November Issue 2014

By | Published 3 years ago

“In life you never get what you deserve: you get what you negotiate…” So goes the opening line for Vikas Swarup’s latest potboiler, The Accidental Apprentice. Swarup of Slumdog Millionaire fame made his debut with the bestselling novel Q&A, which in turn was made into a successful blockbuster by Danny Boyle. Readers have been eagerly awaiting his new book, the third since. But the triumph of his first novel seems to have attached a certain reader expectation to him and I have to say that when I picked up his latest, I opened it with a preconceived notion in mind. I was prepared to be surprised, thrilled and excited. In short, I expected to be blown away.

Instead, I was disappointed. Not because it didn’t live up to the twists and turns of its predecessors, but because the number of coincidences and themes packed into this book would leave even the most masala infested Hindi films behind. The book is everything you expect from a Vikas Swarup novel, only more. So much more that it can only be termed over the top.

The book begins with the main protagonist, Sapna, a street-smart urban girl, described on the blurb as “ordinary” though there is nothing in the least ordinary about her. Sapna works at an electronics store in New Delhi and is the sole breadwinner of the family. In true Bollywood style, she has an asthmatic mother and a college-going younger sister to support. Burying her own dreams of marriage and love, she forges ahead in a stoical manner, saving every penny for her family. While visiting the temple one day, she is told that her life is about to change in an instant. (This line also appears on the blurb though it takes a good seven months for this ‘instant’ to go through.) She is met by a billionaire industrialist who tells her that he has chosen to make her the CEO of his company, if she passes seven tests of character, he has set for her. Life in New Dehli has made her tough and shrewd and Sapna is wary of anything that offers quick returns.

But due to some ‘highly coincidental’ events that follow, her financial needs increase and she must take up the billionaire’s dodgy offer. What follows is a series of mishaps and adventures, each of which turns out to have been part of the apprenticeship. As in Swarup’s previous novels, the narrative travels at a breakneck pace, the author keeping the reader at the edge of her seat in a story that, along with being entertaining, touches some of the most pressing issues facing developing countries today. In addition there are references to popular Bollywood and political personalities, which add to the fun of guessing which character is based on whom.

Swarup has tried in this book to tell the story of a modern-day working woman and her responses to circumstances that one would find familiar if one lived in India. But the pace is too fast and the writing too simple. So simple, that one rushes past extremely complex issues, like child labour, forced marriage, sexual assault, acid throwing, illegal killings, large scale corruption and even Osama Bin Laden’s death. Though it’s a page-turner, there are way too many coincidences dotting the plot, requiring an extra suspension of belief on the reader’s part to get through the pacy narrative.

Most of it seems forced, instead of an organic part of the story. It’s almost as if Swarup had taken his inspiration from the lurid headlines of Indian tabloids and each chapter was an attempt to scratch the surface of an important social problem in India. As a result, the panchayat systems, gang rape, reality TV and illegal organ transplants are all simplified into bite-sized, chapter-length backdrops. Added to this, the minor characters are stereotypical and one-dimensional. While Sapna, the protagonist, is easily the most convincing in the book, she also shows surprisingly little growth for someone dealing with all of the aforementioned problems in a few months.

I found this to be a contrast with the author’s previous works where there was much more attention to detail in terms of plot and the characters all well-rounded and fleshed out. The plot of Q&A was also highly implausible, but somehow woven together much more intricately. Here the plot, although engaging, is engineered too loosely and many threads are left unresolved. Even the end, when it does arrive, is a let down. The complexity of the climax is elaborately drawn out, yet there is a sense of predictability about the ‘whodunnit.’ However, it is in the ‘why’ instead of the ‘who’ that gives one the paisawasooli satisfaction in this book.

Although an engaging read, by the end of The Accidental Apprentice you begin to feel like you have had a very heavy meal and you must lie down to digest it. But having said that, it is total entertainment and if you can silence your inner logic, an excellent read. At no point was I bored. Flabbergasted, astounded, exasperated, yes, but never bored!

So, if you are looking for a light (headed) read that is heavy in weight (450 pages) then this may be the book for you.

The writer is a writer. Her first novel “Nobody killed her” published in 2015. She tweets @sabynjaveri