Vinod Joseph sent me his book Hitchhiker and asked me to review it. So, here it is:
Ebenezer, the protagonist, is a second-generation converted Christian. Pre-conversion, his family belonged to a backward caste, and was regarded untouchable. The conversion doesn’t change their social status much.
But what Ebenezer is bothered about is securing admission into a top engineering college. A couple of months before his exams, he is injured and his mother and sister killed in a caste riot, and he is unable to take the exams. His classmates go their ways, some making it to the top institutes, some not.
Ebenezer eventually fails to get into any of the top or even middle-rank engineering institutes, and enrols for a diploma in a course-vending firm, where he meets Gayatri, the daughter of a rich Hindu rightist. They later end up working together in Mumbai, and falling in love. There is the predictable uproar by Gayatri’s family, and they gradually wean her away.
Desperate to get Gayatri back, Ebenezer converts to Hinduism on an impulse. That seals his love affair, because Gayatri had always wanted him ‘just as he was.’ The Global Evangelical Church, to which his family owes allegiance, is eager to get him back, though. But Ebenezer has had enough with religion. That, now, is the summary of the story.
I came away from the book untouched, unmoved, except for the last couple of pages. Many reasons for this:
i) Too many characters, too little characterisation: People keep coming in through various stages of the book and disappearing just as fast. The story would have lost nothing if some characters weren’t there at all. Like Ebenezer’s numerous friends. Or his teachers. What happens is we end up with too many loose ends. Halfway through the book, I stopped raising eyebrows when the next character popped in and out.
Also, I hardly get to know the characters intimately, even the main ones, barring Ebenezer perhaps. What do I know about Gayatri, except that she’s Ebenezer’s lady love and is the daughter of a wealthy Hindu upper class man? How does she look like? What was their love affair like? Passionate? Platonic? Did they get to create a lot of memories together? Well, I don’t know.
ii) Imbalanced plot: Much time is spent on describing how Ebenezer and his friends are gearing up for the exams, what their dreams are, etc. Now, really, in middle-class India, don’t we know all this? And even if someone didn’t, I think the initial chapters needed some pace.
The initial chapters are filled with such detail that the lack of it in the later ones shows.
iii) Distractions: I agree it’s tempting to narrate all the stories you know. And, Vinod realizes that each of us has one. But frankly, unless you tie them all up, they are like sudden voices in the dark, which leave you unsure from which direction they came, or whether you heard them at all. Example: the death of Ebenezer’s colleague’s wife in the Gujarat riots. And the whole sub-plot about the NRI Gujarati family in UK. And various people’s rambling opinions on world events.
Though the Gujarati family was linked to Gayatri’s dad, did it help in the development of the plot? Using rich sub-plots can be great, but they need to be weaved into the story, else they stand out.
iv) Editing, or the lack of it: Did this book pass under the blue pencil at all? I don’t think so. Innumerable idiomatic, punctuation, and grammatical mistakes abound. Also, for God’s sake, why has a sans serif font been used? (Looks like Arial!!) It’s quite an effort for the eye to go through page after page of sans serif font. Use serif font when you have a lot of text - that’s the first lesson you learn in page layout.
v) Drama: Except towards the end of the story when Ebenezer converts to Hinduism, the story lacks in drama, the capacity to move, the capacity to touch. When Ebenezer’s mother and sister died, why didn’t I feel anything?
Hitchhiker does have a lot of dialogue, which is good. If some of the sub-plots were gotten rid of and some strengthened, the characters more rounded and given depth, and some technical things like editing taken care of, the story definitely has something going for it.
Vinod, thank you for sending the book, and am really sorry this took so long. Keep in touch.