Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Conversation with Vinod Joseph

A couple of weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Vinod. We spoke for well over an hour and touched upon many subjects. During the course of that conversation, I asked him a few questions about The Hitchhiker, his first novel, as well as about his reading tastes. I wanted to share those parts of the conversation here. And oh, bear in mind, what is below is a transcribed version of an audio conversation:

Lavanya: One of the questions I like to ask people when I talk to them for the first time is about their reading taste. I'd like to ask you the same, Vinod. What kind of books do you read?

Vinod: Well, I agree. It is a good way to understand what sort of a person you are talking to. I too like to ask people about their reading preferences. I read a lot of classics and mostly books that have a historical background/setting. As far as classics go, Tolstoy's War & Peace, Anna Karenina and similar books are favourites. I enjoy Graham Greene, A.J.Cronin, James Michener. Among the Indians, R.K.Narayan is a favourite. I particularly like Nadine Gordimer.
L: In Hitchhiker, you use an neutral narrator. I was wondering why you did not narrate the story from Ebenezer's point of view.

V: If you notice, Hitchhiker has several small characters and their stories in addition to the story of Ebenezer. For instance, Ebenezer has no idea of knowing what happens in the UK in the Narendra Shah part of the story. I did toy with the idea of a first person narrative but the multiple stories necessitated a neutral narrator.

L: Right, I forgot about the multiple stories. Also, on a related note, I wanted to ask you about the functional style of the prose. In Chenthil's review of your book, he had mentioned that the author sounds like someone who thinks in Tamil and then translates it into English. When I read your book, I felt that you wanted the narrator of your story also to sound like someone from a Southern Tamilnadu background and that the sparse style and the Tamil-native-like English construction were deliberate. In a sense, Chenthil was right about the prose sounding like it were written by a Tamilian thinking in his mother tongue and translating it to English. However that Tamilian is supposed to be the narrator and not the author. Am I right?

V: Yes the sparse Tamil like prose style was consciously done. In Southern Tamilnadu, that is the way you would hear people speak. I wanted to give my readers a flavour of way people speak over there.

L: Your choice of places - Aaroor, Thenpatti - are they really around in Tamilnadu? They seem very familiar and authentic but I don't think I've heard of these names.

V: They are fictional. And yes, I wanted to make them as authentic as possible. Let us just say that Aaroor is a fictional place an hour or so away from Salem.

L: Why did you set the book in Tamilnadu?

V: Well, I grew up in a place called Virudhunagar - lived there till I was 18 - until a few years ago my parents used to live there (now they've retired and settled at our ancestral home in Kerala). So, I am very familiar with Southern Tamilnadu and could easily recreate the environment from memory.

L: You wrote this book when doing your Masters at the LSE isn't it? How long did it take you to write the book?

V: It took me around 8 months to write the first draft - of which I wrote full time for a month and around two or three hours a day otherwise. Then, after my LLM exams at the LSE got over, it took me 3 more months to find a job and start working. I used that time to revise what I had written. When I started my first job in the UK in January 2004, I had completed Hitchhiker.

L: I have read a lot of Indian writers mention that physical distance away from India provides them with the perspective to view and write about India in a way that they can never imagine doing had they lived in India. You wrote The Hitchhiker in London. Did your location matter to you, help you, in writing your novel? Or would home in India have made no difference to the perspective that you hold in the book?

V: In my case it didn't make a difference since I had just got to the UK. I guess, it would make a difference if one has lived away for many years.

L: Why the title The Hitchhiker? Is it just a straightforward use of the free rider kind of meaning or does the choice run deeper?

V: Ebenezer hitchhikes his way through life - first piggybacking on the GEC and later for a short while as a Hindu convert.

L: Are you working on a book now?

V: Yes. I am working on a collection of ten stories, set in Kerala.

L: How did you come across my blog?

V: I was searching for reviews of Robert Edric's Gathering the Water and came upon what you wrote. I was pleasantly surprised to find that people still read books like these.

L: You bet they do! Do you blog or have you ever considered blogging?

V: I don't blog but I have considered it. It is very addictive isn't it? And it requires a good investment of time and effort. I don't think I can manage that along with my work and the writing.
Related Links:
My thoughts on The Hitchhiker
The Hitchhiker at Books for Change
Other Reviews


Ubermensch said...

