Ram Mohammed Thomas, a poor, 18-year old waiter from the wrong side of the tracks, becomes the biggest quiz-show winner in history, scooping a billion rupee prize in an Indian television programme which goes one better than 'Millionaire'. Unfortunately, the producers don't have the money to pay him, so instead, charge him with fraud. Fortunately, a young lawyer comes to his assistance. Chapter by chapter, the young man recounts his autobiography, the narrative of his fraught life illustrating how it is that an ignorant, uneducated teenager comes to know the answers to all the questions he is asked on the show.
This is a wonderful adventure as we piece together the life of young Ram Mohammed Thomas. He is a man with three names - no one can quite work out whether he is Hindu, Moslem, or Christian. He is a young man with many more identities. Vikas Swarup (an Indian diplomat), leads us through a lifestyle which passes sardonic, not to mention savage commentary on contemporary India.
The tale is almost Dickensian in the range of characters who appear on the pages, wholly Dickensian in its theme of the homeless orphan setting out to find his way in the world, transforming survival into fortune.
The tale is told in a dozen short stories which are woven together into a whole autobiography. We move backwards and forwards through Ram Mohammed Thomas' life, encountering the varied characters who shape his destiny. We have gangsters and robbers, Bollywood, poverty and exploitation, espionage and a wry dig at diplomacy and notions of racial and cultural superiority, and a reflection on how truth is always the first casualty of war as India and Pakistan square up.
Vikas Swarup writes a well-paced novel. Although the action moves back and forth through our anti-hero's young life, the pace of the novel is such that the various strands remain imprinted on your mind. Indeed, the author twists and manipulates your reading, holding back little surprises for you.
He comments on religious bigotry and the abuse of children. He presents cinema as the opium of the people, the glitz and glamour disguising the truth. He savages the role of television in pandering to the lowest common denominator, feeding greed, yet interrupting news coverage of the outbreak of war with adverts and the mundane. And Swarup also makes emphatic the gulf which exists in a world where caste, class, and money dominate and the rich cannot conceive that the poor might have knowledge, intelligence, and street-wise education.
An exciting, page-turning romp which will oblige you to think and question ... and a book which is already being widely touted as likely to be filmed in the near future.