In the framework of Europalia India, a string of institutions including my Alma Mater, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, hosts a series of exhibitions, performances, films showings, conferences and lectures. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal was to speak in Brussels and Leuven, but he didn't show up, being detained in a sex scandal. The next day, on Thursday 21 November 2013, the speaker in Leuven was Vikas Swarup, philosopher-psychologist by diploma and diplomat by profession, but best known as the writer of the novel Q&A. This book was first published in Dutch translation in 2004, well before the English original came out. Unfortunately, I had (or made) no time to read his novel, until I saw its filmed version, Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire directed by Danny Boyle.
The Accidental Apprentice
He mainly talked about two more recent novels, for which he also has film contracts now. The Accidental Appentice is about a talented girl forced to work as a salesgirl, who gets a surprising offer from a rich businessman: he wants her to become the CEO of his empire, on condition that she can pass the seven tests of life. Like Q&A, it is a fast-paced social thriller, but this time about the lower middle class rather than the real poor.
To a question about forced marriage, involved in one of the tests, he clarifies that unlike arranged marriage, really forced marriages are relatively rare in India. Either way, love does not enjoy much respect. The institution of arranged marriage goes hand in hand with the caste system: if you let youngsters choose for themselves, their hormones or their emotions will rarely dictate a choice of partner from among the same caste. But as modernization spreads, such customs as having your partner chosen by your parents are gradually falling by the wayside. But then, in a country of 1,2 billion, there are still cases, as there are of child labour and other abuses.
Corruption? Yes, corruption exists. But in 2005, a very far-reaching law was passed, the Right to Information Act. Every law or decree and every government contract or contract bidding has to be published on the internet. You can go to court if you see information according to which you should be given the contract.
Involuntary donations of organs? The donor can only be a family member, according to the law. But there is a loophole: the altruist donor, the friend of the family, and it is surprising how fast an altruist donor can appear once money is involved. So, the main problem is commercialized voluntary donation, though a few cases of involuntary donation cannot be ruled out.
In the book, one character, Nirmala Behn, is inspired by Anna Hazare, a Gandhian crusader. He sat on a fast for the Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill and gathered a lot of popular support. But many people considered it blackmail of an elected legislative body by an unelected activist. People supported his cause, not his methods. If you die by fasting unto death, you are, in fact, contravening the anti-suicide law. We have to take the anti-corruption cause to the level where it can really make a difference. Therefore, Hazare’s companion Arvind Kejriwal floated his own political party.
Reality shows and abuse of young women who want to be stars?. Reality TV has taken over India. Everyone fancies himself as a superstar. In my hometown of Allahabad, 2 teenage girls from a village wanted me to introduce them to Danny Boyle. What are your credentials? In the past, fame was a by-product of talent, now fame is sought for its own sake. Singers go up in price once they have appeared on television. Yes,O reality shows are more influential than in Europe. India is a nation of wannabes.
The Six Suspects
Another novel is called The Six Suspects. Viki Rai, son of the UP Chief Minister, is a criminal. He drives six people to death in an accident, but when the case goes on trial, his father buys off the witnesses. A second crime goes on trial, but the only witness dies before the court can hear testimony. In a third trial, the case drags on for 7 years, the witnesses renege, and Viki is let off again. (It goes without saying that real-life politics offers ample precedent for these mistrials.) He celebrates the acquittal in a big way. At midnight the lights briefly go out, and when they switch on again, Viki is found to have been shot.
Six people turn out to have a gun on them and are treated as suspects. Four of them are regular Indians, though with a peculiar individual story. One of them has Indian citizenship, but is a freshly arrived tribal from the Andaman islands – from the Stone Age to the modern world with its disco parties and its guns. And one is a traveller from Texas (where nearly everyone has a gun), a disappointed collector of a mail-order bride, for whom the photograph of an actress was used, the same one who happens to be one of his fellow suspects. So, a promising plot.
Well, anyway, what followed was question time. I asked Vikas Swarup whether he was disappointed or otherwise not so happy with the changes Danny Boyle had made while turning the novel Q&A into the movie Slumdog Millionaire. He acknowledged that changes had been made. Upon signing the contract, the representative of the movie crew had promised him that “the soul of the novel” would be respected, a sure way of saying that its body would be distorted. But he took this as normal and fairly insignificant. In reality, the changes were highly consequential and significant for Boyle’s agenda and perhaps for what western audiences have come to expect from a film located in India.
He explained how he had named the protagonist Ram Mohammed Thomas, representing every street kid in India, while Boyle had changed this into Jamal Malik, a fully Muslim name. He communalized the plot, with Jamal’s mother being killed by Hindu communal rioters and a Rama impersonation presiding over the violence. Boyle turned the protagonist into a poor hapless Muslim and the Hindus into the bad guys. In this context, blinding a child-beggar to make him earn more by singing a Hindu religious song (a practice of which even the missionary sister Jeanne Devos says she has never come across an actual case during decades of social work in Mumbai), and of course not a Muslim song, adds to the image of Hinduism as gruesome. Briefly, he turned an innocent story into an anti-Hindu story.
The fact that the writer, as a somewhat secularized Hindu, representative for dozens or even hundreds of millions of similar Hindus, fails to see the hostile intention and the very partisan effect of this manipulation, says a lot about the silly and ultimately suicidal mentality prevalent among Hindus. Only a community of sleepwalkers could willingly come to the humiliating situation of the Hindus in India and the flood of anti-Hindu slander in the media.