The opening chapter of How to Kidnap the Rich comes to a close with the narrator, a chai wallah’s son and con artist, clarifying that this isn’t a story about poverty, it’s a story about wealth. A few pages further in, we’re told that Delhi isn’t saffron; isn’t spice – it’s sweat. In Rahul Raina’s satirical state-of-the-nation debut, which slices into the soul of contemporary Indian society, things aren’t always the way they appear.
Ramesh Kumar is himself a sham. Having long left behind a childhood filled with abject poverty on the streets of East Delhi, a “grey smear on Google Maps”, he becomes an “examinations consultant” who commits academic fraud. Now a self-proclaimed “charming, witty, urbane man about town”, he sits entrance exams that are entry points to the west – the best universities, “the whitest lives” – for the elite. When Rudi, a teenager with a “no-matches-on-Tinder-face”, opts for the “All India Examinations: Premium Package”, little does Ramesh know that it will gain him beyond-belief riches and cost him a finger. If you place in the top thousand, it’s your ticket out of India. But what if you rank first?
Overnight, Rudi (the “topper”) goes from being a dim-witted nobody to the nation’s favourite, becoming star host of the quiz show Beat the Brain. Ramesh gets greedy for more than the negotiated sum of 1.3m rupees; “India is a country of deals”, after all. He corners Rudi’s family, assigns himself as his manager, and becomes the encyclopedia in his ear. Bribery, blackmail and betrayal consume the cast of characters, which includes a corrupt construction giant, a crooked TV producer and, comically, a too-clean government official.
As if the stench-filled setting of East Delhi, “the most polluted place in the world, as the New York Times or the WHO will tell you”, isn’t claustrophobic enough, the political presence of the “Saffrons”, a synecdoche for the rightwing party in power, also hangs heavy. “This India, my India, smells like shit. It smells like a country that has gone off, all the dreams having curdled and clumped like rancid paneer,” says Ramesh, who is terminally disillusioned with the “centre-of-the-world’s-greatest-democracy”.
Ramesh’s fury – which “could have made India the world’s leader in renewable energy” – is fuelled by circumstance and the desire to circumvent a system designed to keep him in his place. This is a cinematic caper – HBO already holds film rights – and though Raina is highlighting expired dreams and inequality, he is always perceptive and playful. No one is beyond scrutiny, from the Americans to the Chinese. Social commentary meets standup comedy, as with a biting wit reminiscent of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa” or Paul Beatty’s Booker-winner The Sellout, Raina stretches stereotype and cliche into incisive satire.
Near the end, Ramesh says that real honesty bores people. “But honesty that’s just on the line between truth and falsehood? The world is built on it.” Good fiction sits somewhere on this line. Nothing is just as it seems in this “rise-and-fall-and-rise-again” story – it depends on where you stand in this changing world.
How to Kidnap the Rich is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.