Excerpt from the novel
Vikas Swarup - The Accidental Apprentice
Note: The narrator accompanies her younger sister Neha from Delhi to Mumbai, where
Neha has been invited to take part in the famous Indian talent show Popstar No. 1. Neha,
who is a very good singer, dreams of a career in the music business.
[…] Neha and I arrived here less than twenty-four hours ago and already we are
under Mumbai’s spell. People say Mumbai is about money, as Delhi is about power,
but that’s not entirely true. Mumbai is ultimately about opportunity, a brash city of big
dreams and rough ambition, which wears its heart on its sleeve. This is also a city of
hyperbole, where everything is bigger, higher, faster. For those who live here,
Mumbai is its own country. But, for the rest of India, it is a Siren, singing an
irresistibly enticing song of glamour, glory and gold.
Neha is completely seduced by it. She can sniff her destiny in Mumbai’s humid air.
This is the city she was born to rule. And her ticket to success is Popstar No. 1, the
singing talent contest that has brought us here.
We landed at VT station last evening by train from Delhi and were whisked away to
Colaba, at the southern
tip of the city. That is where we received our first shock. The
accommodation provided us by the organisers was a dilapidated primary school. The
classrooms have been converted into dormitories and we were put up in one with
seven other outstation contestants and their chaperones. Neha was horrified at the
thought of sharing a room with a bunch of strangers and having to use communal
toilets. She was probably expecting to be put up at the Taj.
Today was an off day, for sightseeing. And we saw everything, from the Hanging
Gardens to Marine Drive to Haji Ali. We passed by the slums of Dharavi and the
skyscrapers of Nariman Point. […]
The sheer size of Mumbai is breathtaking. It really is maximum city, where the rich
and the poor, the worldly and the saintly, jostle each other every day, chasing that
same elusive dream of making it big.
Now the denizens of the city have been joined by forty new contenders, the
contestants of Popstar No. 1,
all of them between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, each one of them lured by the promise of overnight success and instant fame.
Javed Ansari, the sixteen-year-old son of a rickshaw puller from Lucknow, exudes a
boyish charm and a cocky confidence. ‘I have been singing since I was five. It is my
destiny that has brought me to Mumbai,’ he
tells me. ‘I don’t care if I win or not, but I
am not going back to Lucknow after this. This is the city where I have to make my
mark. And make my mark I will. Nothing can stop me.’ […]
Jasbeer Deol is the only Sikh in the competition. He is a strapping teenager whose
father runs a prosperous business in Ludhiana making woollen blankets. ‘What made
you decide to become a singer?’ I ask him. ‘Wouldn’t you have done quite well in the
family business?’ ‘I don’t want money,’ he answers frankly. ‘I want
‘And why is that so?’
‘See, my father has slaved for the last thirty years to earn his wealth. But even then
his photo did not appear in the newspaper even once. I sang for just three minutes to
win the regional audition and the very next day my photo was splashed in the local
papers. What does this show? That it’s better to be famous than rich.’
According to the rooming list given to us, there is another girl in the dormitory,
nineteen-year-old Mercy, with no surname.
I discover her hiding behind the curtain, a
silver crucifix dangling from her neck. Dressed in a cheap cotton sari, she is frail-
looking, with frizzy hair, crooked teeth and a face disfigured by leucoderma. The
blotchy white patches give her skin an unhealthy pallor, as if it were made of wax
that is slowly melting away.
‘Where are you from?’ I query her gently.
‘Goa,’ she replies, staring fixedly at her feet encased in worn-out rubber slippers.
‘Who has come with you? Your father?’
‘I don’t have anyone,’ she replies, shrinking in on herself. […]
Hearing the painful convictions of these contestants, the way they boast without
irony, gets me thinking.
What is it that makes people so desperate to be famous?
Why this perpetual clawing for recognition, this obsession to be noticed, to stand out
from the crowd? I think it’s a kind of sickness, a virus in the blood, circulated by
television. And the infection has spread far and wide, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
Fame is no longer seen as a by-product of talent, but as an end in itself. Everyone
wants to become an instant celebrity. And being on TV is the quickest way to
achieve this. That is why we have contestants willing to do
just about anything to get
on a reality show.
They will eat cockroaches, abuse their parents, have sex, get
married, announce divorce and even give birth on camera. Anything that can
possibly be done in real life is now being packaged as a reality show. And the
envelope is constantly being pushed. We now have a show based on past-life
regression, as if this life weren’t exciting enough.
I find reality TV as morbidly fascinating as watching a car accident: you want to avert
your eyes, but you
cannot help but be captured by what is taking place. […]
Source: Swarup, Vikas. The Accidental Apprentice. London: Simon & Schuster, 2013, 189-193.
 Siren: reference to a group of women in Greek mythology whose singing attracted sailors and caused them to sail into dangerous waters
 VT station: short for: Victoria Terminus, railway station in Mumbai
 outstation: a provincial small town or village
 the Taj: short for: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, luxury hotel in Mumbai Colaba, named after the world-famous white mausoleum located in Agra, India
 Haji Ali: mosque and tomb; one of the most popular religious places in Mumbai
 Sikh: follower of Sikhism, a religion having its origins on the Indian subcontinent
 leucoderma: a medical condition in which there is a loss of pigmentation of the skin; German: Weißfleckenkrankheit
 to push the envelope: to try to go beyond the normal limits
 past-life regression: here: alleged journeying into one’s past lives while hypnotized