The Bollywood tradition is alive and well, and it is both used and satirised in Rahul Raina’s debut novel How to Kidnap the Rich. While there is no singing and dancing, there is plenty of melodrama, caste conflict and the requirement for a massive suspension of disbelief. And while the first half of the novel seems to lean heavily on books like Q&A (aka Slumdog Millionaire) and The White Tiger, the second half is pure Tarantino, Delhi-style.
In the way of many of its predecessors, How to Kidnap the Rich starts at a crisis point and spends its first half seeking explain how the narrator reached that point. Ramesh Kumar, has developed a profitable business of impersonating wealthy high school students in order to take their final All India exams for them. But with his latest client Radraskesh, also known as ‘Rudi’, he went a little overboard. On behalf of Rudi, Ramesh has come second in the country in the exams, instantly making Rudi a star. Rudi goes on to be the face of a rigged game show, with Ramesh still feeding him knowledge. At this point Ramesh’s troubles really begin. In the backstory to this backstory, Ramesh explains how rose from being the abused son of a tea seller, supported by a local nun, to get himself an education.
Up to this central point, the narrative feels like a fairly derivative, if more modern version of stories we have read before, full of the usual commentary about the difference between rich and poor in modern India. And then it catches up to the present. At which point it becomes a weirdly compelling, spectacularly over-the-top Tarantino-meets-Bollywood crime drama. The second half of the novel contains daring escapes, ridiculous disguises, multiple kidnappings, false allegations, political interference and a siege, but with all of the snarky observations about India intact.
For the most part, Ramesh feels like an updated version of Balram Halwai, the protagonist of the Booker-prize winning The White Tiger. A boy from the wrong side of the tracks who is aware of the hard line between rich and poor, master and servant, and is determined to break across that line while at the same time dissecting it and India’s place in the world in detail. While Ramesh is only believable to a degree as a real character, most of the other characters, particularly the crusading nun Claire and Ramesh’s manic-dream-pixie girlfriend Priyah, are even less fleshed out. Again, this aspect just enhances the feel of this as a Bollywood-inspired drama while possibly being a satire of the genre.
The aspect of the book that works best is in its use of Delhi as a setting. Raina has a great feel for the city, its visible and invisible barriers and the way in which different areas rub up against each other.
Written with verve and style and with a very sure narrative voice, How to Kidnap the Rich is an impressive debut. And while it takes a while to get past the fairly derivative-feeling preliminaries, Raina does break the story out into an enjoyable and twisty, if completely unbelievable, romp. Given that, it is unsurprising that the book has already been optioned by HBO.