An accidental author

An accidental author

Vikas Swarup gained a lot of recognition when the film Slumdog Millionaire went on to become a huge hit — the movie was a screenplay adaptation of Q&A, his first book. It was therefore with great expectations that his next novel, Accidental Apprentice, was awaited.

I wish I could say that it did not disappoint. Swarup has centred his story on a business tycoon searching for a worthy successor to take over as CEO of his multi-crore empire.

The tycoon, Vinay Mohan Acharya, zeroes in on a young middle-class electronics goods showroom salesgirl, Sapna Sinha. He sets her seven ‘tests’ to pass, after which she would own the empire, the tycoon having no biological heirs, nor faith in the worthiness of his own company’s executives.

As the pages turned, one did not know whether it was meant as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the illogical, simplistic settings of Hindi films of the early 1980s, or whether the author was seriously presenting this as a riveting novel.

Even as I say this, I am also aware that the Hindi films I am referring to had no pretensions of being intellectual classics — they just brought on the villains and absurd twists and turns with the intention of providing pure entertainment — and didn’t the Roger Moore series of the James Bond films also do just that? But coming back to our story here, each of the seven ‘tests’ is unreal, specious and totally unbelievable.

And Swarup has tried to pack in just about every social problem India faces presently into this not-so-slim novel. The Khap leaders dictating the terms under which the youth can (or cannot) romance, child labour in shadily-run industries, rigged music shows contests, a kidney racket, hunger strikes à la Anna Hazare…it is almost as if one was served a thali meal that contained just about everything the restaurant had on offer and, more often than not, consuming such a meal does nothing to satisfy one’s hunger.

Quite the opposite. Add to this mix an acid attack, a murder, an identical twin industrialist rival and bitter enemy called Ajay Krishna Acharya — the main character is called Vinay Mohan Acharya, in case you forgot; a TV reporter, who gets scoop after scoop through ‘sting’ operations, and the confounded plot is complete.

There are at least two scenarios where there seems to be impeccable mobile network connectivity even from remote rural areas of India, and the day is saved using a cellphone camera that constantly sends information to the server of a major TV network, that in turn transmits the visuals live for its viewers (the channel is called Sunlight TV, in case you were curious). But the pages do turn; even if it is only in disbelieving fascination with what outlandish twist the story could take next.
Swarup cannot resist bringing in references to Slumdog Millionaire (or Q&A, if one wants to be accurate) — this story also starts with a jail scene.

The Ram Mohammed Thomas character, the hero of the Slumdog film, is alive and kicking, and has even donated generously to an NGO that is dedicated to busting child-labour rackets in this latest novel.

I was so perplexed with the way this story was going that I even went back and read a bit of Q&A to make sure that this was the same author whose work screenwriter Simon Beaufoy adapted for Slumdog Millionaire. There was that core of truth present in Q&A that is hugely missing in this work. The author has served more than the reader can chew, and it is a relief for the jangling nerves when the madly careening vehicle carrying the story along finally shudders to a halt.

The only redeeming thing I can think of is that Swarup meant this as a spoof, and that I took it as a serious novel. But in the after-word, the author, a career diplomat who wrote the book while posted at Osaka-Kobe, talks of learning a lot from “…the kindness, honesty, generosity and courage of the people of Japan. There is an order and serenity in their country that equally calms the creative mind and excites it…” This confused me even more.

All I can say, to quote a Japanese phrase that the author has used in the book, is shikata ga nai, which means ‘It can’t be helped.’ Or, as one of the lead characters explains after uttering this phrase, ‘hardship must be borne.’ If hardship fascinates you, do dip into this volume.

Or, wait for a Danny Boyle or a Simon Beaufoy to come along and adapt it into another hit Hollywood film.

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