Regards to Vivek.
Havent read the blog yet, liek a true gentleman,lining in the queue first if any goodie copies are handed? good will n all

neha said...

Thanks L!

MSV Muthu said...

good intro on vinod joseph. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Virudhunagar is a city and a municipality in Virudhunagar district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Contents [hide]
1 Geography
2 Education
3 Culture
4 Demographics

[edit] Geography
It is about 43 Kilometers to the south of Temple City Madurai. Tirunelveli district lies to the southwest, Kerala state to the west, and Theni district to the northwest. It is the headquarters of Virudhunagar District and comprises eight taluks/zones: Aruppukkottai, Kariapatti, Rajapalayam, Sattur, Sivakasi, Srivilliputhur, Tiruchuli and Virudhunagar. Earlier name of Virudhunagar was "Virudhupatti". The Railway station code is still VPT. The PIN (Postal) code is 626001. STD (Long distance ) Code is 04562.

It is known for its merchants and called as "Business City"; the main businesses are Dry Chili Pepper, Oil, Dhal, Coriander, Cardamom, Clove. It is the birthplace of Kamarajar, who served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state[1954-63]. He is also called as "Karmaveerar Kamarajar" & "The King Maker".

Sivakasi, a town famous for fireworks and printing press, match boxes is about 27 kilometers from Virudhunagar.

The great saint Ramana Maharshi was born in Tiruchuli, a place near Virudhunagar.

Apart from business, Virudhunagar is famous for its hotels & food delicacy, especially "Parotta/Parota/Purota/Paratha" There are many Hotels which serve delicious food. "Burma Kadai" is one of the best hotels. Lunch and the evening Parotta are very famous in hotels of Virudhunagar. You must see the way how "Virudhunagar Parotta" is prepared. It is quite different and it tastes the best.

“Mariamman Kovil”, Veghilugandha amman kovil are famous temples in Virudhunagar.

Every year during the Tamil month of “Panguni”, the famous “Panguni Pongal” festival is celebrated in a special "annual Agni Thiruvizha" with several hundred thousands devotees taking up Fire Pot Procession as way of respect to Goddess Mariamman. Relatives and friends gather together during the processions for Water Deluge of Goddess Mariamman, Black and White dot smeared body adorned with neem leaves camaflouge dressing, Kairu Kutthu, Agni Chatti carrying by devotees plain palm and Temple Car (Theerottam) functions and they go around the town.

A big festival is organised for Veghilugandha amman during Tamil month Vaikasi.

“Virudhunagar Exhibition” conducted in the KVS School premises for the benifit of school fund during summer holidays attracts many people from the nearby towns and village. The exhibition also serves as a unique family convention centre for matrimonial match making arragnement facility for the aspiring grooms and brides.

During Dusserah celebration, a large procession with Tiger Dance and tamil Martial art fencing is organised by several locality groups of Virudhunagar town. To participate and witness in this festival, nearly one lakh people assemble in one evening.

The other unique tradition about Virudhunagar is that, for the marriage function, the grooms offer prizes (parisam) to bride as per tamil culture (saying no to varadhachanai), the bride and the groom will have a separate function/marriage hall, Which you can't see any where in Tamilnadu.

Virudhunagar has one "theppam" (artificial pond to replenish ground water) in the center of the town. Now facilities have been done to maintain water in "theppam" through out the year. Around the theppam lots of parota hotels available.

People here are sports loving. There are indoor stadiums for badminton, many basketball and tennis courts.Children here are very talented but participation in tournaments outside is still less.

There are many yoga ,music, art classes .people liked to swim in wells in summer before now swimming pools are the most preferred.

There is a beautiful park on the college road with beautiful illuminations at night. There are several garden temples for kaval deivangal (guardian angels) in Aruppukottai Road, Sattur Road, Madurai Road and in chinnamoopanpatti village on the northern suburb of Virudhunagar. Festivals are celebrated during January, February in these garden temples in grand manner.

