Asian Age, Sunday Feb 10, 2012
Review of Vikas Swaroop’s ‘Accidental Apprentice’
Injustice. Redemption. Evil. Good. Right. Wrong. Wretchedness. Chance. Good fortune. Much like the saga of the luckless Jamal Malik in the superhit phenomenon Slumdog Millionaire, based on the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup, the writer-diplomat’s latest epic, The Accidental Apprentice, is about Sapna Sinha, a 23-year-old girl who faces several larger-than-life incidents that dramatically alter her destiny.
Sapna and her family were living peacefully in Nainital where her father was a schoolteacher. One day, her sister commits suicide. This throws the idyllic family into turmoil and they decide to move to Delhi to escape their ghosts and make a new start.
But Delhi traffic being what it is, Sapna’s father dies in a hit-and-run accident, leaving young Sapna to take on the responsibility of the remaining household — an ailing mother who cannot work and a flighty sister with grandiose dreams of stardom and lifestyle demands to match.
Life is difficult for the three women who are at the mercy of destiny — all that can possibly go wrong, does.
Deeply religious, Sapna tries to be a dutiful daughter and generous sister, sacrificing her own dreams to maintain peace at home. But the fact that she is resigned to her life — of being a “lowly” salesgirl in an electronics shop — gives us a clue that things will change. Those temple visits can’t, of course, come to naught.
One day, after a visit to the temple, she is waylaid by an eccentric billionaire who puts forth a bizarre proposition. He offers her the opportunity to become the next CEO of his $10-billion company, provided she passes a series of tests that he has devised, but will not reveal to her just yet. At first she is reluctant, but eventually accepts the challenge; both the mystery and the promise of financial rewards outweighing her scepticism.
Stories within stories within stories unfurl and roll across the landscape of India where we meet various characters, sometimes stereotypical but always colourful.
From a rural couple who force their young and beautiful daughter to marry an older man, to crooked doctors who thrive on kidney transplant tourism, from acid-throwing lovers to child labourers, from Mumbai’s fabled casting couches to shady industrialists and spies, the story moves rapidly with Sapna zooming from city to village, from incident to episode over a period of six months, averting one catastrophe after another.
In the process, Sapna becomes a modern-day superwoman who fearlessly takes on various societal evils — she defends the poor, saves the weak, helps the needy and exposes the corrupt. All the while, the billionaire is monitoring her progress and here the parallel to the talk show host in Slumdog… is evident.
Interwoven with the story are actual events of the day, such as the India win over Sri Lanka in the 2011 Cricket World Cup and the 2G scandal. The author has also based a few characters on easily identifiable real people. Nirmala Ben, the kleptomaniac Gandhian who goes on a fast until death, is clearly Anna Hazare. The courageous newswoman Shalini Grover resembles Barkha Dutt. There are other composite personalities whose traits are borrowed from people in the news.
Swarup’s storytelling style is alternately simple, like the Ramayan, and hyperbolic, like the Mahabharat, making the moral metaphors, the general tone and flow of the tale somewhat childlike, a sort of throwback to a time when good and evil were black and white. And it was easy to tell the difference.
Here bad people are always bad and good people are good. Underpinning every analogy is the moral: good things happen to those who suffer first. And there are some scenes created to bolster some of Murphy’s laws — that cream floats on the top, but so does scum, for example.
Swarup has chosen to speak from a woman’s perspective. He is Sapna. There are points in the story where a real woman would fall to pieces but Sapna manages to keep the chin up, old boy style. But since the author has written in the present tense, the narrative is breathless and sort of compensates for its otherwise masculine approach.
There are many scenes — running from the police, rolling down hillsides, ghosts in dusty, abandoned houses, fights at knife point, and even an Indian toilet complete with excrement (yes, another one) — that you can see in a fast-paced movie, even if you’re not Danny Boyle.
Like he does to his protagonist in Q&A, here too the author showers Sapna with good fortune, lucky escapes and opportune moments, making for a drama-filled story. The outcome is predictable, and that’s intentional. A film deal seems imminent.
I found it a bit odd that Sapna Sinha, a young arts graduate with no life experience and very little opportunity living in an LIG (Lower Income Group) housing in Delhi, is so well-read that she quotes Kierkegaard at one point. But it’s the very implausibility of her fairy tale that will probably make it a popular film.