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.