Most people cherish three things in their lives – family, friends, and career. Ebenezer, the protagonist in Vinod George Joseph's debut novel, Hitchhiker, is no different. He loves his family the way most of us do – he grumbles at them, he complains about them, but he wouldn't know what to do without them. He prepares himself meticulously for a career in engineering, doing all the things one must do in India to get into a good college, and looks forward to the day he can become and engineer and lift his parents and sister out of the financial dire straits they are in. He falls in love with a smart, educated, independent young woman, the kind he had always dreamed of marrying. He and his friends plot and plan their way through high school, teasing each other about their dreams for their future lives, wives, and careers.
In other words, Ebenezer is a normal kid with normal dreams.
There is also a crucial fact, however, that rules over Ebenezer's fate with a ruthless hand – he is born a Verumar, an untouchable. There is nothing he or his family can do to escape this unfortunate happenstance. Moving away from their ancestral village does no good because the necessary visits back to the village bring home to Ebenezer exactly who he is and what his place is in society; converting to Christianity proves to be a double-edged sword — on the one hand there is the suspicious eye with which society looks upon them (did they convert for money?), and on the other hand, Ebenezer loses the advantage of the quotas for scheduled castes in colleges because he is now a Christian and therefore no longer eligible for reservations.
This one fact, the fact that he was born the son of scheduled caste parents, lifts Ebenezer out of the world he is so desperately trying to create for himself, spins him around and hurls him back to the ground, shattering in the process every single dream he has for himself and his family.
Ebenezer's mother and sister are hacked to death by the "higher" caste Edayars on a visit to his village; his family finds out that his aunt had been raped when she was a young girl by the son of her Edayar landlord, and subsequently driven to commit suicide; his father loses his job because he joins a union demanding reservations for backward classes in the Christian institution run by his employer; his girlfriend's parents refuse to accept him because he's a Verumar, although he converted to Christianity; a chain of events starting with the murders of his mother and sister ensures that he fails in the crucial exams leading up to admissions into engineering college, and culminates in Ebenezer never finding the engineering career he dreamt of.
Hitchhiker is a gut-wrenching story. As you read about young Ebenezer, you are hopeful for him and his sister Gwendolyn, two smart kids who seem to have spurned all that their history holds for them; two kids successful in their school, hardworking, extremely capable of achieving their dreams. You feel affection for Esther and Peterraj, Ebenezer's parents, who did what they thought they had to do to give their children the best possible start in life – they converted to Christianity, sought jobs and financial help from their church, obtained education for their children in the church's school, and lived life quietly in their corner of the school compound. You secretly applaud when Ebenezer and Gayathri, his girlfriend, decide to marry.
It is almost too much to bear when the threads of Ebenezer's life start unraveling in such rapid succession as to leave you breathless.
Hitchhiker has all the ingredients that make for a great read. The plot is very well thought-out, researched, and executed. The events leading up to Ebenezer's aunt Karuppamma's suicide are set up brilliantly and the section ends chillingly:
Bhadrakaali [Ebenezer's grandmother, Karupamma's mother-in-law, who goads Karupamma into committing suicide] hugged Karuppamma by her feet and burst into loud sobbing. The tears were for real. Bhadrakaali had really liked Karuppamma. She knew that if she were in Karuppamma's position she would have acted exactly as Karuppamma had done. But, she had no choice. Her duty to Alagiri [her son and Karuppamma's husband] and his children came first. Matters had taken the only course they could and the world was now a better place.
Each character (and there are many, many, characters) is fleshed out and the attention to detail is welcome and refreshing in many places. In this passage, for instance, the author takes the time to paint a picture of Esther's workplace, the nursery section in the school run by her church:
There were three-year-olds all around her and most of them were crying out aloud. Deserted by their parents, they were making their fear and anger known in the only way they could. Many of the parents liked to hang out in the school after leaving their children in the nursery. But, Victoria Miss who had been handling the LKG class for the last twenty-five years, insisted that all parents clear off after depositing their children. A few parents, however, could just not be chased away.
The language is simple, and there is ample background information to round out the situations and events in the book. The life of each character is examined under the microscope of religion and its various aspects such as caste, conversion, reconversion, the politics behind reservations for scheduled castes in educational and governmental institutions and untouchability.
And therein lies one of a couple of minor drawbacks. Every character in the book is somehow affected by some issue related to religion to the point where the reader feels the message is being pounded home relentlessly. The other is the sheer number of characters which the author spends considerable space fleshing out in such detail that the reader is left wondering where the story is going.
These drawbacks, however, are mitigated to a large extent by the author's simple and evocative writing style and the plot's ability to draw the reader into the lives of the characters. At the bottom of it all, Hitchhiker is a simple story of unrequited love, of carefully laid plans going haywire, of circumstances beyond your control taking over your life, and it is well told. Reason enough to want to read the book.