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Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A (Slumdog Millionaire), employs the life of an orphan, brought up in the slums of Mumbai, to portray the contemporary Indian society. The police arrest Ram on allegations of cheating in the quiz show, “Who Will Win a Billion (W3B)”.
In justifying his innocence, Ram narrates events and experiences in his life, which were the basis of his ability to answer the quiz promptly. The flashback on his life events constitutes the bulk of the story. It portrays the author as an individual who has keenly watched the issues that an ordinary member of the Indian society has to tolerate in his/her attempts to earn a living.
The author, by giving the details of Ram’s ability to answer all the quiz questions, shows that life is the best teacher especially to those who are less privileged in life. Slumdog Millionaire is extremely close to reality as it portrays many aspects of the real Indian society with great verisimilitude and its realism outweighs its adventurous story and fairy tale elements.
The Indian society as portrayed in the story
The novel reveals lives of the impoverished individuals in the Indian society. These people live in the Mumbai slums. They do not acquire quality education thus end up becoming servants of the well up in the society. Ram works for an Australian diplomatic family and for a Bollywood megastar.
Working as a waiter is part of his wide range of unprofessional occupations that Ram assumes in his lifetime. There is a clear distinction between those who are wealthy and the poor. The wealthy are very influential especially to the authority as evidenced when the producer of the television quiz is able to convince the police to arrest Ram, the poor orphan. The police, though lacking concrete evidence of the allegations, act accordingly.
According to Proust this portrays the oppression of the poor by the rich in the society because as it occurs later that, the producer of the television show did not have the money to give to the winner of the quiz (25). According to him (the producer), the police would help him stop the poor winner from demanding the rightfully won prize. Proust argues that this vice is characteristic of the contemporary Indian society whereby the rich use their influence to deprive the poor their rights.
The impoverished in the Indian society are not supposed to mingle with families of the well-up members of the society. For instance, Mr. Shantaram arrives in the slums and orders his family not to interact with their neighbors. Ram hears Shantaram saying,
“This place is nothing less than a black hole. It is totally beneath my dignity to be staying here, but just for the sake of you two, I will endure this humiliation until I get a proper job. Listen, I do not want any of the street boys to enter the house. God knows what hellholes they have come from. There are two right next to us. Rascals of the highest order, I think. And Gudiya, if I catch you talking to any boy in the chawl, you will receive a hiding with my leather belt, understood?” (Swarup 24).
Though Shantaram’s family moves to the slums due to financial constraints, they still do not admit to stoop to the level of the rest of the people in the slums. This trend is true about the Indian society where the rich have defined their boundaries clearly to avoid any interactions with the poor (Neville 56). This has led to the distinct social classes in society.
The novel also gives a picture of the extremes of religious differences exhibited in the Indian society. The two prominent religious groups in India are Muslim and Hindu. The differences between the two groups are so severe to the extent of claiming people’s lives.
The author tries to strike a balance between all the religious groups in the nation by giving his main character a name, Ram Mohammad Thomas, which has an aspect of each of the religions. Ram is a Hindu name; Mohammad signifies the Muslim faith while Thomas is a name of one of the Christian saints. The name to this actor makes him neutral as far as the religions are concerned. Salim lost his family at a tender age in religious-based riots.
One day as he is travelling in a bus, he finds people rioting; a group of people is arguing over a water tap and this argument turns into a heightened fight between the Hindus and Muslims. The ruffians force the people to alight from the bus based on their religion. The Muslims, Salim being one of them, remain in the bus where he experiences a terrifying incidence based on his conversation with the ruffians:
“What is your name?” the leader asked me. ‘I could have said Ram or Krishna, but I became tongue-tied. One of the attackers pointed to the tabeez around my neck. “This bastard is definitely a Muslim, let’s kill him,” he urged. “No. Killing him would be too easy. We will burn this motherfucker alive in this bus. Then he and his community will learn never to touch our homes,” said the leader, and laughed (Swarup 78).
The other Muslim in the Mumbai bus, Ahmed Khan, confronts the ruffians, saves Salim’s life, takes the poor orphan, and employs him as his servant.
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Child abuse is rampant in the contemporary Indian society. Ram and Salim attest that both in Mumbai and Delhi cruel relatives and police officers exist; for instance, a Maman transforms young children into slaves. Ashok, a thirteen-year old child narrates the children’s ordeal to Ram and Salim.
