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Q & A

A Novel

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.

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.


Introduction


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.

 
Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. “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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. Considering he believes he’s already murdered two people, why is Ram unable to kill Prem Kumar?
  13. 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?
  14. “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?
  15. 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
  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/.
Photo Credit:

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.

"It was an inspired idea by Vikas Swarup to write Q & A...A broad and sympathetic humanity underpins the whole book."
-- The Sunday Telegraph, London

"Vikas Swarup weaves a delightful yarn. With an easy style, Q & A is sweet, sorrowful and funny. An enchanting tale."
-- The Sunday Tribune, India

"This page-turning novel reels from farce to melodrama to fairy tale."
-- You Magazine, London

"A very clever story told very cleverly and at a relentless pace."
-- The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

"Swarup is an accomplished storyteller, and Q & A has all the immediacy and impact of an oral account."
-- Daily Mail, London

"[A] rare, seemingly effortless brew of humour, drama, romance and social realism...Swarup...has achieved a triumph with this thrilling, endearing work which gets into the heart and soul of modern India."
-- The New Zealand Herald

"Q & A is that rare novel that chugs along on the parallel tracks of being a rollicking read as well as being a polished, varnished, finished work of impressive craftsmanship."
-- Hindustan Times, India