Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hitchhiker - Vinod George Joseph

Hitchhiker*, the debut novel of Vinod George Joseph, begins at the heart of a Global Evangelical Church school in Aaroor, Tamil Nadu where Peterraj, former untouchable, converted Christian works as a watchman and Ebenezer, Peterraj's son, is about to commence his twelfth standard. The GE Church runs several schools in the state, which in addition to providing curricular education also tries to grow its numbers through conversion.

Ebenezer is a good student, though a lukewarm Christian (for instance, he hates the fact that the GE Church prohibits his mother and sister from wearing jewellery), and his aim is to become an engineer, earn loads of money and save his family from poverty. He seems poised to achieve such a goal when his mother and sister are stabbed to death in a caste fight. This incident ends up changing the way Ebenezer's life turns out. Instead of getting an engineering degree, he has to be content with a software diploma, which does not carry the same weight even for a bright boy like him. He falls for Gayathri, an upper caste girl, in a love affair that is doomed to fail. In a desperate effort, he re-converts to Hinduism, only to realize that religion, as much as caste, is a tool to further hidden agenda.

While Ebenezer's story forms the main thread (he is the hitchhiker), the author weaves in many many other characters and their stories into the fabric of this book. The vignettes from these minor characters' lives tie in with the theme of caste and reservation. The timeline stretches from the early nineties to early two thousand and three and various political/caste riots of that period are also placed in context in the narrative.

If I had to pick one particular image that demonstrates the ghastliness of discrimination, it would have to be the sentence that describes Bhadrakaali's (Ebenezer's grandmother) paraphernalia for making matchboxes:
It was said that the match factory owners mixed rat poison in the flour given to matchbox makers like Bhadrakaali to prevent them from eating it.
The first few chapters of the book are descriptive and therefore slow but the pace catches on as events unfold. Hitchhiker would have benefited a great deal from better proofreading, there are quite a few instances of typos and spellchecker-resistant words (eg: 'there' for 'their').

Hitchhiker is a leisurely walk through India with a benevolent Social Sciences teacher who, in telling you Ebenezer's story, also shows you that everything in life comes at a price.

*Thanks to Vinod for sending me a copy of Hitchhiker

1 comment:

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