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From the Monitor archives: "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup

The brisk, breezy novel that inspired the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire."

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If ever a game-show contestant should have chosen what was behind Door No. 2, it's Ram Mohammed Thomas. The 18-year-old waiter became the first contestant to correctly answer all 12 questions on "Who Will Win a Billion?" (Ah, inflation.)

His reward? He's promptly arrested for cheating and tortured by the police, who are determined to figure out how an unschooled orphan from the slums of Dharavi mastered a quiz show.

You see, the TV producers don't actually have a billion rupees (roughly $23 million), but they do have enough to bribe the local cops to brutalize an impoverished teenager.

"There are those who will say that I brought this upon myself by dabbling in that quiz show," Ram says. "After all, what business did a penniless waiter have to be participating in a brain quiz? The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use."

Clearly, none of these killjoys would be Americans, who turn trivia buffs like Ken Jennings - and far less appealing reality-show contestants - into quasi-celebrities. And there's a can-do optimism driving the hero of Q&A: A Novel, Vikas Swarup's enjoyable debut, that translates well for US audiences, even if the book itself is ultimately uneven.

Fortunately for both Ram and squeamish readers, a female defense attorney barges into the interrogation and gets him released.

Although, really, the faint of heart might as well put the novel down right now and go switch on the soothing tones of Alex Trebek, because they won't be able to handle Ram's version of "Jeopardy." (Last bad game-show pun, I promise.)

The rest of the novel consists of Ram's conversation with the defense attorney, explaining how his life up until then had taught him the answers to each question.

For example, from the kind priest who gave Ram his Hindu/Muslim/Chris- tian name and taught him English, he learned the initials written above the cross.

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