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Book Review: Hitchhiker Vinod George Joseph

Affirmative action programs seem to be surrounded by controversy the world over. In North America African Americans and women have been the major recipients of these programs in an attempt to redress discrepancies in education, financial, and employment opportunities that continue to this day. Of course the backlash from the majority white Anglo-Saxon male population ebbs and flows depending on how threatened people are feeling.

In times of economic threat the majority circles the wagons against those they see as stealing their livelihood, their rightful place in society as the ones who get everything given to them at the expense of others. But in North America we only have to correct a few hundred year of injustice and the majority do see the point in it.

The change to full equality has an inevitability about it that can't be forestalled in North American society in spite of what a minority power base tries to prevent. The idea that black and white people need to be forcefully segregated seems ridiculous to us now, but only forty-five years ago they could not share lunch counter facilities or sit together on a bus.

Twenty years ago nobody would have believed that a black person would be the president of the Republic of South Africa. Yet today they now have majority black rule after years of near slavery and segregation. There is tangible proof that change can occur and that no ones place in society is fixed in position by their colour or the strata of society they are born in.

But at the same time another reality exists beyond the ken of understanding to North American minds. The caste system in India has existed for over two thousand years and has successfully segregated elements of society according to status and birth for longer then our culture has even existed.
In his new book Hitchhiker Vinod George Joseph has written about the caste system by following the lives of young people from a variety of backgrounds as they try to navigate their way through today's India. To someone like myself raised on the notion that all people are equal and deserve an equal opportunity to prove themselves, it was hard to believe that this book was set in contemporary times.

Occasional references to names (Microsoft) and events (the bombing of the World Trade Centre) seem like they are from another planet when read in relation to the description of a mother and daughter being killed because of their caste. Instead of grade point averages students talk about what kind of reservations each school and each program have.

For those like me who had no idea what that word meant in the context of schooling Mr. Joseph lets it come out in the story line without having to lecture or teach a class. The conversation between students of different faiths and castes as they discuss their chances of admission to what they think are their best options for careers and what will be required of them to achieve their goals, brings it all out naturally.

Most of the time we see the world through the eyes of his protagonist, Ebenezer. As an untouchable he should have all the advantages of the affirmative action offered by the reservation system, but he is a Christian and that mean he is no longer part of the caste system so is not entitled to those benefits except to a reduced degree.

Supposedly because his family are no longer Hindu they are no longer subject to the same sort of prejudices that affect others. That's fine in theory but in practice of course they are still untouchables who nobody would want have their son or daughter marry, or will give a job to, or let study (or even teach) at a school they run unless they are made to.

Ebenezer tries his best but at every turn another barrier is raised against him. Sure the companies have to keep so many spots open as reservations, but if you can't find a "qualified" person for them you can't fill those spots and they just stand empty. Or if a certain amount of money can be made to exchange hands then rules can be changed and reservation spots can vanish.

No matter how many affirmative action programs are implemented, no matter how much the government says they are working to change the system and make life better for the former lower casts, nothing really has changed in the way people see each other. Well-educated Ebenezer still has to tug at his forelock to an illiterate farmer who acts as if Ebenezer needs his dispensation to do anything because he is one caste level up.

After the riot that kills Ebenezer's mother and daughter the men who did the killing and started the brawl (and who raped his aunt when she was a teenager) are not sentenced or even charged. Do you think it makes a difference that the police jobs are all held by a caste superior to Ebenezer's and is the same as those doing the killing?

I don't want to give the wrong impression about the Hitchhiker, that its one long tirade against an unjust system, because although that is a part of the story, its also the story of people and their experiences on all sidesof the system. There are the young men who want desperately to succeed on merit alone and not be thought of as tokens; the young women who want to be more than chattel and judged by how much of a dowry they will bring to a prospective marriage; and those who get caught in the sectarian violence between Muslim and Hindu.

All the characters in the story are entirely believable in the way they act and behave considering who they are and their circumstances. The author never makes the mistake of climbing on any particular soapbox; he is simply reporting the facts as they are.

Vinod George Joseph has written a work of fiction and has even changed the names of castes. In his forward he says that he has done his utmost to paint as fair a picture of the circumstances in his country as possible. Judging by the way in which he lets the story almost tell itself and never presents a judgement on his characters, simply letting their actions speak for them, I'd have to say he has succeeded.

Hitchhiker is a difficult book to read in its blunt honesty and it's unwillingness to compromise anything in its attempts to depict the truth of the circumstances in his country. I don't know if everybody who reads this book from India will agree with what is said in it, from either side of the argument, but what I do know to my ears it has the ring of complete authenticity.

For anyone who believes in the economic miracle of India, and how bright a future it has, reading this book will make you re-evaluate a lot of what you read in the newspapers about that. It seems like the shiny bright picture being painted is hiding some of the old unpleasant truths India might not what the rest of the world to know about.

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