A cheery picaresque in which an orphaned, ill-educated boy abandoned to hardscrabble existence in the teeming slums of Dharavi, India, wins a billion rupees on a nationally televised quiz show—and then is forced to defend himself against charges of cheating.
Thomas Mohammad Ram will need the gods of all three religions that engendered his name to help him survive the trials that befall him. Deserted at birth, Ram spends a few formative years at a Catholic orphanage, where a kindly priest looks after him. When the priest is killed by an evil he refused to acknowledge, Ram must navigate the consequences of other temporary benefactors’ greed and of his own desire to keep from an early grave. His sojourns include working as a houseboy for Bollywood’s most famous “Queen of Tragedy”; being held captive by an enterprising sadist who intentionally maims children so that they will become more prosperous beggars; running errands for a contract killer with a passion for cricket, and putting in a stint as a “freelance” tour guide at the Taj Majal. But Ram’s most dangerous encounter is with the police, who arrest and beat him after the producers of Who Will Win a Billion? accuse Ram of cheating. After all, they ask, how can a near illiterate have correctly answered all 12 questions, which touched on matters from arcane Indian history to Western classical music? It’s a question Ram’s female defense attorney—who mysteriously appears to demand a fair trial—asks, too. Together, they review a videotape of the show. Each quiz question prompts Ram to narrate in flashback a different chapter in his brief but adventurous life that ultimately—the reader can be absolutely sure—reveals the correct answer.
Indian diplomat and first-novelist Swarup uses a heavy-handed formula to frame a high-concept retelling of good vanquishing evil in the age of reality TV. It’s too pat to be profound, but clever and fun all the same.