PERSONAL: Son of lawyers; married; children: sons. Hobbies and other interests: Quiz shows, Indian and Western music, table tennis, lawn tennis, cricket.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, India, diplomat.
Q & A (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: Q & A has been adapted as an audiobook.
SIDELIGHTS: Writer and quiz-show enthusiast Vikas Swarup is a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service who has served in a variety of posts in the United States, Turkey, Ethiopia, and Great Britain. A first-time novelist, he is the author of Q & A, which is about an impoverished Indian waiter who shows that simply living a receptive life can teach as much, or more, than any formal training or elite education. "Swarup's fanciful debut is based on a sound premise: you learn a lot about the world by living in it," observed a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Ram Mohammad Thomas, the book's main character, bears names from three of the world's major religions, and is now a street-tough waiter in modern Dharavi, India. Abandoned at birth, Ram grew up in Catholic orphanages and in a variety of sometimes benign, sometimes harrowing situations. Now an adult, he works in a variety of other jobs, including as a houseboy for a movie star, as an errand-runner for a contract killer, and as an unsanctioned guide at the Taj Mahal. When he is not working, he lives with a sadistic and unscrupulous man who intentionally cripples children so that they will be more effective, and more profitable, beggars. Throughout all his adventures, Ram carefully observes and learns from his surroundings and his situation.
At the novel's opening, Ram has suffered what may be his most crushing defeat. He has just won a billion rupees by successfully answering all twelve questions on a nationally televised quiz show. However, the producers of the show are not enthusiastic about paying out the hefty prize, so they bribe the local police to arrest Ram under trumped-up charges of cheating. After all, they reason, how could a poor, illiterate street-dweller such as Ram know the answers to questions involving esoteric subjects such as Indian history and Western classical music? Imprisoned and about to be tortured, Ram is rescued by female defense lawyer Smita Shah, who has inexplicably shown up to help him out of jail and to assist him in claiming his rightful winnings. Initially dubious, Smita patiently listens to Ram tell the episodic stories of his past, one for each of the questions asked on the quiz show. The stories he relates explain in thorough detail, how he came to know the answers: through painful experience, multiple near-death experiences, and detached observation. "Ram's life, full of horrors, becomes an allegory for all the problems of the lower classes" throughout India, observed a Publishers Weekly writer.
Swarup explained his inspiration for writing the novel in an interview on the Transworld Web site: "Having been an avid quizzer, I wanted to tap into the global phenomenon of the syndicated, televised quiz show, but in an off-beat way," he stated. However, he also "wanted to show that knowledge is not the preserve of the educated elite and that even a 'street-kid' can possess the wisdom to win a quiz show.
Library Journal reviewer Kevin Greczek called the book "a readable and inventive piece of social commentary that should strike a chord with admirers of somewhat melodramatic, Dickens-like fiction." As a Kirkus Reviews critic commented, "It's too pat to be profound, but clever and fun all the same." In the end, noted People reviewer Meg Rosoff, the "compelling cacophony" of the novel "comes together with joyous precision."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2005, review of Q & A, p. 506.
Library Journal, June 15, 2005, Kevin Greczek, review of Q & A, p. 62.
Newsweek International, February 21, 2005, Jason Overdorf, review of Q & A, p. 56.
People, September 18, 2005, Meg Rosoff, review of Q & A, p. 62.
Publishers Weekly, July 11, 2005, review of Q & A, p. 62; August 1, 2005, audiobook review of Q & A, p. 61.
A.V. Club Web site, http://avclub.com/ (August 31, 2005), Donna Bowman, "Inconclusive Interrogation," review of Q & A.
Red Hot Curry, http://www.redhotcurry.com/ (October 23, 2005), review of Q & A.
Transworld Web site, http://www.booksattransworld.co.uk/ (October 23, 2005), interview with Vikas Swarup.