Humorous, subtle, wicked… a combination that makes the book a good read.
After Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger we have yet another novel on Indian satire, Manu Joseph's debut Serious Men. With its provocative wit, realistic portrayal of characters and humour, the book is a sure winner. Manu Joseph's novel hammers in the hopelessness, boredom and desperate ambitions of suburban Dalit community in Bombay, and he weaves an interesting and funny satire on the academia of science, love and revenge. Relationships form an important part of the novel and Manu provides a stark insight into the workings of the human mind. He strings together the powerful, comic and pungency of eccentric people who are blind instruments of a dominant passion for quick money, fame and social aggrandisement.
The devious Ayyan Mani is stuck in a boring job as personal assistant to the head astronomer named Arvind Acharya, at the Institute of Theory and Research, Bombay. Acharya is powerful, conceited and intelligent but too engrossed in his own scientific world. Although Mani belongs to the Dalit community, he is not subdued but one who stands out in a world moved by self interest and political design. Wanting to associate himself with the heightened sense of life and fulfillment he draws up a concoction of events and surreptitiously achieves his goals. Mani spins an outrageous fiction around his partially deaf, ten- year- old son Adi, forcing him to say things like, “Prime numbers are unpredictable, D-e-c-i-m-a-l s-y-s-t-e-m and Fee bon a chi” Into this kind of plot, however another dubious character Oparna , the attractive young astrobiologer is introduced. Acharya is enamoured by her and soon his fiefdom and Mani's politics begin to surface. Acharya's career is shattered by an office scandal and he is accused of forging scientific data. It is here that the suspense builds up and one marvels at the author's treatment and superb flexibility in the psychological development of the dramatic situation.
There are indeed many moments where Joseph exposes the hypocrisy of his characters by dropping in similes and witty remarks alike. As when Manu aptly describes Mani, “Ayyan Mani's thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours”. Equally noteworthy is when Ayyan Mani blurts out, “Wives of an age are like evicted hawkers. They return in time”. Quite apparent that people like Mani who are down on the social scale, get along only by their wits. Again the hilarious aspect is put in true prospective as we observe Manu's description of Acharya: “Acharya did not realise that he had been holding a half-eaten banana near his mouth for over five minutes”.
Serious Men is otherwise a remarkable and brilliant novel and if you can dip into it , and it's dip worthy, you will definitely find several moments to savour. The author's powerful mix of all the ingredients of satire as also tactful juxtaposition makes his debut novel a powerful and unique work. Joseph does this by making his criticisms apparent in an entertaining format so that readers are compelled to engage with the story and hopefully are taking away something in the end to make them understand societal issues better.
In Adiga's novel the idea of a resentful, oppressed protagonist Balram Halwai murdering his employer and getting away with it in pursuit of his ideal of social mobility was not much of a novelty. I found Balram, the main character unlikable, he seemed unable to feel any sort of remorse for the terrible things he did. But in Joseph's novel, the protagonist, Ayyan Mani , also a conman overshadowed by his boss, is intelligent and appealing and someone we can empathise with.
The book has one shortcoming. Descriptions of women - a bit of a let down. However, it is a good read if one can let all that pass. As a satirist, he has done a remarkable job, truly a book you should not miss.The author was listed among the top new novelists of 2010 by the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.
Serious Men; Manu Joseph; Fourth Estate; Rs.499