January 15, 2007

A touching tale of an untouchable

Vinod George Joseph’s Hitchhiker is no ordinary Joe’s story. It’s an untouchablity tale told, touchingly, by a lawyer with literary aspirations. As a debut book Hitchhiker has been much reviewed; and foreword-ed by Anita Pratap (remember seeing her on CNN?). A word about her foreword. In her incarnation as book publisher Ms Pratap takes a swipe at her own (media) tribe. She says that among the many manuscripts she gets are some from outstanding journalists who can’t write.

Their offerings are ‘muddled and fuddled, showing neither talent nor promise’. Hitchhiker is not by a journalist. And Ms Pratap found it unputdownable – ‘grips you with its effortless prose; a language that is simple, sparing and unpretentious – almost Hemingway-like in its leanness’ (Ms Pratap lost me there). Such hype pre-sets reader expectations. Mr Joseph is however modest in his expectations from readers. As Hitchhiker author put it in his preface, “my only request to readers is that they keep an open mind until the end of the novel; and, hopefully, even after that”.

A message the author seeks to convey is that untouchability is an issue that we can’t wish away. It is like a jelly. You try to curb or crush it through law, it swells up in a non-cognizable form. Untouchablity is about social attitude; about our mentality. And you can’t legislate against a mentality. The mentality , of not just the perpetrators, but of many victims of untouchability as well. Their plight is brought out in touching details by the author in his account of a rape scene (Page 72). A woman, condemned to witness her daughter being gang-raped, doesn’t complain. She merely stands there, weeping.

Finally, she fell to her feet and started tugging at the legs of the men who were holding and raping her daughter. She didn’t scream; didn’t try to pick up a stone and hit the men on their heads. Just crying and begging softly so that no one else would hear of her daughter’s disgrace…… When Karuppamma’s father arrived, it was all over. He took in the scene and realized what must have happened….As he stood there in shock Solaimani (employer of the victim family) gave the man his wages, added another ten rupees, and told him, ‘the extra ten is for your daughter; take good care of her; we’ll need her again’.

The last ten words represent the last word on sheer temerity, no matter what the statute book might say on untouchablity. Speaking of words, I could not help notice that the forgoing paragraph could have done with some editing. The paragraph of 100 odd words has 15 too many. Having been a newspaper sub-editor I tend to view everything I read with an editorial mind.

The author, with help from the publisher’s editor, could have tightened the text, reduced it by 50 odd pages, without sacrficing style, sense, or substance. As it is, I find the book bulky and oversized. It hasn’t been designed for bedside reading. And I have this bad habit of doing most reading in bed.

Hitchhiker, Vinod George Joseph, 385 pages; Rs.350. Published by Books for Change, Bangalore. E-mail – bfc@actionaidindia.org.in ; shoba.ram@actionaid.org .
Reviews: Titles – Books for Change
Vatsanin Kirukkals
Hindustan Times

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