I've been waiting to read Serious Men for ages. I saw nothing but good reviews, and judging from his articles, I knew I would like to read Manu Joseph's book. This is a book that does not get bogged down because of the hype. Serious Men is a fantastic satirical tale of two men: Ayyan Mani, a Dalit who has had enough of being looked down upon and leading an unremarkable life, and his Brahmin boss Arvind Acharya, a remarkable scientist whose power and authority receives a severe blow after a scandal.
Through them, Joseph sketches a shatteringly realistic portrayal of modern day India, her people and the idiosyncrasies of science. The book is also a blunt reality check of the influence of the 'c' word - caste - on the minds and politics of the people. The two characters upon whom this novel rests are incredibly three dimensional and are developed with several shades of grey.
Ayyan Mani wants the glory that he feels was denied by the upper caste Brahmins to his ancestors, who were treated as Untouchables. He starts playing a dangerously exciting game by building a web of lies to present his son as a celebrated 'genius'. The more popular his son becomes, the more dangerous the game is. Ayyan Mani is definitely one of the most complex, memorable characters I've ever read. He's an underdog who can stoop to any level to achieve what he wants. There are sudden flashes of sympathy, affection, even compassion, but all of these emotions are secondary to Mani's ambitions of giving his family a good future, no matter what.
Arvind Acharya isn't as original a character as Mani, but is constructed with such skill that you can picturise Acharya sitting across you and pondering about the big questions of the Universe. In the hands of a less talented writer, this book could have been boring. But Joseph is, quite simply, a treat to read. His dark sarcasm, even darker humour and dispassionate assessment of Indian society are bound to stay with the reader for long. Joseph is an amazing observer who describes the little things that we often shrug away, to make the larger point.
I would read just about anything he writes because he possesses the rare talent of recreating harsh realities, stripped of the fluff, and doing so without being pretentious. To the very sensitive reader, many parts of this tragic satire could be controversial or shocking. This is not a perfect book - some of the final portions of the book were a little too convenient, there weren't many fully-fleshed female characters. But this is far too important a book to ignore.
Joseph's treatment of Ayyan Mani did remind me of Booker winning writer Aravind Adiga's characterisation of his protagonist Balram Halwai. Both of these characters are underdogs who have been the recipients of the worst of what India has to offer. But Ayyan Mani is more complex, entirely too fascinating - sometimes scary, sometimes saddening.
There are whole passages of sheer brilliance. I started marking the good quotes and stopped after a while, because I didn't want a book full of dogears. Joseph's exquisite turn of phrase and easy yet vivid writing style makes him an author who is a joy to read. I'm including a couple of my favourite lines from a very quotable writer:
'In the twilight that was now the colour of dust, in the fury of horns that was a national language because honking had telegraphic properties..'
'The dedication of passwords was the new fellowship of marriage. To each other, couples had become furtive asterisks.'
'And one day, very soon in fact, Adi would be an adolescent. An adolescent son of a clerk. A miserable thing to be in this country. He would have to forget all his dreams and tell himself that what he wanted to do was engineering. It's the only hope, everyone would tell him. Engineering, Adi would realize, is every mother's advice to her son, a father's irrevocable decision, a boy's first foreboding of life.'
'On the pavement by the side of the road was planted a banner two storeys high. Even in the blow-up the celebrity appeared stunted. He stood in a safari suit, his palms joined in greeting. His face was a light pink because poster artists did not have the freedom to paint his face black. His little mop of hair was spread thinly over an almost flat scalp. And his thick moustache had sharp edges. Just above his head was an English introduction in large font - DYNAMIC PERSONALITY. A thinner line that followed said he was the honourable Minister S Waman. It seemed appropriate that it was at Waman's black shoes the author took credit, in Marathi and in diplomatically-chosen small font - 'Hoarding Presented by P.Bikaji'.
'A mysterious character of UFOs is that they are sighted only in the First World,' she said, 'and no alien conquest of Earth begins until the mayor of New York holds an emergency press conference. When Mars attacks, it attacks America.'
Serious Men is a remarkable book. It's not the kind of book that you read, review and forget. It's the kind of book that you yearn to discuss, debate, analyze and always remember. Indian literature will be proud of another amazing new entrant to its ranks, an author who can rip apart the double standards of society to provide the raw and very real picture.
Needless to say, I'm adding Serious Men to my India - Book Recommendations.
P.S Apologies for the length of the review. I just couldn't resist adding all those great quotes.