Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The linchpin of Vikas Swarup’s  Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionaire) was coincidence — twenty of them, to be exact. The readers, however, were not required to suspend disbelief, for they could share the authorities’ scepticism (about coincidence providing the answers to the protagonist). By making the credibility of the events central to his narrative, Swarup elevated Q&A from thriller to genre-breaker. The novel’s in-your-face ingenuity ensured that the coincidences never dwindled into obvious literary devices.

Six Suspects, Swarup’s much awaited second novel, is again held together by the notion of coincidence. This time around, however, the author expects us to swallow it all with no explanation. But while far less convincing than Q&A, Six Suspects is wildly, shamelessly entertaining. Swarup is the Dan Brown of India, with the advantage of not having to look to history for inspiration; modern-day India, with its gaping social chasms and colorful political landscape, provides ample material to conspiracy theorists.

Vicky Rai, the corrupt son of a corrupt politician, kills a young woman in a fit of rage. Despite the presence of several witnesses during the murder, Vicky is acquitted by the Indian judicial system. When Vicky is shot dead at a party celebrating the verdict, six suspects emerge: a Bollywood actress, a tribal, a petty thief, an American visitor, a bureaucrat and a politician. Each has a motive, each has a gun, and each one’s life is filled with coincidence. The American is named Larry Page (just like the Google guy)! The actress has a doppelganger! The thief is in love with a suspect’s daughter! Each sentence describing these six characters deserves an exclamation!

Sadly, the characters themselves are stereotypes; some more than others. The Bollywood actress is an intellectual; we know this because she quotes Nietzsche (“my Master”) and Sartre in her diary, and mentions Heidegger and Malamud in an interview. More troubling, however, is the intellectually-challenged Texan who works at a Walmart and says things like “Me and Mom are closer than ticks on a hound,” who references the Rose Bowl, Miss Hooters International, and the Starplex Cinema at Waco in his introduction. Swarup is on very thin ice here indeed.

And as for the plot: at times, it seems this frantic tale should be shelved under fantasy –the story lurches about crazily, moving from Kashmir to Chennai to the remote Andaman Islands to New Delhi. But it’s all strangely addictive, and makes for a cracking good read. Questioning Swarup’s style and plot developments while reading is like thinking about kinesiology during sex. Why spoil the fun?

Six Suspects is nothing if not ambitious, seeking to encompass each of modern India’s many issues in four hundred seventy pages. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and endemic institutional corruption all find a mention. Terrorism in Kashmir: check. The Bhopal gas tragedy: check. A shamefully inadequate safety net for the underprivileged: check. A growing economic divide leading to escalating crime: check. Centrist policies disenfranchising those away from the seats of power: check. If I’ve left out any of India’s manifold woes — well, you’ll find them in this novel. After all, Swarup’s combination of feel-good emotion in the midst of grim Indian reality is a proven winner. It should surprise no-one that the film rights to this novel were snapped up long ago.

(A slightly modified version of this review appears in The Asian Review of Books.)

16 thoughts on “Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

  1. do you like short stories?

    my blog contains several

  2. Gosh, Niru, you sum up exactly what I felt about the book. Once you suspend disbelief about how all those things could possibly happen in quite the way you do, and you accept the stereotypes for what they are, you are left with a very readable book that does depict the reality of India.
    As with Q&A, I liked the book, because I accept it for the fiction (fantasy as you rightly call it) that it is.

  3. @ Natasha: Yes, I think there is space for a book like this amongst all the literary fiction that seems to dominate the market (or least that is the impression I get here in Canada). I read the book at a sitting–doesn’t happen very often!

  4. Very nice review. Thanks a lot!
    I enjoyed Q & A very much (but the movie was pathetic) and was eagerly waiting for Vikas Swarup’s next book. Now your review has intensified my urge to pick it up as soon as possible. Thanks again.

  5. Swarup’s Universe operates on a purely Indian metaphysical principle- viz a ‘least action’ law- such that the working of chance is constrained to always maximize poetic justice by ironic reversal.
    Like the Mahabharata, Swarup’s book conserves two types of symmetries- viz the individual’s ironic narrative arc which we call karma- and the principle of mutually supportive interdependence and co-existence which is the essence of Dharma.
    In the Mahabharata, the highest Dharma is revealed to be ‘anurashamsya’ or ‘anukrocha’- empathy for the other. The entire message of the Mbh is summarised in the line ‘The Kauravas and the Pandavas are like the tigers and the forest. If the forest perishes the tigers can not survive. If the tigers are killed the forest disappears’.
    In Swarup’s novel, the ‘tribal’ from the Andamans triumphs over death- he is killed in police custody- because he cares so much for the blind Bhopal victim, thus this horrific event becomes a vishodhana (ritual cleansing) re-establishing Dharma. Thus, Swarup’s Universe is not cynical or bereft of pity.
    Swarup’s ‘twist in the tail’ ending suggests that it is not enough for the artist to describe the world, or even preach to it- no, the point is to change it. This message of engagement is the same as that of the Gita.
    Whether you act or refuse to act, still there will be consequences. The Nietzche spouting Bollywood babe refuses to act in a porno. But still she must live with the consequences because her double acts in it anyway!
    Swarup has taken the Western motif of the doppleganger and given it a thoroughly Indian twist.

  6. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. I’m looking for good novels to read for the East Asian Reading challenge. I may try this book. Thank you for reviewing it.

  7. I enjoyed reading this book. six suspects is fantastic novel. could anyone recommend books similar to it? i like indian authers (eastern) – i like mystery,adventure,investigation types books….please!!!

  8. @ Vivek: I agree with many of your observations, but ummm, I’m not quite certain where you’re headed with that comparison between SS and the Mahabharata.

    @ Sandra: Thanks for commenting! Six Suspects is interesting if flawed–I’ll watch your blog to see if you do decide to read it.

    @ Akila: I don’t read much adventure or mystery fiction, but you could find recommendations either using a search engine, or at your local library? good luck!

  9. From the Western point of view, Six suspects fails as a detective novel because there are too many coincidences. But so does Mbh as an epic tragedy because every ‘epoche’- i.e. moment of high drama where the protagonist confronts an implacable fate- turns out to be no such thing. Indeed, Mhb works by the rules of situation comedy.
    However both Ss and Mbh observe rigorous rules. They conserve symmetries and show considerable ingenuity in packing the maximum irony into every episode or utterance.
    Swarup may not be consciously aware of this aspect of his work. Indeed, since ‘those who aim at beauty end up producing trash’, it may be that if Swarup had set out to follow the method of the Mbh he would have ended up with an incoherent mess.
    Swarup seems unique to me in that I can see a connection between his stuff and the Mbh whereas other novels and plays actually based on Mbh- like Yayati and so on- are lame attempts to turn Mbh into a literature about ‘tragic flaws’ in a silly Nineteenth Century way.
    I’ve blogged about this at

  10. end of this novel what happened to Bollywood babe???? it’s not clear….(it mentioned actress shabnam saxena and her secretary bhola were arrested in mumbai for murder of mukhtar)

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