Book Review: Serious Men

Towards the end of the book, Ayyan Mani, one of the key protagonists, is reprimanded by his superiors for writing a Thought for the Day which goes like this: "A greater crime than Holocaust was untouchability. Nazis have paid the price, but the Brahmins are still reaping the rewards for torturing others. -Albert Einstein" Really? Did Einstein say that? Of course not. That is Mani's way of taking revenge on the condescending and haughty scientists at the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. But why? The answer - his hatred towards Brahmins.

Written by the Kottayam born journalist and writer Manu Joseph, this debut novel (also winner of The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010) offers a fascinating insight into one of the biggest problems of our nation - Caste System. India is a land of diversity and a land of frightening contradictions. This is a place where affluence and penury go hand in hand; where casteism is entrenched in every walk of our lives. This is also the place where people from the backward community even now continue to suffer from lack of proper education, employment and housing. India might be an emerging super-power but she is still severely crippled by such utmost terrible economic disparities.

Joseph attacks this very aspect vehemently in a brilliant satire that takes a seething look at the grim realities of contemporary India. Serious Men tells the story of two people - Ayyan Mani and Arvind Acharya (and yes, they are the serious men being referred in the title). Ayyan is a Dalit living in a one room slum in Mumbai with his wife Oja and son Adi(tya). Having been employed at the prestigious institute as a personal assistant, he is one of the lucky few among the thousands living in the chawl to have a job. But tired of his pitiable and miserable life, Ayyan devices a brilliant plan, a plan so ingenious that it can't possibly fail. Furthermore, in his want to gain acceptance in the society and elevate himself (and his family), he goes to extreme lengths that at a point it all spirals out of control.

If Ayyan is one pole, the other is Arvind Acharya, a Brahmin and a brilliant astrophysicist, for whom Ayyan works as the assistant. Short-tempered and cantankerous that he is, and despite the fame and repute he has gained in his life, this arrogant old man still craves for success and is dogmatic about sending hot-air balloons up in the air to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life. However, two things stand in way of achieving his aim: his rebelling subordinates (and colleagues) and the gorgeous Oparna Goshmaulik, an astro-biologist and the only woman in the establishment.

When both their lives get rambunctious, Mani (the powerless) and Acharya (the powerful) become mutually dependent on each other so as to accomplish what they set out for. The plot is wickedly funny that it guarantees generous amounts of chuckles even when the situation is dead serious. This wry humour is bang on target particularly when he describes the city life of Mumbai - the traffic snarls, crowds in trains and buses, the contrasting life-style of the people (both rich and poor), those which can be ascribed to any Indian city.

The book manages to have a great amount of consistency in spite of straddling multiple issues based on education, reservation, science, love, marriage, sex, media, power, corruption, betrayal and foremost of all, the caste echelons. The two leads, the hero and the anti-hero, are so well-etched, realistic and endearing that you root for them and you want them to win despite their inherent flaws. The same, sadly, cannot be said about the women characters, who mainly serve as mere plot-devices to get ahead with the story. All in all, aided by stylish prose and an excellent comic sense, Manu Joseph makes a remarkable debut with Serious Men. When is your next novel out Mr. Joseph? I'm waiting!