Hitchhiker by Vinod George Joseph
This book has been reviewed several times already on the blogosphere, but here is another review. The author was kind enough to send me a copy. I owe him an apology for taking so long to getting down to actually writing something about the book. I read the book twice, once when it was first sent to me, and then again, before writing this.
The book is written in Indian English, but in an un-contrived Indian English, which is at once amusing, familiar and comforting. Hitchhiker is the story of Ebenezer, the son of Peterraj and Esther, who are Verumars and convert to Christianity in order to escape the oppression of the caste system and build a better life for their family. They are part of the Global Evangelical Church, and it is in a GE school where both Peterraj and Esther work and Ebenezer and his sister study. Ebenezer is not really religious, and the GE Church’s teachings bore him. He doesn’t like the fact that members of the GE Church are not allowed to wear jewellery or watch films and fantasises about a day when his mother and sister can wear earrings and he can go to the cinema. He dreams of becoming an engineer and supporting his family and studies hard to achieve his dream but life doesn’t go according to plan. Almost from the beginning, I was rooting for Ebenezer to realise his aspirations, he is the kind of character that attracts an immediate sympathy and affection.
Conversion does not offer an easy way out of the caste system, and Peterraj’s family continue to be seen as Verumars, particularly when they return to their native village. It is caste again which leads to the death of Ebenezer’s mother Esther and his sister Gwendolen, before his exams. I wept when I reached this part of the book, though I knew it was going to happen (since this event is announced on the synopsis at the back of the book-which it shouldn’t have been). Their deaths leave a gaping hole in Peterraj’s and Ebenezer’s lives, and Ebenezer must somehow pick up the pieces and try and do well. Ebenezer is unable to take advantage of caste-based reservation because it is not open to Christians-at a time when he deserves it and needs it.
Joseph sketches the female characters of Ebenezer’s family particularly well, there are Esther and Gwendolen, for whom the reader feels a great affection, as well as Bhadrakaali and Karuppamma, Ebenezer’s grandmother and aunt who also stand out. These women bear the triple burden of caste, poverty and being female, and without explicitly spelling this out, Joseph shows how they are, in some ways, in the worst position of all. Karuppamma’s story and the way she confronts life with a quiet stoicism is bound to make a reader’s heart ache.
Aside from the characters mentioned above, there are several others, necessitating an index of characters at the back of the book. Each one of these is interesting on their own and each one is fleshed out in delightful detail. Joseph has a beady and mischievous eye. The only problem is, these characters serve as a distraction to the main story and deserve books to themselves. One finds oneself wondering what happened to all those unfinished narratives. There are many small novels in this book and Joseph could think about finding some sort of resolution to the stories of some of the people here such as Narendrabhai and his children-perhaps in future book(s).
Ebenezer himself finds a job, not his dream job, but a job nonetheless, falls in love with a Hindu girl and “reconverts” to Hinduism to win her parents’ approval though he has almost made up his mind that religion, whether Christian or Hindu, holds no attraction for him. Ebenezer does not win his girl, who uses him more to stage a rebellion against her family than anything else. The GE Church wants Ebenezer back, but does he go back? Read the book to find out. It is eminently readable, poignant and funny.