This appeared in today's The Indian Express.
SERIOUS MEN Manu Joseph
In his debut novel, Manu Joseph attempts a biting take on Indian class distinctions as well as the respect accorded to practitioners of science by the rest of us. What emerges is not so much a comedy of manners as a mannered comedy.
Serious Men features the conniving Ayyan Mani, a clerk at Mumbai’s Institute of Theory and Research, who lives with his wife and 10-year-old son in a crowded chawl. As a Dalit, Mani sees the world as being unfairly in the grasp of Brahmins, and is determined that his son, at least, escape the drudgery and relative poverty that is his lot. To further this end, Mani engages in a series of machinations designed to prove to the world that his son is a prodigy, a genius clever beyond his years.
The other leg of the book’s plot revolves around the irascible, woolly Arvind Acharya, head of the scientific institute. When we first meet him, Acharya is busy pooh-poohing other scientists’ hunt for extra-terrestrial intelligence, firmly believing instead that “microscopic extraterrestrials” are falling to earth every day – that is, microbes from space, responsible for life’s arising on the planet. He’s known for his bluntness and all-too-direct views of life, the universe and everything: “This was what modern physics itself had become. Time reversal, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, invisibility, intelligent civilizations. Exciting rubbish. The money was in that.”
The problem is that the arcs of both these characters fall and rise almost independently for most of the book, giving it a compartmentalised air. Ayyan’s underhand antics and Acharya’s downfall – hastened by his affair with Oparna, the head of one of the institute’s sections – have little to do with each other and it’s only close to the book’s end that they mesh satisfactorily. Though there may be parts of the book that one can relish, such as Ayyan’s fabricating quotations to chalk up as the Institute’s Thought For The Day, there are others that disappoint, such as Oparna’s all-too-convenient vanishing act once her part is played out.
Joseph delights in skewering the pretentions of the pompous, and there are many satirical asides and observations to this effect, especially when it comes to the way different classes of society view each other. On occasion, though, the tone is decidedly sour, putting one in mind of the later novels of Upamanyu Chatterjee. An added perturbation is that many times, one can’t discern whether such interventions are authorial or belong to the characters.
The sentences, however, are layered, on occasion with spot-on observations about the way we see ourselves: “He was a trim, tidy man who suspected he was good looking”; “A girl who was preoccupied with her own glamour arrived at the podium”. Unfortunately, on many other occasions, they get carried away by mellifluousness: “The beast of genius inside him was now fatally infected by what he diagnosed as common infatuation, but through a minute crack in the fog of misery his mind could still see the beauty in the conviction that alien microbes were always falling from the heavens and they had once seeded life on earth”.
Serious Men, then, has a distinctive take on the world around us, but despite its knowing, barbed tone there is facileness in treatment that lets the wind out of its sails.