fourth estate Rs 499 pp 326
Critics in Britain and the US have praised Manu Joseph’s debut novel as a “bitingly funny Indian satire”, a “cruelly pointed comedy” and a “comedy of manners”. Thank God, it’s escaped the charge of harbouring “mordant wit”, another stock phrase beloved of knackered Anglo-American critics. But Serious Men goes beyond genre. It is indeed satirical but foremost, it is an amazingly accurate depiction of reality. Joseph is an acute, sensitive observer and his writing accumulates the myriad circumstantial details of everyday life which makes it real. If this is only satire then your life and mine are no more than mordant witticisms — and the lives of the less fortunate even more mordantly so.
The warp of the story is the silent, relentless class war which is fought in our cities in the name of caste. The weft is a skirmish over universal questions waged in the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. It is an ivory tower struggle between balloon astronomy and radio astronomy, classical astrophysics and string theory, meaningful science and sexy science. Running across this texture is a twisted love story along with explorations of power and its subversion, old age and its triumph, truth and falsehood, the limits of reasonable science and the current crisis in physics.
The central figure is Arvind Acharya, a scientist of such stature that he is called the Nobel laureate without a Nobel. He heads a Brahmin cabal of scientists but has reached the point where intellectually honest physicists begin to chafe at the limits of their discipline. He is also a maverick viciously opposed to the Big Bang theory, which he regards as a Christian plot to justify the Book of Genesis. In the jealousies and crises which follow an illicit relationship with a colleague his daughter’s age, he is discredited and loses everything — only to find himself and his world for the first time.
Brahmins make science. Dalits make coffee — and the plot. Ayyan Mani, a chawl-dwelling Dalit and Acharya’s personal assistant, holds the story together. Part sutradhar and part puppeteer, he engineers the turning points of crisis and resolution. A self-made Dalit who once dreamed of escaping the chawl, he now knows that he cannot overreach his station. But perhaps this subversive Iago can do the impossible. Using the clerk’s traditional passion for petty espionage and the capabilities of his apparently genius son, he spawns a game which could make it possible — after a fashion.
It’s been a very good year for South Asian English novels and Serious Men could be the pick of the crop. By my lights, it has only one failing — the frequent use of an exaggeratedly male authorial gaze. The artifice belongs in the realm of the comedy of manners, but this novel ventures beyond its narrow precinct into the realm of the real world. The direct human gaze, without the baggage of gender, works far better when it is used.
I also have reservations about the way this title is being sold overseas. The Indian cover is appropriately and tastefully designed, but the British edition is pointlessly Orientalist, depicting a black man in a magician’s turban riding an appliqué elephant. The US edition features lurid calendar art — Shiva, Ganesha, an infant Krishna and a missile, none of which has anything to do with the story.
Serious Men reflects a growing interest in the underclass heralded by Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. It brings the focus onto Dalit assertion, a notable feature of several Indian language literatures in recent decades. The stage is now set for writers who know the community more intimately.
This book is also part of a trend towards small canvases. The age of the Great Indian Novel is over, barring exceptions like Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy in progress. New writers no longer have to explain where they are coming from by turning their novels into brief histories of South Asia. Contemporary fiction is unself-consciously Indian, makes few concessions to the foreign readership and addresses current issues, hopes and fears in the local idiom. It is a sign that finally Indian writing in English has come of age and can be regarded as a peer of the Indian language literatures.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine