Star Gazing

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Serious Men By Manu JosephThere are certain things that seem to be a given amongst Indian novels these days especially after White Tiger came into being – for example the under dog anti hero for instance, who has to live in suitably underprivileged circumstances, while fighting against the system that conspires to keep him down. In Manu Joseph’s debut novel, this is Ayyan Mani, a dalit who lives in one room in the BDD chawl with his wife and 10 year old hearing challenged son.

The chawl bring us into Slumdog Millionaire territory which is most probably intentional, especially in the section where Joseph describes the lines outside the toilets and Ayyan Mani’s wish to showcase his son’s talent there.

Ayyan Mani works however, and this is where the novel makes a firm statement of difference, as a clerk in the prestigious Institute of Theory and Research where he wages a subversive war against the Brahmins who run the organisation, primarily his boss  Arvind Acharya, the internationally renowned physicist, a man who is physically as large as his reputation, if not larger. Of Ayyan Mani’s war is also extended to the Christian school where his son Adi studies and where the child is encouraged by his father to disrupt classes by asking physics related questions like, why isn’t there anything that travels faster than light?

“Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.”

Ayyan Mani, however, is not the central character even though he is the one through which caste and class warfare is satirised and he is the one by making coffee also makes the plot. The person who draws the reader’s attention, however, is Arvind Acharya, the man who bestrides the astrophysical world like a colossus. He is the unexpected character in Serious Men, intellectual, endearing and suddenly fallible. A man who believes in lost causes and who is opposed to the Big Bang theory which he sees as a Christian conspiracy. Which creates another war of attrition to be set against the typical class war, a niche struggle where balloon astronomy is pitted against radio astronomy, or meaningful science against populist science.

Arvind inexplicably loses his heart to a Bengali astronomer bombshell with the strange name of Oparna Goshmaulik – well strange to a Bengali reviewer who would wonder why it wasn’t Oporna or Aparna Ghoshmullick – who is young enough to be his daughter and is brought to his knees – though here it should perhaps be pointed out that Joseph’s observation of female characters is from a very patriarchal viewpoint. His women are seen as primarily sexual beings with long hair and anklets who move lissomely as if they had fluid gel in their muscles.

Indian readers are likely to choose Acharya as their hero whereas a foreign audience would probably opt for Ayyan Mani as the recognisable Indian underdog they are accustomed to, but whichever you choose you are bound to appreciate Manu Joseph’s witty turn of phrase which comes out in sentences like: ‘Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.’ Or ‘Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes. ‘He is also a sensitive observer of everyday life which emerges in descriptions of Ayyan’s wife cutting her nails with a blade or the ‘desperate lovers …who quickly stole the gaps on the parapet.’ In fact the description he gives of Ayyan Mani’s perspicuity could quite easily apply to the author, “In the miserly lifts and stuffed trains, he often heard the relief of afternoon farts, saw scales on strange faces and the veins in their still eyes. And the secret moustaches of women’. Though this does go with the territory of journalism that Manu Joseph inhabits.

At one level Serious Men is a South Indian novel, since the Dalit versus Brahmin war was seen most acutely in that community, resulting in the migration of the Brahmins to other parts of the country. However the Dalit issue has  become part of Maharashtrian life too, focussing regularly on the statue of Dr Ambedkar, the Dalit who became a national hero and causing occasional protest riots.

Serious Men however spins from caste to span the larger social matter of egos and ambitions and love and hope which may or may not be written in the stars.

Serious Men by Manu Joseph
Harper Collins India

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Serious Men
by Manu Joseph

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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