Monday, September 26, 2005

Book Candy: Vikas Swarup, Q&A

I recently read Vikas Swarup's Q & A, which was just released in the U.S. this past summer (it was released in India a bit earlier). The novel has generally been pretty well-reviewed, and seems to be selling well, if the Amazon ranking tells us anything.

Swarup's novel has an ingenious (bordering on gimmicky) frame. It's a picaresque Bombay novel about a poor teenager who wins a fantastic sum at a television game-show (the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). It's such a fantastic sum that he's immediately arrested on suspicion of cheating; the novel unfolds as he explains how he came upon the answer to each trivia question through a life experience that was precisely salient to the particular trivia question he was asked.

The best passages from the novel are full of details and observations from everyday life. One example might be the following passage about riding trains:

Train journeys are about possibilities. They denote a change in state. When you arrive, you are no longer the same person who departed. You can make new friends en route, or find old enemies; you may get diarrhea contaminated water. And, dare I say it, you might even discover love. As I sat in lower berth number three of coach S6 of train 2926A, with fifty thousand rupees tucked inside my underwear, the tantalizing possibility that tickled my senses and thrilled my heart was that I might, just might, be about to fall in love with a beautiful traveler in a blue salwar kameez.

I like how Swarup starts with a generalization about the experience of traveling by train, and ends with details that are unique to Ram's particular problems (and hopes, including a girl in a blue salwar kameez in his cabin in the train). Unfortunately, there aren't many passages in this vein (and even this paragraph isn't great).

Q&A is strong on energy and its funny, moving stories; I really enjoyed the Australian diplomat episode and the unlicensed Taj Mahal tour-operator chapter near the end of the novel. But the novel also has some episodes that border on the incredible, including a somewhat distasteful sequence with a closeted gay Bollywood actor and a truly far-fetched episode involving voodoo. All in all, it's more like "book candy" than literature; goes down easy, but will be quickly forgotten.

I wish Swarup the best of luck -- I have a feeling this book will succeed in the U.S. -- but I can't strongly recommend Q&A.

Other reviews:

Ron Charles at the Washington Post generally gives Swarup the benefit of the doubt, while making some gentle criticisms: "There are enough horrors here to drain a million liberals' bleeding hearts, but Ram never suggests the solution will come from a different political arrangement, more equitable distribution of wealth or social revolution." True, but the absence of a political critique was the least of my concerns in this novel.

Patrix also reviews it, and gives it a lukewarm, "lazy Sunday afternoon" approval.

Lisa Yanaky, at the improbably titled Book Brothel, gives Q&A a 9/10 rating. She ends her review with this: "[Swarup] doesn't have the same writing prowess as authors like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, but he still captures all of the things I love about Indian literature."

As half-concessions go, Yanaky's is straightforward enough. But it makes me wonder: what are American readers of Indian literature looking for?


Gautam Ghosh said...

Hi Amar,

Great discovering your blog ! Have added it to my RSS reader now !

By the way, I wanted to share a review I did for a book written by a friend.

12:54 PM  
Manish said...

what are American readers of Indian literature looking for?

I mango-cinnamon-henna-spice love you long time.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous said...

what are American readers of Indian literature looking for?

Yanaky doesn't say (indeed, it's a pretty lame review). I suspect manish is right that some are looking for exotica, or even (not to put too fine a point on it) the Orient.

To say it a little less unkindly, I do think there's legitimate value for any reader in a book that gives some contact (however indirect) with another place, or different people. And Indian literature can do this for Americans in a way that, say, Chinese literature cannot -- because it (often) doesn't have to be translated. Translatorese, even in the best cases, is a etiolated dialect, feeble and flavorless. Reading Haruki Murakami in translation, for example, I admire his narrative technique greatly, but must generally ignore the "voice" of the prose, because I assume he's not responsible for its weaknesses. Indian fiction written in English, by contrast, can be convincingly vivid.

