Thursday, January 27, 2011
Review: Serious Men by Manu Joseph
One of the recurring themes debutante novelist Manu Joseph explores in Serious Men is the nature of marital love. He tells the story of two couples of vastly different backgrounds into whose conjugal lives the arrival of third parties threaten havoc. For the Dalit hero of the book, Ayyan Mani, it is his cherished son Adi who signposts the damping of his wife’s ardour; this is when Ayyan recognises the paucity of the life he has given Oja. For his boss Arvinda Acharya, an ancient pachyderm of a physicist who once almost won the Nobel Prize and now heads the Institute of Theory and Research, it is meeting the young, voluptuous astrobiologist Oparna Goshmaulik that throws into sharp relief his decades long union with his patient, loving wife Lavanya.
As the title indicates, it is not so much a story of the couples as it is of the two men, Ayyan and Acharya. And as the novel progresses, both these serious men embark on elaborate deceptions. Ayyan Mani, who defines his Dalit idenity through anti-Brahmanism, needs to prove to his wife that there is life beyond BDD, the tenement slum in which they live. So he teaches Adi, a lonely boy with a hearing disability, to blurt out words like ‘Fibonacci’ in class, and ask questions about Relativity as his peers learn about fractions. Through periodic, inspired, prods by Ayyan, the myth of the Dalit boy-genius spreads, and Ayyan and his wife’s stature in their community grows. Newspaper and TV reporters arrive in their slum, and his wife Oja once again begins to believe her husband is a man of worth.
Ayyan Mani is a fascinating character, a poor Dalit with tremendous powers of observation and ready intelligence. His overwhelming desire, apart from creating a better life for his son than he had, is to be mistaken for a member of the middle class. So he drops his son to school in taxis he can barely afford, practices phrases in English, carefully reads everything he can get his hands on.
The genius of this book lies in the observation of people and the different worlds they build. One short scene between Ayyan and wife climbed beneath my skin, in a few lines forcing me to contemplate how we – the educated, assimilated rich – draw artificial, unseen lines, separating sophistication from vulgarity, tasteful from tawdry. Husband and wife are dressing for a function in their son’s school, and Oja wants to wear her shiniest sari and thickest gold chain. But Mani convinces her otherwise (‘Important does not mean gold any more.’) Then she says to him: “’You should wear that coat you have. You look like a hero in it.’ ‘No, no,’ he replies. ‘You are not supposed to wear a coat for something like this. You are supposed to look like you don’t care much.’
A little like the unparalleled Russian Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph has the uncanny ability to mock those things “sophisticates” hold most dear. Science, high art, fine cuisine, literature, love; the things the educated world chooses to elevate to unnatural standing are picked apart time and again by his witty pen, and exposed, at their naked core, to be the hollow pursuits of people, not necessarily more noble or absurd than the activities of the peon who answers the phones, the journalist who writes stories for sale, the guard who covers the boss’s head with an umbrella as he scurries from his car in the rain.
Joseph is a fine political journalist (he is the Deputy Editor of Open Magazine) but this is his first novel, and I felt parts of the book began to drag, especially as he seeks to extract a nugget of philosophy out of the smallest things, such as the shape of an umbrella. It is the exposition of difference where he is strongest. Apart from the glaring material disparity between a Dalit peon and a near-Nobel winning physicist, Joseph also subtly and cleverly shows the difference their intellectual standing provides in their marriages. Ayyan is constantly relating to his wife information he has read and heard, so she could “marvel at a world so strange and at her man who knew so much.” Acharya, instead, has no longer any need to impress his wife. Years of achievement have taken care of that. Only once, when they are first married, is he as keen to dazzle as any man, and at their wedding pandaal he tells her something he has learned about the speed of light.
For a book at least notionally about science, some of the scientific thought is quite strange. Which near Nobel-winning physicist would seriously suggest that alien life could exist, impervious, in the dark vacuum of space, without the sustenance that a home like Earth can provide? Yet this construction is a reminder of the possibilities of fiction, where the only logic that must remain undisturbed is that of the narrative. Joseph is by no means a magical realist, yet his tale recognises that aligning the fictional world with the world we know is neither necessary nor even to be desired, no matter how much they resemble each other. In this book, physicists gaze out from their balconies at the stars and contemplate hot air balloons that will return to Earth with alien life forms. That is the world that Joseph must keep in balance, and he does so admirably.