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By: Vinod George Joseph Publication: Books for Change, Action India ISBN: 81-8291-023-6 Price: $19 Pages: 390

india Updated: Oct 28, 2006 17:26 IST
Review by: Vijita Fernando
Review by: Vijita Fernando

Ebenezer, his ambitions not withstanding, is in an unfair world where caste and social background play an overwhelming role in the little things in life and certainly in the big things.

The world is pitted against him. He is an untouchable, the lowest of the low and his father is the caretaker of the school where Ebenezer strives to do well and gain admission to an engineering college.

Among the many odds against him is the overwhelming one that he is the son of a Hindu untouchable, now converted to Christianity.

The story of Ebenezer is wrapped round the controversy over Christian missionary activity in India.

Ebenezer is a small cog, but his story gives the reader the backdrop of the lives of untouchables and their victimisation, not only socially, but in the religious arena as well.

Ebenezer is not overtly religious. He is totally focused on getting out of his "untouchable" status, getting into a college and doing well in life.

No, not like his father Peterraj who will spend the rest of his days as an untouchable, getting the sermon hall prepared for the Sunday service and locking the classrooms after school.

Young Ebenezer wants more, much more. He is certainly not going to marry Saraswathi, his young cousin whose family has already designated Ebenezer as her future husband.

His grandmother's not so veiled hints about the betrothal makes Ebenezer want to scream.

"An uneducated village girl like Saraswathi? What could she do other than make make matchboxes?" he tells himself, matchbox making being the rural women's livelihood.

In their tradition bound ancestral village, being part of the congregation of the Global Evangelical Church has not altered their status one bit.

There too they are still untouchables, looked askance and spat on generally, but in heated moment of caste related violence they are always the victims.

Ebenezer mother and his adored little sister Gwendolyn were tragically killed in a caste related clash.

Throughout his life Ebenezer lives in a dream. Around him religion caste, and education play an unwavering role, dictating his every move.

Gayathri comes into his life and the dream moves a little closer. But again the odds are heavily against him.

Not only is she rich, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, her family is right wing and staunch Hindus.

One could say that she 'leads him on" though it is only through the computer, but her conniving brother and father dangles an eligible young man - yes, a Hindu aristocrat - and eventually she succumbs to his understated, intelligent wooing.

That was the worst fight that Ebenezer loses in his life. He even makes a last ditch effort by converting into Hinduism to please Gayathri's father and brother and maybe get a foot into the family and win his girl.

But he had no heart in it and the Global Evangelical Church waited for the chance to try to get him back to the flock.

"We will not have to baptise you…we'll just have a small blessing next Sunday to welcome you back."

Ebenezer pictured himself standing in front of the congregation dressed in white, head bowed and Moses blessing him… Well, he thought at least now I can play cricket again…must get hold of some cricketing gear.

That was only for a moment.

Walking away from Hinduism towards a new way of life as a Christian, his hand gripped in Moses', Ebenezer realized his mistake in trying to be a Hindu, but, his step slowing, he wondered what the point in rejoining the Global Evangelical church would be.

And when he ran away, Ebenezer, being much younger and fitter easily outran the pursuing Moses, thus finally saving his soul.

Hitchhiker is a long, rambling novel. Ebenezer's story is a thread that runs through the fabric of the author's effortless prose.

The setting is the Indian reality, complex, contradictory, at times puzzling and often bewildering at the way tradition and convention and most importantly, caste rule the lives of the ordinary Indian and the chasm between them and the educated.

With so many strands converging it is only too easy to get lost in the actual story of Ebenezer and his ambitions.

But the author has overcome this through his felicitous prose and his directness of approach.

Hitchhiker is by no means a great novel but the simple and effortless prose grips you and to me, a non-Indian, his almost casual manner of introducing typical Indian phrases and words is a real treat.

First Published: Aug 30, 2006 19:09 IST