Evidence against: I have never seen a blurb emphasizing that a book was not a translation.

2:48 AM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for that response. It is slightly more complicated than mango-henna-curry-bananas, as Manish is aware. If this book becomes a success it will be because it is in some sense the opposite: gangsters, prostitutes, spies, child labor, and poverty. This book is more about exploiting a caricature of the Indian underclass than it is about exoticizing vegetation, Gurus, or food.

(Incidentally, it might be possible to blend the two together. Someone should write a novel called Gangster Curry, about cannibalistic super-cops perhaps...)

On your other point, I think the test case on the vividness of translated narratorial 'voice' would be a major translated work by a South Asian writer.

Rushdie said in 1997 that he thought the quality of post-1947 literature in English was better than that found in South Asian languages (accessed through translation).

That probably isn't true (or at least it isn't provable), but it remains the case that no translated work from the Indian subcontinent has been a success in the U.S. market. (Indeed, other than translated novels by Tagore, there are virtually no novels in translation from South Asian writers in print).

10:21 AM  
Vance Maverick said...

(Sorry, I didn't mean to be anonymous. Let's see if I successfully authenticate myself this time.)

When you say it "probably isn't true" that post-1947 lit in English has been better than that in South Asian languages, do you have some titles in mind for us dilettantes to look at?

11:48 AM  
Amardeep said...


Two major figures might be the Hindi writer Amrita Pritam and the Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi. Several of Mahashweta's books have been translated (and actually, at least one or two probably are in print in the U.S.), and have been influential in "postcolonial theory" land through Gayatri Spivak.

Amrita Pritam's Pinjar (the Skeleton) isn't, I think, in print, but it's been pretty influential; along with Train to Pakistan (Khushwant Singh's English-language novel) it's one of the best-known Indian novels dealing with the partition. The English translation I've read doesn't read so well -- which supports your point about the difficulties in translating a writer's voice from another language.

If interested, you might be able to track down a copy "The Skeleton" through or Vedamsbooks.

There are writers in other languages that might be discussed too. In an earlier thread, a reader mentioned a number of other folks, who are mainly known within the subcontinent: people like Nirmal Verma and Shrilala Shukla. I've read some Verma (and liked it), but I still haven't read Shukla.

Snippets from a number of great Indian writers in languages other than English can also be found in Amit Chaudhari's anthology, The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, which is currently in print in the U.S.

1:38 PM  
Kanya said...

What about Premchand? Faiz? They are available in translation.
The best of Premchand : a collection of 50 best short stories / translated by Madan Gopal.
New Delhi : Cosmo Publications, 1997.
Premacanda, Bāzār-i ḥusan. English
Title: Courtesans’ quarter : a translation of Bazaar-e-husn translated with notes by Amina Azfar ; foreword by Ralph Russell ; introduction by M.H. Askari.
Karachi : Oxford University Press, 2003.
I just gave an informal talk about Indian lit in English at a community college. What students knew about India: Indiana Jones, caste system, dowry deaths, position of women.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous said...

Maybe Q&A is not the "Hamlet" or "Macbeth" of Indian literature, but I am thankful for one thing: taste differs. Whereas I would like to believe that you have given a very intellectual review of the book, please know that there are readers out there who truly appreciate just good, plain, old everyday life depicted beautifully.

My special thanks to Vikas Swarup for a truly enjoyable read.

Jo---- (South Africa)

4:29 AM  
Sofie Karlström said...

I am a journalist student from Sweden, who read Q & A today and fell in love.

Though stereotypical, of course, it went right to the bone. I think it was mainly because many the characters seemed realistic, especially when it came to their thoughts, reflections and observations. They felt real and alive.

I think it was a beautiful story and I think Vikas Swarup suceeded in, what he said, was an attemp to "try to say that don't dismiss somebody because his circumstances are bad." The book is great when it comes to making people all over the world realize that we are all the same on the inside.

Sofie Karlström

2:44 PM  

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