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Serious Men
by Manu Joseph
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Home > KR Usha
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Book Review:

Serious Men, Manu Joseph, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2010, pp 326, price: Rs 499/-

Usha KR
(A shorter version of this review appeared in Deccan Herald)Phalanx Spacer


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Reviewers are advised to state their biases straight off, and I must admit that in the course of reviewing Serious Men, it was my writerly eye that took over, noting the risks that this first-time writer takes and the confidence with which he calls his own bluff. Ostensibly, Serious Men is cast in the same mould as Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger which plays out the Manichean struggle between the world of darkness and light, between the haves and the have-nots of India, setting his tale between the badlands of Bihar and the urban desolation of Delhi. Manu Joseph goes one step further - he names his antagonists as Brahmin and Dalit, and situates their battle in an institute of science, the ultimate bastion of 'excellence' and privilege in Nehruvian India. And then proceeds to subvert what could have been a predictable rant against social injustice, with politically correct depictions of 'them' and 'us', into a sharp, mischievous but compassionate, understanding of the complexities of the Indian situation (while never losing sight of the trajectory of history), where Dalit and Brahmin alike, have an equal share of virtue and vice, and all men are seriously engaged in making shift in a society whose traps are as labyrinthine as its possibilities.
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Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit, is a clerk in the Institute of Theory and Research and lives in BDD chawl 'the mother of hell . a hive of ten thousand one-room homes', now occupied by eighty-thousand people but which even the homeless had disdained when the British who built it had first offered it to them. Ayyan spends his mornings watching the 'tired high-caste faces' of women exercising on the beach, imagining them all 'in the ecstasy of being seduced by him', but in truth 'Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes' - all out of his reach. He also watches his wife wilting under the crassness of life in BDD, and despairs of his son ever having a fair chance in this unequal world.
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On the other side of the battle line are arrayed Arvind Acharya, a physicist once rumoured to be in the running for the Nobel, and his cohort of Brahmin scientists- 'calm men (who) spoke to themselves when they needed good company', serious men immersed in the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth, and more specifically, the search for evidence of extra terrestrial life. Acharya is a proponent of the Big Balloon approach which involves sending up a hot air balloon 41 kms into the atmosphere, capturing the air and studying it for evidence of aliens- a venture that the opposing Giant Ear camp led by Jana Nambodri wants to conduct through an array of 30 radio telescopes, but which Acharya staunchly opposes as unscientific. Ayyan considers their quest futile and grandiose. 'Everything that people do in this world is because they have nothing better to do' he tells his wife, '. Einstein had something called Relativity. You scrub the floor twice a day.' The high-minded scientists might look down on money, but they respect 'funds', and summon every ruthless instinct to undo each other in the strategic battle of influence and power.
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The equanimity of the Institute is disrupted by Oparna Ghoshmaulik, the lone woman scientist, who causes a stir even though she dresses in clothes 'chosen to calm the men'. Shunted into a basement lab with little to do, Oparna maintains a studied calm despite having to use the 'Ladies' while the men unburden themselves in 'Scientists', despite being jollied in a meeting where a senior scientist by way of introducing her, pronounces that 'Historically, the only just punishment for a Bengali male has been a Bengali female'. But she falls in love with Arvind Acharya when, in complete disregard of her 'flawless skin of lineage' and moist lips, he studies her gravely and comes up with (arguably the best line in the novel) - 'You were born after Microsoft?'
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Ayyan directs his rage against the Brahmins by sneaking in anti-Brahmin thoughts for the day on the board in the lobby ('. let us offer the Brahmins the right to be treated like animals for 3000 years and at the end of it let's give them a 15 percent reservation)'. and attributing them to Einstein, and sometimes to the homegrown Vallumpuri John. He eavesdrops ingeniously on the conversations in Acharya's room, and reads his correspondence, biding his time to stoke the incipient conflict between Acharya and Nabodri into the War of the Brahmins, certain that 'the battles of the Brahmins would be bloodless but brutal. They would fight like demons armed with nothing more than deceit and ideals - another form of deceit among men from good families.'
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But raging against the Brahmins is not enough. Ayyan knows that he has to act on his rage. His personal repudiation of caste and of Hinduism, with his conversion to Buddhism, and his refusal to let his wife have an idol of Ganesha in the house are but feeble formal gestures because he has reluctantly to agree with her that it is the Hindu gods who have all the magic. So, to secure his son's future he uses every trick in the book-from outright lies to blackmail. With some sly coaching, in which the boy's hearing-aid figures, Ayyan soon establishes his son's reputation as a genius.
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In the War of the Brahmins, Acharya's undoing proves to be love. After several years, Acharya looks at himself in the mirror. We catch a glimpse of the man who had been famous for growing marijuana in a flower pot as a student, who listens to Pavarotti and reads a retro Russian version of Superman. But his basement trysts with Oparna are discovered; his Balloon Mission too closely follows the fortunes of his affair-he is unseated by Nambodri and then re-installed with help from Ayyan; and Ayyan gets his heart's desire when he stokes the War of the Brahmins into an actual conflagration, establishes his son's future in the Institute and clasps Acharya's Brahmin tuft firmly in his grasp.
