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Friday, May 6, 2011

(Published in The Financial World, Tehelka on 6 May, 2011, retrieved from

When I first saw Manu Joseph in August 2010, at one of the early readings from his debut novel, Serious Men, I couldn’t be sure whether the journalist-turned-author-while-remaining-journalist was diffident, surprised, embarrassed, laughing at himself, or laughing at his audience.

He said all the right things at the interactive session, with a refreshing lack of political correctness, modicum of candour, and the kind of adherence to politeness and decorum that charmed most of his female interrogators into tittering at every clever rejoinder.

You usually want to read a book written by a linguistically gifted columnist who has once confessed that while most of his schoolmates believed the female equivalent of ‘ram’ was ‘ewe’, he had held that it was ‘sita’.

You certainly want to read a book on science written by a man who studied literature in Madras, where that branch of study is considered the exclusive domain of aspiring housewives and prospective recruits to the Church.

By the time I asked the author a question, the literati had trotted off after gushing about the role of satire. I was rather shocked when, before replying, he said he recognised my voice from a call I had made to schedule an interview.

With his unstudied friendliness, his it’s-weird-being-on-this-side-of-the-questions naïveté, and his lack of pseudo-intellectual airs, I was quite sure of two things: (a) the book would be a great read (b) the author was too genuinely talented to make a name for himself in a world where Indian writers are expected to be feministic, anti-establishmentarian anarchists who will write forty pages about incest, rainfall, the angst within or religious prejudice, before scampering off to hug a tree, preferably one with a Maoist perched on top.

I was right about the book, and thankfully, wrong about its reception. Serious Men went on to win The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010, and was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2010.

Serious Men is the story of two men. Ayyan Mani is a Dalit peon who lives in a Mumbai BDD chawl, spends most of his spare time criticising the hauteur of the women he lecherously eyes as they jog along Worli Seaface, and dreams of owning a Mercedes, having uninterrupted sex with his wife, and giving their son a good education.

The second is Tam Brahm Arvind Acharya, the head honcho of a reputed science research organisation. He’s done the right things – sent his daughter abroad, mentored protégés, kept his wife happy. But then, his marriage could be derailed by Oparna Goshmaulik, a young scientist who abandons loose T-shirts for figure-hugging outfits when an obese, powerful Older Man catches her eye.

But the story is not all about caste profiling, fidelity, promiscuity or power-play. The central idea is, perhaps, do we have a right to dream? Does a Dalit peon have the right to produce a son who is an acclaimed genius, and does the head of a science organisation have a right to believe that microscopic aliens are dropping to the earth, whatever the string theory or quantum physics may claim?

Arvind Acharya believes, “the Big Bang was that moment in the history of white men when God said, ‘Try to understand from here.’”

He can also psychoanalyse Jesus Christ rather convincingly: “From the point of view of pure chemistry, it is more miraculous to make wine into water than water into wine. But he did not do that. Because if he had gone into someone’s house and converted their wine into water, they would have crucified him much earlier.”

Manu Joseph’s attitude to scientists is two-pronged. While he admits they can score over journalists by countering a persistent incisive question with technical jargon, he also holds that lay people are entitled to laugh at these scientists, who got into their stream of study by scribbling furiously in the margins of papers to figure out the right place to put a decimal point.

It would be easy to say Serious Men is a spoof on science. The blanket statement is bolstered by jibes such as “Like every ray of light with a wavelength of 700 nanometres is always red, everyone who is in love is young.”

But while irony, humour and sardonic observations enhance the writing, there is an inherent lyricism and poignancy to the narrative that can capture the emotions of a scientist who has achieved a breakthrough that will redefine ideas the world has taken for granted, the triumph of a man whose inherited social order makes him want to see the perceived oppressor humbled, and the hilarity of a do-gooder being swamped by beneficiaries to the point of running for shelter.

While it’s become rather trendy to write from the limited perspectives of an anti-hero, of a social deviant who delights in distress, Manu Joseph’s work stands out from the rest in this genre because he has the ability to switch voices – one carries the arrogance of a man born into status, another alternates between the base instincts and the lofty aspirations of a man born to be damned – and refuses to allow his vocabulary to be confined by the roles of his characters.

There have been criticisms of the ‘male gaze’ in Serious Men, but these must be put down to the propensity of feminists to get offended rather than the patriarchal stance of the author. His portrayal of different men and women reacting to various complicated situations is honest and inventive.

Packed into a well-paced story are strong, enduring images and aphorisms that delight the reader by popping up in all the right places.

This is one book that hasn’t won its accolades for consciously treading unexplored territory. It’s a compelling story in which the innovations are so natural that they seem incidental.


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