What follows is a chaotic journey around India in which the reader is treated to a snapshot of all that is corrupt and broken in the world's largest democracy. The Grand Convener's plans for the country, including a truly ingenious (and morally suspect) plan to eradicate poverty and a wonderfully inventive revenue-raising initiative, horrify our hapless hero - even more so when it turns out that the justification for, the provenance of, these crazy schemes is 'The Book of Answers'. Poor Patros soon realises that these claims are lies - you see, there's a key to the book, and nobody knows where it is...
Gopinath's humour comes across on almost every page, from the collision which sets the whole affair in motion, to the mysterious figure of Tippy, Pat's son, a character who is always at least one step ahead of both his father and the reader. The humour is helped by the language the writer uses, a sing-song variety of English which is slightly unfamiliar to speakers of British or American English. Apart from the obvious vocabulary differences between the varieties of the language, sentences like the following -
"A gangly boy was playing awful guitar to an admiring girl, also gangly."catch the reader's eye, dragging them into the story.
It's not a perfect book by any means. Anyone expecting lyrical elegance à la Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie will be a little disappointed. It's more Bollywood than high literature, which is not a bad thing, of course (and, set largely in Mumbai, it's probably apt too!). It's highly plot driven, and certain sections give you the feeling that some large holes need to be fixed, and this was the best way to do it (a conversation with a circus lady and a couple of days in the country with a dog certainly come to mind here).
"A politician is nothing unless he is in his chair, in power. According to my doctrine, for this he needs three things: constituency, currency and chaos. Never forget those words. The three C's."It is the third of these three Cs that permeates The Book of Answers. In an attempt to confuse opponents and profit from uncertainty to cling to power, the Grand Convener will do all he can to cause chaos throughout the country. If that involves abolishing the need for people to actually study in order to pass exams, so be it ;)
If you're a fan of novels set in India and enjoy mysteries underlaid with a rich vein of humour, I'd definitely recommend The Book of Answers. I'm very grateful that the writer offered me the chance to read it, and I hope it does well, even if it didn't make it to the final list of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It is a book which sometimes hits a lot closer to home than you'd like, and for all its levity, there is a very serious side to it. It's not often that a book manages to end on the perfect note, but Gopinath really nails the landing here - a very telling and sombre finale indeed...
For more reviews of this book, follow the links to Mark's and Gary's takes on it :)