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by Rahul Raina
Harper Perennial, June 2021
333 pages
ISBN: 1408713349

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

How to describe this book? It's a satire, a biting social critique, a caper, an inventive thriller, an excoriating portrait of Modi's India (with occasional digs at American culture). It's funny, propulsive, and often moving in spite of a madcap plot and a furiously sarcastic narrator.

Ramesh Kumar tells his story in a unique voice, one laced with irony, anger, and irrepressible humor. After a brutal childhood in Delhi, beaten and exploited by his often-drunk chaiwallah (tea seller) father, he is taken up as a good cause by a French nun teaching at a Catholic school that, it turns out, does not want charity cases mingling with their upper-crust students.

He's clever and she prepares him well to take the All India exam, one that determines who will succeed in life, but he needs money for her care after she is dismissed from the school and falls ill.

The only way to earn that money quickly is to take the exam - in place of a student who wants success without the work.

Ramesh finds enough wealthy parents desperate to secure a good university place and a career for their spoiled children that he carves out a specialty as an "educational consultant" in the brains black market. With a slick sales job and weeks of intense study, he is able to sit exams as a service until he takes the seat of the sluggish, spoiled, but wealthy Rudi Saxena and creates a sudden problem: he earns the top score in the nation.

Rudi is inundated with attention and is brought in to star in a television trivia game show where he is meant to be the "Topper" the man with all the answers. Ramesh, who is terrified of being caught out, becomes his "manager" who, backstage, whispers the right answers in his ear. Despite his oafishness, Rudi becomes a favorite of Indian aunties and something of a hero. This causes Rudi and Ramesh to be kidnapped for a large ransom. There's a double cross, followed by another kidnapping and pretty soon kidnapping appears to be the most logical answer to every twist in the plot.

There's action, romance, political commentary, and loads of slapstick comedy, but above all the novel is an excoriating picture of contemporary India, where inequality grows and the wealthy exhibit the worst impulses of Western late capitalism combined with India's pre-existing conditions. Perhaps it's unsurprising that, with such a spicy masala on offer, HBO has already optioned it for film.

HOW TO KIDNAP THE RICH is an impressive and original debut by a twenty-eight-year-old writer who has his finger on the pulse of the Indian nation and a talent for mixing laugh-out-loud lines and over-the-top action with vivid depictions of life drawn in sharp-edged critique.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, May 2021

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