Q & A

By Vikas Swarup

Scribner. 318 pp. $24

More than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. News like that could ruin your whole latte, but most of us are adept at ignoring such conditions or pretending they're inevitable. Who wants to read a novel about that when you've got four episodes of "Desperate Housewives" on TiVo?

It takes more than a spoonful of sugar to get such medicine down, and Vikas Swarup provides a strange mixture of sweet and sour in this erratically comic novel. Q & A is about a poor waiter from Dharavi, India -- "not a place for the squeamish" -- who's won a billion rupees on a game show. (That's about $23 million, which is a lot, even if you're not living all year on the cost of an iPod.)

Swarup, an Indian diplomat who works in the Ministry of External Affairs, brings eyewitness experience to his debut novel. Sewage-filled streets, vermin-infested hovels, hordes of dying beggars -- they're all here, but what interests the author most is the absurdity of such poverty, where a million people are "packed in a two-hundred-hectare triangle of swampy urban wasteland, where [they] live like animals and die like insects." Swarup's billionaire hero is named Ram Mohammad Thomas, "a nonsense name" that reflects his chaotic, ecumenical childhood. When we meet him, he's sitting "cross-legged in a ten-by-six-foot cell." He's been arrested, dragged here in the middle of the night and charged with defrauding the producers of "Who Will Win a Billion?" The host, a demonic version of Bob Barker, explains that they don't really have a billion rupees; the show was fixed, with winners and losers carefully scheduled to increase viewership and advertising revenues in 35 countries. Ram's miraculous performance threatens to drive them into bankruptcy unless they can prove he cheated.

"There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself," Ram observes, "by dabbling in that quiz show. They will wag a finger at me and remind me of what the elders in Dharavi say about never crossing the dividing line that separates the rich from the poor. After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use."

The theme here couldn't be any more obvious if Vanna White spelled it out for us, but what Q & A lacks in subtlety it makes up for in charm and melodrama. While Ram's interrogators are torturing him, a mysterious young defense attorney bursts into the cell and demands a private interview with her client. Almost the entire novel consists of their conversation. All night Ram and his lawyer study a recording of the game show while Ram describes the life experiences that just so happened to prepare him for each of the 12 questions.

From the drunken astronomer who beat his sweetheart, he learned which is the smallest planet in the solar system: Pluto. From a man married to a voodoo priestess, he learned the capital of Papua New Guinea: Port Moresby. From an old war vet in an air-raid shelter, he learned the highest award for gallantry in the Indian armed forces: Param Vir Chakra. The result of this survey of his knowledge is a harrowing picaresque novel about an orphan boy fighting to stay alive and make a living in "Asia's biggest slum . . . amid the modern skyscrapers and neon-lit shopping complexes."

Through murders, robberies, rapes and close scrapes, Ram speaks in a voice that turns from wide-eyed innocence to moral outrage. He's learning just how right and how wrong the landlord was who once told him: "We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us and yet remain unaffected by it. So . . . close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth, and you will be happy like me."

That's an ironic indication of the novel's surprisingly conservative spirit. 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. The real question is whether individuals will choose to treat one another more humanely, more selflessly. You can guess his final answer. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.