As the credits begin to roll over the screen, Salim is left holding a mass of tangled gray hair smelling vaguely of cologne and spirit gum. This time he does not see the names of the publicity designer and the PRO, the light men and the spot boys, the fight director and the cameraman. He is weeping.
Armaan Ali, his hero, has died.
Smita is staring at me with skeptical eyes. "When exactly did this incident happen?"
"About six years ago. When Salim and I used to live in a chawl in Ghatkopar."
"And do you realize the significance of what you have just recounted to me?"
"That if this incident was made public, it could destroy Armaan Ali, end his film career. Of course, that will happen only if what you just told me is true."
"So you still don't believe me?"
"I didn't say that."
"I can see the doubt in your eyes. If you still don't believe me, you do so at your own peril. But you cannot disregard the evidence on this DVD. Should we see the first question?"
Smita nods her head and presses PLAY on the remote.
The studio lights have been dimmed. I can hardly see the audience sitting around me in a circle. The hall is illuminated by one spotlight in the center, where I sit in a leather revolving chair opposite Prem Kumar. We are separated by a semicircular table. There is a large screen in front of me on which the questions will be projected. The studio sign is lit up. It says SILENCE.
"Cameras rolling. Three, two, one, you're on."
The signature tune comes on, and Prem Kumar's booming voice fills the hall. "Here we are once again, ready to find out who will make history today by winning the biggest prize ever offered on earth. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to find out Who Will Win a Billion!"
The studio sign changes to APPLAUSE. The audience begins clapping. There are some cheers and whistles, too.
The signature tune fades out. Prem Kumar says, "We have three lucky contestants with us tonight, who have been selected at random by our computer. Contestant number three is Kapil Chowdhary from Malda in West Bengal. Contestant number two is Professor Hari Parikh from Ahmedabad, but our first contestant tonight is eighteen-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas from our very own Mumbai. Ladies and gentlemen, please give him a big round of applause."
Everyone claps. After the applause dies down, Prem Kumar turns to me. "Ram Mohammad Thomas, now that's a very interesting name, expressing the richness and diversity of India. What do you do, Mr. Thomas?"
"I am a waiter in Jimmy's Bar and Restaurant in Colaba."
"A waiter! Now, isn't that interesting! Tell me, how much do you make every month?"
"Around nine hundred rupees."
"That's all? And what will you do if you win today?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
Prem Kumar scowls at me. I am not following the script. I am supposed to "vibe" and be "entertaining" during the "small talk." I should have said I will buy a restaurant, or a plane, or a country. I could have said I will host a big party. Marry Miss India. Travel to Timbuktu.
"Okay. Let me explain the rules to you. You will be asked twelve questions, and if you answer each one correctly, you stand to win the biggest jackpot on earth: one billion rupees! You are free to quit at any point up until question number nine and take whatever you have earned up to then, but you cannot quit beyond question number nine. After that, it is either Play or Pay. But let's talk about that when we come to that stage. If you don't know the answer to a question, don't panic, because you have two Lifeboats available to you -- a Friendly Tip and Half-and-Half. So I think we are all set for the first question, for one thousand rupees. Are you ready?"
"Yes, I am ready," I reply.
"Okay, here comes question number one. A nice easy one on popular cinema, I am sure everyone in the audience can answer. Now we all know that Armaan Ali and Priya Kapoor have formed one of the most successful screen pairings of recent times. But can you name the blockbusting film in which Armaan Ali starred with Priya Kapoor for the very first time? Was it (a) Fire, (b) Hero, (c) Hunger, or (d) Betrayal?"
Copyright © 2005 by Vikas Swarup
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No Man's Land
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