Cursed by caste
Mohan Lal Phillauria
by Vinod George Joseph.
Books for Change. Pages 385. Rs 350.

Hitchhiker is the story of an untouchable, Peterraj, a Verumar. He has adopted Christianity because he thinks that Christianity is the only way to attain salvation from the bind of casteism. He was employed as a watchman by a Christian School. The main theme of Hitchhiker is the conversion of the untouchables because of oppression by those belonging to higher castes. Peterrajís son Ebenezer is doing very well academically and dreams of becoming a computer engineer but has failed in his mission. Joseph in a touching and poignant manner, has narrated the story of poor Dalits of Tamil Nadu, where even barbers refuse to give them a haircut and tea shop owners do not want them to touch their utensils. Thanks to reservation, the condition of Dalits has improved now.

This improvement is not being accepted, be it in schools, colleges or offices. When the Dalits go and watch movies, they have to listen to: "Donít let these Verumar dogs sit on chairs. Let them sit on the floor." In this fight for equality, the mother and sister of Ebenezer were killed and their killers were not arrested. These kind of incidents are very common in India. This is not an imaginary work but it is based on facts and the recent example is the killing in Khairlanji in Maharashtra. Prior to the killing of Ebenezerís mother and sister, his aunt Karuppama was raped by upper caste men, while she was working in the fields.

Yet again, there was no action by the police. Though the Constitution has guaranteed fundamental rights to all citizens yet the crimes against Scheduled Castes are on the rise. In Haryana such incidents where Dalits are killed for a cow are common. The ir houses were gutted and they are forced to leave the village. The manner in which Dalits are treated in rural areas is well known but even in government offices they are not treated on a par with the others. They are humiliated.

This tragic situation has been described in Hitchhiker. Can conversion offer a solution to the problems of the Backward Castes? There are lakhs who have converted to either Christianity or other religions as a revolt against Hindu fundamentalists or Manuwadis. A hitchhiker is one who seeks a lift from others for reaching the destination. When Ebenezer realises that he cannot get married to Gayathri, the daughter of a rich Hindu businessman, he reconverts to Hinduism and even then fails to get Gayathri.

In effect, he has reached nowhere. Hitchhiker is a realistic study of casteism in India and the novelist has touched every aspect of life. The description of how jobs of teachers are sold is an authentic depiction of corruption. Joseph has mentioned the 1984 riots in which Sikhs were murdered. Similarly, a detailed description of riots beweeen Hindus and Muslims is given. The demolition of Babri Masjid is described at length.

To stop conversions, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had passed a law against conversions. In the Indian context, conversion is a protest against Hinduism. Joseph has explained the circumstances and reasons of conversion. The tragedy is that even after taking the trouble to convert to another religion, the converts are not treated on a par with others. What, then, is the use of conversion? It is a complex issue. For the first time one has come across a novel that deals at length with the problem of untouchables in a realistic and detailed manner.