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.)