One of the important educational establishments in virudhunagar is The Dhamu Memorial Matriculation School.Situated at Collectorate,it provides quality education to students in and around collectorate,police quarters,sevalpatti and meesalur and several other village students.The management tries its best to maintain its reputed status and the school now imparts education to 500 students. The school management at their best try to follow the ideals of the first correspondent Mr.T.Srinivasan who started the school a decade ago in memory of his son Dhamodharan who unfortunately passed away ,thus giving him an stimulus to start the school.

[edit] Education
VHNSN College
VVV College:
VSVN Polytechnic
Kamaraj College of Engineering and Technology:
Engineering Colleges in Virudhunagar district
Kamaraj College of Engineering and Technology:
MEPCO Schlenk Engineering College (MSEC):
Arulmigu Kalasalingam College of Engineering:
P.S.R Engineering College
Sethu Institute of Technology
Sree Sowdambika College of Engineering
V.P. Muthaiah Pillai Meenakshi Engineering College for Women
S.S. Subbiah Nadar Government Hr Sec School
R.C. HR. SEC. SCHOOL mail to
K. Kamaraj Vidhya Sala Middle School
KVS (Kshatriya Vidhya Salai) Hr Sec School - Madurai Road
KVS Mat Hr Sec School - Soolakarai(k.v.s):
P.S.Chidambara Nadar Senior English School (PSC):
Kshatriya Girls Hr Sec School
SDA Mat hr Sec School
Subiramaniya Vidhyasalai
Saraswathi Vidhyasalai
Thiruvalluvar Vidhyasalai
Dhamu Memorial Matriculation Secondary School
H.P.S.M. Hr. Sec. School
Sri Sowdambigai higher Sec School
Website of KVS Hr Sec School 1998 batch boys - by vivek
Government Website -
Website for Virudhunagar -
Website for Virudhunagar Hindu Nadar Devasthanam -
Website of VHNSN College -
Website of KVS Matriculation School -
Website of PSC School -

[edit] Culture
Unique `Mahamai' practice
The desire to progress and the unity of purpose in action without jealousy get best exemplified in the conduct of traders of Virudhunagar, the majority of whom belong to the Nadar community.

As traders during the British regime they felt the need to learn English for their business purpose and started a primary school in the town in 1889 and the expenditure was met through the collection of a handful of rice from every house.

The growth of the school and the increased expenditure were met through the financial contributions from the community. This gave rise to the evolution of a practice called `Mahamai' since 1900, by which, the community traders were required to set apart daily a stipulated amount as per the trade practised. This was collected daily and utilized for the public good of the community. The practice is still in vogue effectively and successfully.

The traders take pride in informing that most of the schools, temples, marriage halls etc. built in the town belong to the community as a whole and to no single individual. They claim that trade and mahamai are the two eyes of Virudhunagar.

There is an anecdote: When C.Rajagopalachari, as Chief Minister visited the town during the British regime to inaugurate the municipality's water supply scheme, he learnt about the `scheme of handful rice for public cause' giving an impetus to education in the town. He is said to have wondered as to how good it would be for all the traders in the state to contribute for the public good.

This resulted in the introduction of `sales tax' in 1937 to make good the revenue loss in lieu of the introduction of prohibition in the state then, the traders say.

Virudhunagar has been exemplary in community self-help, in that, it paved the way for rainwater harvesting long before, it is claimed.

The tank in the town has been so modelled to collect the rainwater during the season and it has never dried up over the years, they point out.

Sri Siva Temple
Sri AdiParasakthi Maariyamam Temple
Sri Veiluganda Amman Temple
Valasubramaniya Murugan Temple
Sri Renganathar Temple
Sri Rama Temple

domer said...

virudhungar very simple city in india
very hard word person in there city

baingain said...

we shoul love my neative place my grandfather will buisness man in virudhunagar vairam bakkery
very famous in 1990to1998
thery my place very wonderfull all days we should miss it many along time so nice to see

vinesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vinesh said...

Thanks for u r information

Madurai Hotels

etown said...

great blog.v.i.p group india is one of the Construction companies in Virudhunagar.Its a rising name of commendable repute in construction services across the southern parts of India, our specialty lies in delivering topdraw solutions to all the aspects pertaining to undertaking of construction projects of any shape, size or difficulty. The company prides in delivering an umbrella range of services pertaining to virtually all aspects of Construction Management.