Money, Money, Money

A story of the upbringing of an orphan boy in Indian slums, “Slumdog Millionaire” by Vikas Swarup strikes the readers with sympathy for the characters, whose life conditions are way below average, satisfies those who love witty humor and indulges us with an expected ending.

What’s unusual is the way the protagonist gets there: By means of answering questions.

Participating in a newly established quiz show where the top prize is a billion rupees, an 18-year-old waiter from Mumbai, who does not even know what FBI stands for, suddenly wins it all. Could he possibly answer all the questions correctly, or did he cheat? Reluctant to do such a huge payout, those who are in charge of the show attempt to prove that they were deceived.

However, by telling his life story, the waiter with an unusual name, Ram Mohammad Thomas, reveals that he did know the answers to the questions he was asked, and that sometimes practical education is more valuable and memorable than formal one.

Why bother reading about sexual harassment, murder, robbery or corruption when one knows it all from his or her own experience? Thomas’ life was not that long, but he learned what crime is and what love is. He realized that there is only a slight line dividing the rich from the poor, which makes a huge difference regarding how the two groups of people are treated. The rich are powerful and omnipotent, while the poor are helpless, but capable of surviving.

The protagonist himself has to make money throughout the novel. There are a few moments where he holds a lot of cash in his hands, which makes you think every time that this is the moment he will get out of slums and start a new life. However, the money is lost again and again. At times, you sigh, “How can you be so generous?” In some cases, you exclaim, “How can you be so stupid?” There are a few moments where you cannot help admiring Thomas, thinking, “How couldn’t he be so compassionate?

Having to earn a living at a young age, the protagonist also learns pretty early what love is. There are three kinds of love the boy experiences throughout his life. First, it is obsession with a movie star, some beautiful but distant girl, an ideal that can never be reached. The second stage is “eye-to eye” love when Thomas sees a girl and cannot take his eyes off her. He does not speak to her, but he is ready to protect her and even kill for her sake. And finally, there is this “true” love, the moment when the protagonist understands that this is the woman he wants to be with for the rest of his life.

That’s where the idea of winning a quiz show occurs to him.

Even though Thomas knows that money can help him to make some of his dreams come true, there are other things that are more important than cash. Swarup’s character is kindhearted, honest and intelligent young man, who happened to be at the bottom of the society. He does not need money like rich people do. If he has no food, he knows how to eat from trash; if he has no place to stay, he can sleep anywhere in the slum. When Thomas realizes, however, that big money is the only thing that separates him from someone he loves dearly, then getting rich becomes his primary goal.

Even though such a story could have happened anywhere in the world, Swarup chooses to give his novel a distinctive ethnic flavor. A great part of it addresses Indian film culture. The protagonist recalls many films and actors he and his best friend liked or saw, mentioning his favorite scenes in all of which a hero or a heroine is always “singing a song.” It seems especially fascinating when we recall that music is an essential component of any Indian movie.

Besides, there is a “lucky coin” theme that we often see in Indian films. As it often happens in the movies, flipping the coin is a means of deciding destiny, as well as a way to manipulate other people.

In addition to films, Swarup glances at such important elements of Indian culture as race and caste issues. For instance, he lets the readers know that darker people, like the protagonist, are less preferred in the society, that a person’s name may indicate the caste he or she belongs to and that a “dark” Thomas is unlikely to be a member of the highest cast, which he realizes when he introduces himself using a false name. The readers do not find out, though, which caste he belongs to, as the author never comes back to it.

His little hints about caste and race are sufficient for a reader who is unfamiliar with these notions. It helps us understand that in a society full of prejudice and discrimination, there is so little justice in the world Thomas lives in. Corrupt police, high crime levels, racism and the abuse of the poor represent reality that can make us cry out in despair. Still, Thomas is not going to give up. He uses his excellent sense of humor and acquired survival skills to make it where he wants to be. It is amazing how playfully Swarup describes the tough reality and makes us laugh at things that are not to be funny at all.

There are moments when Thomas’ memory addresses events from his childhood, and he describes them so innocently that it makes us smile. He is naïve, honest and witty at the same time. Sometimes his childish misinterpretations are replaced by irony, which addresses things that he understands to be wrong, but since there is nothing he can do about it, he laughs at them, the same way you do.

Being a funny novel about a sorrowful life, “Slumdog Millionaire” leaves you feeling optimistic once you are done with it. Indeed, your troubles seem so little compared to what Thomas is going through, and if he was able to make it to the top, why can’t you? And you are eager to read it again and again, laughing silently to yourself at the situations the protagonist gets into, and to dream about your own brilliant future.

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