Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hitchhiker - Vinod George Joseph

Hitchhiker is the first novel of Vinod George Joseph, a lawyer by profession. The novel is built around Ebenezer, a second generation Christian in rural Tamilnadu. His father, a Scheduled Caste, had converted to Christianity to get a job as a watchman in an Evangelical Church School. The novel starts off when Ebenezer is in his twelfth standard and preparing for his Board exams and covers the next few years in his life as he is buffetted by strong winds that are beyond his control.

The oppression of SCs in rural Tamil Nadu is brought out clearly without resorting to hyperbole or melodrama. The author uses realistic situations to bring out the harsh realities of life. Having been in those small towns, with rigid caste hierarchies hiding behind the veneer of modernity, I was able to relate to a lot of situations. The novel takes you through the frenzied preparation for the board exams, oppression of Dalit women, caste riots that battered southern Tamilnadu in the 1990s, reservation issues, the politics of proselytization and conversion, dot com boom and bust, jilted romance and more. But all this is dealt within the structure of the novel, without any pontification by the author. Honestly it is a truly veritable social document of rural Tamilnadu in 1990s. It is a story that has not been told (atleast in English) about the social changes wrought in rural Tamilnadu due to the empowerment of SCs and globalisation.

But there is a difference between a novel and a social document. Vinod has a great story to tell, but his language lets him down. It is lean and sparse, not in a pretty way. It is symptomatic of some one who thinks in Tamil and writes in English, you can almost see the literal translation of Tamil sentences into English. To be frank, the language is stilted, like most of my posts are. There are well written passages, for example the Mother in law orchestrating the suicide of the stained (raped) daughter in law. But the impact of these passages are diluted when he starts detailing too much, especially explaining about email folders and stuff.

Since this is a work of fiction, he has changed the name of castes and caste leaders to similar sounding words. So you have Dasars, Edayars, Sallars, Verumars, Srinivasan Dasar, Parthiban Edayar for the actual Nadars, Thevars, Pallars, Parayars (?), Kamaraj Nadar, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar respectively. But when he carries this too far and uses names such as SVIIT, BDFC Bank J&N for NIIT, HDFC Bank and L &T it becomes tiring.

I had to force my self to read the first few chapters, I kept putting it off again and again. Finally I adjusted to the tempo of the novel and finished it in one sitting. It takes a great effort to read it, but it is worth it in the end. A tighter editing and excising of unrelated incidents, like the Godhra Carnage, would have made this a powerful social novel like Grapes of Wrath, the story is really that good.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

RKN also has that stilted "sounds like Tamil" quality but his prose still reads well in English.

(I actually would like to ask again the question you didn't reply to metblog, i.e. why your Tamil posts are in transliterated speech rather than than standard written Tamil, I'm curious.)

Nastikan

Chenthil said...

Nastikan, this story is not like gentle flow of RKN novels. This is stark reality staring in your face kind of novel.

Why do I write in colloquial Tamil? I feel that I am able to connect to the reader easily that way. As it is I think my English is too stuffy, I don't want my Tamil also to read like that :-)

ttm said...

The author name sounds like mallu...or is he a mallu domiciled in TN? Just wondering how he got the pulse of inner TN.

Chenthil said...

TTM, probably he is from South Tamilnadu. Such names are common in the districts of Tuticorin, Ramanadhapuram, Nagercoil.

Anonymous said...

This sounds interesting. Can you give one or two examples of prose from Hitchiker which sound like Tamil?

And which is the best online store to purchae this novel?

Manikantan
London

Anonymous said...

I found a few other reviews for this novel. They have taken a more positive note. Aana, avanka yaarum thamizhaka illa. So, maybe you are in a better position to judge. One review says the author is a London-based.

http://desicritics.org/2006/08/22/101351.php

http://www.desijournal.com/book.asp?articleId=144

http://desicritics.org/2006/06/25/102526.php

http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_1781635,001100040011.htm

Manikantan
London

Chenthil said...

Manikantan, Vinod does live in London. This was my first "commissioned" review in that he had his publisher send me the book for reviewing.

The publishers are here. I am not aware of any online seller selling this book.

Anonymous said...

I managed to plac an order thru oxford book store

http://www.oxfordbookstore.com/oxfordonline/asppages/item_final.asp?strSKU=BD83325&strSKUSrl=1&sid=EJ2HMVDVTPN98MKLH1EHVA3W0JSC5MNE

Please do post one or two samples that sound like Tamil

Manikantan
London

Anonymous said...

I finally managed to read Hitchiker. It is a good bok, but I agree with you that it seems to be a historic document disguised as fiction. But I actually liked to see the author get to the point without beating around the bush with too much prose. It is stark reality inded.

Regarding literal translation from Tamil, you are right to a certain extent. But then, when a character is a Tamil character, what is the harm? For example, Chithra's mother in the second chapter says "Your Annan is a boy. He is diffrent. When I was young, girls were expected to learn to run the household. They learnt good things lik music, dance, cooking etc. It is allright to want to become doctors and engineers. But when it is time to marry you off, they wil not see how many marks you got in your exams. What will count is how well you can cook. And you have no idea what goes on in the kitchen."

This is Tamil in English form, but in that context it is a good thing. If that lady spoke in Oxbridge English, it would have been out of context. I do not know if this is intentional or if this is Vinod's language.

In another instance, the author describes an anglo-India lady as follows:

"He thought that Betty DeSilva, who sat across the table, with her short cropped hair, knee-length skirt which showed off her plumb legs and matronly figure, resembled a character straight out of an English novel. She talked to him as if he were a schoolboy on his first day at a boarding school."

This cannot be called Tamil in the form of English.

And so I didn't have a problem with Vinod's language which the foreword writer, Anita Pratap describes as "simple, sparing and unpretentious – almost Hemingway like in its leanness." I think she is right.

Again, in many cases, the real names are used. Iyer and Iyengar are not disguised.

What I did not like is that, after you finish reading the book, I felt that the writer was too critical of everything. It is important to tell the truth, but I thought Vinod could have explored the bright side of things as well.

Manikantan