Of all the structures of life that go towards making us unfree, none is more heartbreaking than that of caste, which did and still does reduce one human being to a nullity in the eyes of another merely because of the accident of his or her birth.
Caste issues in the realm of human action rarely figure as prominently in the Indian novel in English as they do in Vinod George Joseph's debut novel Hitchhiker, a thoroughgoing exploration of the way of life of what the French sociologist Louis Dumont called homo hierarchus. An old-fashioned realist novel conceived on a grand scale - there are more than thirty characters in it with significant roles - it provides, through the splendid portrait of its protagonist, Ebenezer, and his milieu, a panoramic and throughly engrossing depiction of a semi-urbanized world where caste hierarchies, religious conversion, and affirmative action bring both hope and havoc into the lives of people.
Ebenezer is the teenaged son of Peterraj, the watchman of the Global Evangelical School in the small town of Aaroor in south India. Ebenezer has a complex, fractured identity. His father, a low-caste labourer, came into contact with missionaries and was persuaded to convert to Christianity in return for a secure livelihood. So Ebenezer is putatively a Christian: in the novel's opening chapter we see him attending Sunday Mass at the school, and singing the song "Walking With Jesus".
Yet he has not really left his low-caste status behind: in his native village the high-caste Edayars treat him and his family as the low-caste Verumars of old. Ebenezer himself is not too comfortable being a Christian, yet he receives funding for his education from a donor overseas because he is one, and cannot afford to reject the consequences of his father's decision. His dream though is to become an engineer, get a good job, and escape the tangled web of religious and caste allegiances altogether by moving to a big city.
Joseph's standout achievement in Hitchhiker is his depiction of the relationship between Ebenezer's material reality and his interior life. Ebenezer feels his family's privation keenly: what others take for granted are for him luxuries. In one of the novel's best scenes, he visits his grandparents and cousins in his village, and a chicken is specially prepared in honour of the family gathering. The chicken is so precious, and there is so little of it to go around, that "it was understood that there would be no second helpings, though everyone could have an unlimited amount of rice and maybe a couple of spoons of gravy".
The meal, we are told, "got over very soon" - not because it is any shorter in real terms than other meals, we realise, but because the people are eating unusually well. Ebenezer and his father share one pair of shoes between them; Ebenezer is waiting for the day "when someone would gift them another pair of shoes so that both he and his father could wear shoes to Church". In Joseph's reading, there is nothing particularly virtuous or noble about poverty. Rather, man is humanised by the fulfilment of his basic material needs. When Ebenezer dreams of being so successful that his children "will have their own TV sets in their rooms", we know exactly where he is coming from.
Even what little material security Ebenezer's family has is as a result of Peterraj's conversion to Christianity; were Peterraj still a labourer in the fields, reflects Ebenezer, he himself might today "be toiling away at a construction site or at a tannery" instead of being at school and nurturing dreams of a better future. Indeed, the thought that "the world was going to be a better place" is a kind of motif in the novel; it is the sentiment that unites the disparate wants of the many characters amongst whose thoughts Joseph roves.
But even Peterraj's conversion cannot insulate his family from the workings of the old caste order. While in his native village, Ebenezer and his family are caught up in a violent clash between the Edayars and the Verumars; Ebenezer's mother and sister lose their lives. Recovering in hospital, Ebenezer is consumed with loathing for the world and for himself. "He hated everyone. He hated the Edayars. He hated himself for being a Verumar and an untouchable. He hated the GE Church for not being able to take away his untouchable status."
Hitchhiker is also unusual in being keenly interested in the realities of the Indian educational system, of which it provides a critique by nothing more than reporting accurately its facts. Indian readers will find that it refreshes their memory of what it is like to go to school and college in India, and the kind of peculiar tensions and calculations involved.
Joseph notes, on the one hand, the almost obsessive competitiveness of school students. Of the two best students in Ebenezer's class he writes, "The competition between Chithra and Aravind was legendary" - an exaggeration which nevertheless expresses the truth of Indian school wars. Ebenezer is in his all-important schooleaving year, and everyone in his class goes to private tuitions not just for the school exams but also the entrance exams to various institutes.
