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Interview: Vinod George Joseph, Author of Hitchhiker

In North America we tend to preserve outdated and romantic ideas about countries that have no bearing on reality. Whether it's believing that Arabs still live in tents and keep numerous voluptuous wives that are hidden behind closed doors (the fact that tents and doors don't really mix never seems to bother anyone) or that Indian Princes ride on the backs of Elephants hunting tigers in the jungles surrounding Mumbai our views of the world are still overly effected by Saturday afternoon matinees at the Bijou.

Although we have managed to bring ourselves beyond the Rudolph Valentino and Sabu the Elephant boy state we still haven't bothered to learn much about the realities of life in most countries beyond our own borders let alone across the sea. Fortunately the resources to educate ourselves are becoming more and more plentiful.

I don't mean from any removed sources like histories written by anyone with a line to toe, but by fiction writers who don't hesitate to speak truths that far too many everywhere would prefer remain unspoken. It's been my fortune to read a great many of these books including Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker. (Reviewed at Desicritics among other places)
Somehow Mr. Joseph was able to use the novel form to shed light onto one of the mysteries of Indian society that we in the West have little or any real understanding of; the caste system. Without being shrill, or preachy; just letting the facts and circumstances surrounding his main character Ebenezer a reader was given far too clear a picture of just how horrible it is to be from a lower caste.

Mr Joseph very kindly agreed to answer a series of questions I had about the book, himself, and the caste system. Intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate answers to an emotionally charged question can be hard to come by sometimes, so his replies to my queries were a refreshing change.

I'd like to thank Vinod George Joseph for his answers and hope you find them as intriguing as I did.

1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – where you were born, brothers and sisters etc.?

I was in born at a place called Kollam in Kerala. That’s in southwest India. My dad worked as a lecturer in a polytechnic in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. My mother was a schoolteacher. She taught mathematics. So I spent my entire childhood in Tamil Nadu where Hitchhiker is set. I have a younger brother who is now (like many Indians of our generation) a software engineer.

2) You're a barrister, or is it solicitor, I've never understood the difference to be honest, but all of a sudden you've written a book. Was it so all of a sudden or has this been something you've thought about for a while?

I am a solicitor. To explain the difference between barristers and solicitors in a simplistic way, barristers appear in court on behalf of clients; while solicitors negotiate on behalf of clients, draft agreements etc. I specialise in corporate law and advice on mergers and acquisitions, bond issues, stock exchange listings etc.

I wanted to write a novel for a long time, ever since I read my first novel (R. K Narayan’s Swami & Friends) when I was ten. Hitchhiker was in the planning stage for four or five years before I actually sat in front of my laptop and started typing. I had just come to the UK to do my masters in Law, an LLM, after having worked as a corporate lawyer for 4 years in Mumbai. It took me a year to finish it. I wrote for an hour or so every day till my LLM exams got over. After that I wrote full time – ten or twelve hours a day - for three months before I started working as a solicitor.

3) Where did the idea for Ebenezer (the main character in Hitchhiker) and his life come from? Is there any autobiography involved?

There is no autobiography involved. The idea for Ebenezer came from what I saw and not what I experienced. As I just mentioned, I’ve always wanted to write a novel ever since I was very young. So, when I finally started writing, rather than write a war novel or a detective thriller as I would have liked, I ended up writing about things I know and have seen.

4) Aside from the whole caste system and reservations, you also look at the I. T. industry in India and don't see it as the same economic miracle as it's being portrayed. What is the reality today – Are companies like the one Ebenezer worked for that only provided content and such still around – or has it all become call centre and hardware.

The IT Industry in India has evolved over a period of time. Leading Indian companies are really world class, but of course there are companies at the lower end of the spectrum as well. So, you have companies that do cutting edge work and also companies doing boring, tedious low-end work outsourced to them by others. Some companies do both. Indian IT engineers are among the highest paid professionals in India. To succeed in the modern day service oriented world of business and technology, soft skills are as important as hard skills. And it is very unlikely that a person with Ebenezer’s background will have the sort of soft skills that a person from a more privileged background will have. It is not a question of intelligence or hard work, but all about the environment one grows up in.

5) How much of an economic miracle is it really anyway. Judging by your book the majority of the country is still not experiencing the miracle and child labour is still the norm not the exception?

