thomas(yes, you do learn the story behind the strange name), a waiter, is arrested by the police from the slums in Mumbai. He recently won the top prize in W3B, a Kaun Banega Crorepathi-like quiz show with an even bigger, 1 Billion Rupees top prize. The producers, not ready to part with that kind of money, have Ram arrested since the uneducated boy could not have known the answers to all the questions and hence should have cheated. Ram is saved by a lawyer Smita Shah who then asks him to confide in her about how he got all the answers correctly. As Ram proceeds to recount past incidents from his very interesting life, Smita slowly begins to understand how he knew the answers to all the questions on the show.
In a way, Q & A, is constructed like The Five People You Meet in Heaven. In each chapter, we go back to a segment of Ram’s life and understand how the knowledge he gained in that segment helped him answer a particular question. The individual segments are interesting and span a wide array of topics like war, cricket, gambling, Bollywood and even contract killing. They are very different from one another and are never boring. So the book holds our interest and is a quick read. But sometimes, the frequent jumps back and forth do get a bit disorienting as we try to keep track of the timeline and the chronology of the events gets a little confusing.
The book is definitely not a pleasant read. Since Ram is from a poor section of society, his life has not been a bed of roses and his experiences reflect that harsh reality. There are unsavory incidents and characters in almost every chapter and by the time we finish the book, we have read about things like rape, incest attempt, suicide, physical and sexual abuse of children, and war atrocities. Some of these incidents are moving while others leave a bad taste in the mouth. There is a happy end to many of the unpleasant things but that doesn’t help dispel your feelings when you are reading them.
Vikas gets into James Patterson mode towards the end, throwing one twist after another at us. I usually like twists in a book but while the first twist here is good, the second seems like overkill. It is just a little too convenient. Both took me by surprise though.
Vikas’ writing is quite simplistic. If this is intentional (the narrator is after all, an uneducated waiter) or his innate writing style, I don’t know. But the literary flow that I expect from a novel is somehow missing. The metaphors seem forced and the novel is written in a very raw, conversational style. It is kinda tough to explain and so, let me say here what I told my friend. If someone told me the story of Q & A and asked me to turn it into a book, I can envision writing a book like this. On the other hand, even if someone told me the story of The Kite Runner and asked me to pen it, the resulting book wouldn’t be a patch on Khaled Hosseini’s book.
PS: Thanks Faffer for the pointer