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We see, as Ayyan does that 'In any given situation in this country . someone was the Brahmin and someone was the Untouchable'- and this is the framework of the novel, that these identities are, in a way, interchangeable, depending on which side the balance tilts. What perhaps favours this balancing of unequals is Bombay, the city in which the novel is set, where, as Ayyan notes, 'the congestion of hopeless shuffling human bodies . was also . the fate of the rich. On the streets, in the trains, in the paltry gardens and beaches, everybody was poor. And that was fair.'
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There are many dimensions to this novel-the inequities of caste, power and sex, and the preoccupations and personalites they engender, an exploration of the scientific temperament and the excitement and politics of science. These are quite obvious and larger than life; but the more subtle is its meditation on conjugality.
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If Ayyan returns to BDD chawl every day it is because he has a good marriage, and it is Oja, with her big eyes, her red nightie, her wet hair tied up in a white towel, and her anklets lying 'feebly' at her turmeric yellow ankles, that he loves. Ayyan believes that 'a man's bond with his wife should not be corrupted with too much rationality'. But, he sees the magic dwindling before his eyes as his wife becomes progressively indifferent to his attentions, and has to live with the fact 'that a box of condoms in their house outlived a jar of pickles.' If Ayyan does not make amends his marriage will harden into Acharya and Lavanya's, a bond so inured by habit that when Acharya is taking his wife to the doctor, he leaves 'something' behind in the car and then recollects that the something is his wife. And yet she is his email password and this 'dedication of passwords was the new fellowship of marriage. To each other, couples had become furtive asterisks.' One of the most sensitive scenes in the book is the one in which Acharya, abruptly and unexpectedly, reveals his affair to his wife. Still bleary from sleep and thinking she has heard wrong, she gropes for her glasses to hear better. Reflecting on his admission, she feels tremendous compassion for her husband of four decades, who has become a memory to her even as they live together-she wants to pat his bald head and reassure him that things are all right. Later, after Acharya's pendulum of fortune has swung from one extreme to the other, he contemplates suicide, but is held back by the memory of the glow on his wife's friends faces after they have become widowed and feels 'an intense bitterness that only a husband can feel for his wife.'
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And this brings us to Oparna Ghoshmaulik - whose only identity is her gender, or rather, her sex. Oparna, Joseph seems to suggest, is representative of the new outcast, the new underclass, the educated professional woman who does not belong to any man, but is more vulnerable than an illiterate maid in a chawl, whom the likes of Ayyan covet and despise equally, who can inspire in an ageing man the 'imbecility of youth' but is doomed to furtive affairs where she feels more shame in putting on her clothes the morning after than in undressing for the men the night before.
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In this world of seriously self-seeking men, Oparna alone is given short shrift with no professional options, no exit strategy. And since she is unmarried, no emotional safety net by default. By denying her the guile that he gives his men (she is only spiteful), the weapons of self-preservation and skills to join the proxy war, Joseph seems to be objectifying her in ways more subtle than the scientists at the institute. One cannot help but read his treatment of Oparna in the reflection of his 'love' for Oja and Lavanya, who are wives and mothers.
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Manu Joseph's characters scintillate on the page; which makes his ambivalence towards Oparna Ghoshmaulik a little unsettling. Further, Ayyan is too much his creator's shadow, and going by the logic of the dimensions the author gives him, he cannot quite be the kind of man he is, with his lucid understanding and articulation. Also, given the author's promise one would have hoped for a more dexterous interweaving of the two strands of the plot - Ayyan's devious plotting and Acharya's downward slide.
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Few writers are gifted with Joseph's sense of comic irony but here he stands in danger of over-reaching himself; it appears that he is enjoying himself too much to know when to stop. For instance, he compares school children running towards the gates at the end of the day to 'the way earthquake survivors in this country might run towards the BBC correspondent.' Too often he teeters on the edge of farce, as with his descriptions of Sister Chastity, of the square build and the hairy calves, the principal of Ayyan's son's school, whose sympathy for Ayyan's sufferings are always laced with the enticements of conversion.
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A more serious detraction (which one hopes Joseph will address in his future works) is that in the course of the novel, we do not get a sense of the author's world view, of the direction of his moral compass, even by suggestion. Having undertaken a satire of such magnitude, Joseph does not stretch himself enough to posit a moral order (it is here that Adiga's 'The White Tiger' scores); on the contrary by concluding the book on a note of pure trickery-with Ayyan Mani and his son confidently plotting their next move-Joseph seems to undo any moral framework that might have insinuated itself. A story that takes on the grand destiny of men, cannot be satisfied with being a mischievous chuckle, a snigger at the system, and no more.
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However, these observations notwithstanding, the novel is carried through on its merits; Serious Men could well be the most exciting debut in Indian writing in English since Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.


KR Usha is one of the editors of Phalanx.


Courtesy: thehindu.com

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