It is an economic miracle. No one can deny it. But only a small fraction of India has benefited from it. India has always been a land of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. And it continues to be so. If you want to talk numbers, in a land of a billion people, maybe ten percent has benefited from this boom in some form or the other. That’s over a hundred million people who have gained something from this economic miracle. That still leaves nine hundred million unhappy Indians.

Child labour is still very much prevalent among India’s poor. But children who belong to the upper strata of Indian society have a privileged up bringing.

6) For people who may not understand what it is can you explain what the caste system is now and how it has been corrupted if it has? (My understanding was that it just used to be title given to people according to their jobs, not designations of their stature in society and that is a relatively recent invention)

The caste system prevalent in India is a system of beliefs, customs and traditions that horizontally stratify Indian society. Though it can be said to be tied to Hinduism, it is followed by almost all communities in India, including Christians, Sikhs and Muslims.

According to this system, society is divided into five major classes or castes. They are the Brahmins (priestly class), the Kshtriyas (the warrior class), the Vaishyas (the merchants), the Shudras (labourers) and the untouchables. One is born into a caste and there is practically no mobility within this structure.

There are various theories regarding the caste system in India and how it came into being. And before I say any further, I should confess that I am no expert. I know as much about the various theories as any layperson that is interested in knowing about these things.

The main theory, which is endorsed by a majority of scholars and historians, is that India had waves of immigrants from central Asian steppes since 1500 BC. They were fair in colour - as opposed to the earlier inhabitants (Dravidian and Austric races) - and the caste system was born. Varna or caste literally means colour in Sanskrit and Hindi. The new immigrants were naturally on top of the caste pyramid. And they brought in religion to justify caste. Even if one belongs to a low caste, one ought to stick to it so that he is reborn into a higher caste in his next birth.

The theory I have described above has a sub-theory that even before the immigrants from central Asia arrived, India had caste. The Dravidians, who were also possibly migrants to India, had pushed the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent down the social ladder. And they were in turn labelled ‘shudras’ by the fair skinned later arrivals. The original inhabitants became untouchables.

So, according to these theories, caste is not something recent. Some social activists even equate casteism with racism since the origins of caste are rooted in race.

But there are people who hold the view that till the arrival of Islamic invaders, a person’s profession was his/her caste. There was social mobility. But after the Arabs, Afghans and Turks started ruling chunks of India from the tenth century AD onward, social mobility was lost. Caste became a rigid structure, especially after the arrival of the Europeans. According to this theory, the caste system as it exists today is a recent phenomenon.

7) In North America we've had various affirmative action programs for minorities that were initiated against the wishes of those in favour of maintaining the status quo of white male dominance. Even thought disparities are long from eliminated we hear lots about the rights of the majority from conservatives who try to portray them as stealing jobs and opportunities from white people and play up fear and racism. Does this sound familiar to you in terms of the reservation system. Could you explain that and how it works and what it's intent was?

In India, reservations based on caste have a long history. They were introduced even when the British ruled India. And they are different from affirmative action in the sense, they are not voluntary, but mandatory quotas to be fulfilled by colleges in admissions, and by government departments. Schools and colleges that receive government aid are also bound by these quotas in the appointment of teachers. Different states in India have different percentages reserved for different castes. From what I know, the state of Tamil Nadu, where Hitchhiker is set, has the highest percentage of reservations in India. The other main difference between the situation in India and the US/Canada is that India has much fewer resources than the US or Canada. And it has a larger population. So, competition is a lot more intense and losing out to someone who is entitled to reservations generates a lot more anger than in the US/Canada.

I feel that reservations are the most effective tool for moving a socially backward caste up the social /economic ladder. But it does have its share of drawbacks. The main draw back is that it is not possible to ensure that every beneficiary of reservations actually deserves it. Reservations have created a creamy layer within every caste and this creamy layer corners most benefits. This is not to say that reservations should be done away with. But it is necessary to build filters into the system so that the benefits of reservations are evenly spread. Also, some of the people who lose out on account of not having reservations may not be financially well off. For want of a better term, I call it collateral unfairness. It is quite difficult to explain the need for reservations to a 18 year old middle class boy or girl who has failed to make it to an engineering college or a medical college because say, fifty percent of its seats are reserved on the basis of caste. It is difficult to see the larger picture when you are personally affected. A lot of the outcry against reservations comes from middle-class India for whom a decent education and a good job at the end of it is the only way forward. India with its billion plus people does not as yet have enough schools or colleges or resources to ensure that everyone gets basic opportunities. Until fifty years ago, everyone who belonged to the lower castes got excluded. This is no longer so. Now you find people at the bottom layers of all communities getting excluded.