He says that they are not schoolchildren but beggars in the local trains and others are pickpockets. They (the children) give the money the collected money to Maman’s men in exchange of food and shelter. In addition, if one of the children does not meet the daily target, Maman’s men punish him/her.
The children under Maman’s custody cannot escape because they are afraid of other gangs in Mumbai. Shankar’s illness and death is another example of child abuse cases in the Indian society. Though his mother is capable of paying for the medical expenses for the treatment of the boy, she does not bother about it leading to the eventual death of the boy. We learn this from Ram when he takes Shankar’s corpse to the poor boy’s mother. He says,
“Mrs. Swapna Devi, if this is your palace, and you are its queen, then acknowledge the prince. I have come to deliver the dead body of your son Kunwar Shankar Singh Gautam to you. He died half an hour ago, in the outhouse where you have kept him hidden all these years. You did not pay for his treatment. You did not fulfill the duty of a mother. Now honor your obligation as a landlady. Please pay for the funeral of your penniless tenant” (Swarup 112).
This mother did not treat his son justly
The plight of women in a male dominated society is a controversial issue in the Indian society. Male chauvinism has snuffed the rights of women in the society (Watkins 12). For instance, Shaym uses Nita as a money making tool in his brothel. One of the men that he sends to Nita abuses her leaving her in much pain. When Raju goes looking for Nita, he is shocked by what he sees and upon inquiry, Nita explains, “…a man from Mumbai. Shyam send me to his room at the Palace Hotel. He tied me up and did all this to me.
What you see on my face is nothing. See what he did to my body” (Swarup 112). Shyam later tells that, in exchange of getting Nita back, he has to give him quite an amount of money and it occurs this is the sole reason why Ram participates in the television quiz to raise the money. Earlier on when Ram asks Nita to tell him her name, she does not give her surname; she posits, “Prostitutes don’t have surnames.
Like pet cats and dogs, we are called only by our first names” (Swarup 102). By portraying Nita’s acceptance not to use her surname, the writer implies that women in the Indian society are quite contented with their low social status. However, some women have climbed the social ladder including Neelima Kumari, the actress, and Smita, Ram’s lawyer.
They represent Indian women who have stood to improve the image of the women in the Indian society. Dunham claims that the novel gives a biased picture of the Indian society (86). He says that Swarup’s story is a colonialist’s view of the society, which majors in its imperfections. India is not a nation filled with much misery, heartbreaks and evils among other forms of inhumanity. These are vices characteristic of any other nation.
Throughout the story as discussed above, the author, through his characterization, clearly covers the entire social spectrum of the contemporary Indian society, which includes prostitutes, diplomats, slum dwellers, gangs, and beggars. His use of flash back in building the story is instrumental because it portrays life as a learning process.
The challenges that one undergoes help in building his/her knowledge. Swarup vividly portrays that the only instrumental aspect in Ram’s ability to answer all the questions was his life experience. However, Branston, and Stafford believe that, Slumdog millionaire is more of an entertaining story than one that carries important social significance in the lives of the Indians (71). It is because of its use of dramatic humor with an incisive social comment.
The author of the novel Slumdog Millionaire has employed his vast skills in literature to bring out the image of the contemporary Indian society. His theme was to show that life is a learning process. For anyone who has grown in the slums, it is inevitable to meet all kinds of social evils ranging from misery, heartbreaks, and retribution among others. In attaining his theme, he chose to use the image of the contemporary Indian society.
The story gives a full spectrum of the Indian society comprising of all forms of people ranging from diplomats to slum dwellers. It highlights the challenges that people go through that help in building knowledge about life. Despite the extensive use of drama in the story, Slumdog millionaire is a true depiction of the Indian society. The heavy doses of realism in the story outweigh the drama and adventure in the Slumdog millionaire.
Boyle, Danny, and Dunham, Brent. Danny Boyle: Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Branston, Gill, and Stafford, Roy. The Media Students Book. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2010.
Neville, Carl. “Classless.” Recent Essays on British Film. Britain: O Books, 2008.
Proust, Marcel. “I have been arrested for winning a Quiz Show.” Pechorin’s Journal, 11 June 2011. Web. <https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/vikas-swarup-qa/>
Swarup, Vikas. Slumdog Millionaire. Britain: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Watkins, Tony. Rags and Riches: Exploring the Message behind the Media, 11 June 2011. Web.