Book Review: A Superior Insight Into A Slice Of India

Serious Men by Manu Joseph is a slice of India that’s beautiful in its uniqueness. Written in 2010 and published by Harper Collins India, this book won him The Hindu Best Fiction Prize for the year. Though politically this book dwells on the strong undercurrents of caste in science and academia, for me this is a story of two men and the women they love. Buy this book.

Ayyan Mani is the plotting peon to Arvind Acharya, the “insufferable astronomer” and Director at the Institute of Theory and Research: the protagonists. Ayyan Mani wants to get his wife and son out of the stifling life in their crumbling Mumbai chawl. As a peon at the ‘Institute of Brahmin Scientists’, he is also keen on witnessing and steering the War of the Brahmins to a conclusion of his choice. Arvind Acharya is on a mission to save science from populist scientists whose genius has long stagnated; professionals bent on finding their space in the limelight for that one final time. This is the story of their wins and losses.

Written with superior insight into our society, credit goes to Joseph for bringing up caste and class issues without pointing fingers. Laced with a generous helping of humour, Serious Men is a reader’s delight, one of those books you wish would last forever. My favourite however is the banter between Ayyan Mani, an Ambedkar inspired Buddhist and the missionary principal of his son’s school who tries to convert him to Christianity every time they meet.

While men in the book are beautifully crafted, the women’s side of the equation isn’t as balanced. Oja Mani is a typical lower middle class mother who wants her son to be “normal”. Lavanya is the homebound wife, ever-accepting of Acharya’s eccentricities, arguably her life’s goal being ‘to make his achievements possible’. Oparna is the beautiful woman scientist, a rarity, whose actions are all too predictable. I have my qualms with Joseph’s  uninspired flat women characters but I would compromise my displeasure for gems like the love-hate relationship between old Princeton friends, Jana Nambodri and Acharya. Now, as professional rivals, the author maintains a maturity in their  their relationship that is rarely seen in Indian storytelling. While Jana visits Acharya at home and reminisces about his rebel friend, he cuts no corners in expressing his professional animosity.

Full disclosure: I have a strong dislike for India themed books with themes like the Hindu-Muslim riots, India-Pakistan partition, terrorism and independence struggle simply because coming from India’s shin, I don’t relate to any of these things and these are not concepts I grew up with. Therefore, books like this one, Em and the Big Hoom, English August and Cobalt Blue give me hope that Indian writing in English is not beyond redemption.

Buy this book.

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