So on the one hand there is the sense of a stampede towards a prized goal, but on the other hand we see unmistakably the shallowness and the sterility of what is taught and how it is absorbed. Knowledge is understood only as memorising and problem-solving, and there is only one method of studying. "Like all his classmates," we are told, "Ebenezer never studied from his textbooks, but depended solely on guidebooks, which covered the syllabus in an exam-friendly way".
Government schools are in a wretched condition and rife with corruption; private educational institutions often demand huge donations from both prospective students and teachers. Students are shown assessing each other's chances of success not just in terms of their capabilities, but also by considering whether they are from the general category, backward castes, or scheduled castes.
In one revelatory piece of dialogue Ebenezer, who has given up his Scheduled Caste status because he is a Christian, says bitterly of a friend eligible for a reserved quota seat: "He is a Verumar just like me. But he is an SC and I am not." In another instance Satish, the son of a district collector who is an SC, is shown feeling guilty because he is not a part of the creamy layer "preventing the really needy SCs from benefiting from reservations"; he fears also that all through his life "he would be accused of having achieved success of account of being an SC". In this way Joseph conveys a sense of the very real doubts, fears and resentments attached to reservations - his book is as good an intervention on our current debate on reservations in education as any.
Small-town and rural Indian life as portrayed in Hitchhiker appears teeming with sects and schisms, with little or no dialogue or exchange. People always have a group identity which, though it sometimes provides them with strength, often limits their free expression as individuals. To survive in this world a number of characters are seen compromising their allegiances for the sake of relationships or material advancement - they are, in the author's potent though not necessarily pejorative metaphor, hitchhikers, and the protagonist is one such person.
Working for a dotcom company in Bombay, Ebenezer falls in love with a high-caste girl he knew from Aaroor. In Aaroor there would be a scandal if they were seen together, but in the city nobody cares - it is possible for them to dream of a future together in Bombay. Yet her family will not allow her to marry someone who is not only low-caste but, even worse, a Christian, and they persuade her to return to Aaroor and reconsider her decision. Afraid that he will lose the person he loves because of his faith, Ebenezer decides to participate in a reconversion ceremony and become a Hindu again. But his efforts are in vain. Finally he is trumped by the very world he wished always to escape.
Although narrated in unadorned, functional prose that can sometimes seem clumsy and artless, Hitchhiker portrays convincingly the life situations and dilemmas of men and women, high-castes and low-castes, city and village dwellers. Whatever Joseph's deficiencies as a writer, his novelistic instincts are very good. Immensely creditworthy are the care with which he has presented the points of view proper to different characters with minimal narratorial intervention, and the skill with which he has controlled a very complex plotline shifting from place to place and character to character. This absorbing story of a man's struggle to make his way up in and break free of a world of caste prejudice deserves the widest possible readership.
And some links to further reading on the issue of reservations in higher education in India: "Classy cast of mind" by Ramachandra Guha, "The A to Z of OBC" by Yogendra Yadav, "Re-caste the problem", an Indian Express editorial on the subject (the tendency of Indian newspapers to always find some kind of bad pun for the titles of the pieces they publish is evident even from this small sample size), "Indian Reservations" by Atanu Dey, and, more generally, "Merit and Justice" by Amartya Sen. And on a similar problem of unequal access to higher education in America, Andrew Delbanco's "Scandals of Higher Education" in the latest New York Review of Books.
And on the state of Indian education and Indian schools: "The Unknown Education Revolution in India" by Naveen Mandava, "A tale of two numbers", a recent piece by Gurcharan Das on the government's provisions for education in the 2007 budget, and "A Class Apart" by Ramachandra Guha ("That education in India is in such a shocking state is made more depressing by the fact that among this country’s founders were Gandhi and Tagore, both of whom thought deeply of how to make learning meaningful as well as enjoyable"). And on a slightly different tack, "What Is Liberal Education?", the text of a lecture given in 1959 by Leo Strauss.