Sunday, December 15, 2013

Serious Men - Manu Joseph

Caste and the untouchability were a major theme in the for most part of the twentieth century Indian Literature. From Malayalam ( until the sixties), Kannada( to the seventies ), Tamil, Telugu and any other language the doyens of Indian writing toyed with this single theme for a long time. The times have changed and there is significant improvement in the social structure. The collective bargain power of the caste politics is now gathering momentum, but the issues related to upper and lower class, untouchability and other taboos are relatively lesser known in the modern India ( at least in the Metro space).  Manu Joseph, in his award winning debut novel, attempt to chew the same Brahmin versus the rest, representing power versus the ruled, rich and poor story camouflaged under a funny satire. The book, won the year 2010 Hindu Fiction award as well as the American Pen Open Book award in 2011 and heralded as the new and different voice in the Indian English Writing.

The story weave around Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Speaking Dalit, born to a sweeper from a lower class, living in the infamous Mumbai slums, working as a secretary to the eccentric, Nobel contender scientist , heading the Institute of Theory and Research . Eavesdropping the conversations of his superior, Ayyan manages to gather sufficient knowledge on scientific aspect to impress the others.  A smart guy, he plays trick with the world, by promoting his half-deaf son as some extraordinary genius, with some clever maneuvers ( such as asking questions beyond the child's comprehension, sniffing out the Inter-school quiz questions and creating a havoc, by some play act) and manipulation of the press. The politicians ( especially the minister from the Dalit community) , takes up the action by adding their bit of excitement about the Dalit Genius from the slums. The ploy was getting out of control and to a point where Ayyan Mani is not able to retract. At the Institute front, the moronic, dictatorship of the Arvind Acharya, is taken a turn with the arrival of young attractive female researcher. The mission to outer space to collect sample of extra terrestrial particles, and establish the presence of living organisms gathers enough opposition, but Acharya has his powerful supporters in the Ministry. The mission, and the study of the collected samples by the female researcher, and her subsequent revenge on Acharya ( a sleazy love affair that shatters both the lives) for his betrayal  and the final filmy showdown is the book is all about.

The outrageous  humor, clever one liners, invented quotes, the make belief characterisation expected from a satire is all there. I often laughed out loud as I went through the book. Its very funny and he take pot shots at many things in one go. The urban system, the scientific research community, the quest for extra terrestrial intelligence, the political system, the great Indian caste system, the brahminical hierarchy , the religious and education nexus ( the Malayalee School principal, trying to woo Ayyan to convert into Christianity), the Ambedkar and the dalits ( with  the mass conversion to Buddhism, but his wife refuse to accept any other Gods but that of the Hindu deities, which they worshipped for generations), the press ( paid news and the sensation that they need), the slum dwellers, the power politics of the Research Institute, the peons and secretaries in Offices ( who are having a ball of a time with the "clash of the Brahmins")  etc etc. Every one is treated in a caricature form, often very superficial lacking individuality ( sa representation of various aspect of Society).

However, there are at least a few places, where the jovial mood of the writer is turned very sensitive and sublime. These parts of the writing were very good , especially  the Ayyan mani and his wife, the interactions between Arvind Acharya and his wife and a couple more similar instances were top class. What is also interesting to note is the keen observation of the writer on various people and style into their minutest detail , albeit they are limited to physical in nature. What was disappointing to me was that there is no real insight, and apart from the two parallel plots, there is no substance in the tale, that is convincing. In the end, it was yet another easy, funny and fast read. Luckily, the cinematic finish is done with a few pages, leaving the action sequence to be detailed by the reader himself. That was very appropriate and clever.
Serious Men ( 2010)

Manu Joseph 

Harper Collins 

326 Pages
Huffington Post ( Interview) , NY Times, Mumbai Boss, Guardian, Independent

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