8) In Hitchhiker you make it quite clear that there are plenty of ways that companies and schools are able to circumvent reservation quotas – is that still an accurate portrayal.

In India, the private sector is not bound to reserve places for lower castes. There is a demand for that, but it has not been put into effect. So, it is not correct to say private companies circumvent reservation quotas. Private educational institutions do however have quotas for appointment of teachers if they receive government aid. It is common for privately run schools and colleges to circumvent quotas in the appointment of teachers.

9) I received some comments from Indian readers when I reviewed Hitchhiker about how they felt people shouldn't portray India in a negative light anymore but focus on all the positive elements instead – how do you react to this?

I feel that it is important to examine oneself critically and make amends. Mere window dressing does no one any good. It’s quite silly to take the stand that criticism should not be public. Unless you do this, you will never bring about change. But I am happy to say that India does have its share of activists who do a decent job questioning government policies when things go wrong. In fact, I think India has more such activists than the US. I’m not sure about Canada though.

10) What do you think it will take to change people's attitudes about caste? Do you think it can be legislated or is so deeply ingrained that isn't enough and reservations will never solve the problem?

People’s attitudes about caste are changing, but they are changing too slowly. Legislation outlawing caste already exists, but it has made very little difference. The worst effect of caste is that the average middle-class Indian doesn’t give two hoots about the hardships faced by Indian who live in villages and slums. And the reason for the nonchalance is that the Indians who live in poverty and distress are very likely to be from the lower castes. As mentioned earlier, reservations cannot provide a solution by themselves. In fact, I would say that having more than 25% reservations is actually counter-productive. We need to spend more on building schools and hospitals and make sure that every Indian child goes to school. Once every Indian child has access to a decent school, then reservations will become more effective, since the intended beneficiaries will be able to benefit from it. I feel that caste divisions will disappear only when India becomes prosperous and basic needs for everyone is fulfilled.

Economic liberalisation has brought some wealth to India, but very little of it trickles down. India already has a large Maoist insurgency in many parts of central and eastern India. As poor people watch the rich ones lead comfortable lives and feel that they will escape their poverty, a Maoist revolution appears very attractive. India’s biggest challenge is to spread the benefits of liberalisation around (better tax collections, efficient investments in village infrastructure) as soon as we can.

11) I've avoided the whole issue of Missionaries in India, but are there still concentrated efforts to convert people to Christianity in areas – whether through bribery and offers of permanent employment or other means?

Christian missionaries are quite active in India. A few of them use fair means or foul to convert people. But I ought to add that most charitable work in India (as in the US or other parts of the world) is done by religious organisations. Christians, Hindus, Muslims are all in the fray. So, it’s a mixed bag. Religion based charities do a fair amount of good, but they usually carry their ideology and beliefs with them.

12) I'm interested in your publisher, can you tell me about them and how you ended up with them?

I got around thirty rejects from various literary agents and publishers before Books for Change agreed to publish Hitchhiker. Books For Change (BFC) is the publishing wing of Action Aid India. BFC publishes books with a high degree of social content. Hitchhiker was BFC’s first foray into publishing fiction.

13) Final question for you – Now that you've been bitten by the literary bug do you have any other ideas for books? Would you write about the same themes again or are there other areas of Indian life that you'd like to examine?

Yes, I have plans to write more. After Hitchhiker got published, I started writing a novel. It’s about a politician in Tawa, a fictional country in the Indian Ocean south west of Sri Lanka. I then got busy with work and abandoned my novel. Recently I started writing a collection of short stories set in a fictional village called Simhapara in Kerala. I should finish these short stories in another month or so. After that I have plans to pick up the threads of my novel again. Let’s see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.

That concludes my interview with Vinod George Joseph, if it whetted your appetite to read his book Hitchhiker good, if it made you curious about the reality behind the "economic miracle" in India even better. When only ten percent of a population benefits from something I don't quite get how that's a miracle. It sounds more like a maintaining of the status quo where ten per cent of a country's population controls the majority of a country's wealth.

It's the same all over the world, why should India be any different? Like any other large capitalist free market country their attitude seems to be as long as the bottom line is fine who cares how many fall below it and can't get back up?

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