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Serious Men: A Novel by Manu Joseph

Serious Men: A Novel (2010)

by Manu Joseph

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I thought this would be a funny, satirical novel. While it does have many touches of humor, it is also a serious examination of the lingering effects of the caste system in contemporary India.

Its hero Mani is a former untouchable ("Dalit'), who began life with aspirations. Now, he's stuck, and he knows it. He lives with his wife and son in "BDD Chawl", "..a hive of ten thousand one-room homes carved inside a hundred and twenty identical three-storyed buildings that stood like grey ruins, their paint long removed by old rains." 80,000 people live in these buildings, and Mani had wanted to break away from that world. As he has come to realize that he will not, he decides to help his son achieve more than did.

Mani works as the administrative aide to the head of a scientific research institute. The primary focus of the institute is the research for extraterrestrial life, and there is an ongoing dispute among the scientists as to what the best way to proceed is. The head of the institute is in favor of one methodology; other scientists favor different methodologies. What unites the scientists is that they are all of former Brahmin caste. There is an unspoken belief among them that the untouchable class is, in fact, inferior and that its members do not have the intelligence and could not achieve the education to become scientists, or to otherwise advance from menial positions. Most of the non-scientific staff at the institute are of lower castes, and they, including Mani, are essentially invisible to the scientists.

Mani's position may be one of invisibility, but due to the knowledge his position makes him privy to (and some knowledge that he comes upon by spying) he is able to manipulate some things behind the scenes. He wants to prove his son is a genius, and capable of becoming a research scientist. Suddenly, his son begins blurting out questions at school that stump his teachers. His reputation soars, and he becomes known as the brightest student at the school. The school principal tells Mani, "How beautifully you've forgiven the people who brutalized your forefathers. The Brahmins, the kind of things they did. The things they do even now. In private, they still call you the Untouchables, do you know that?" A newspaper article is mysteriously published in a local newspaper reporting that Mani's son Adi has placed first in a nation-wide scientific exam. Soon rumors of Adi's genius are everywhere, even at the institute.

I enjoyed this book, though there was a situation in which the head scientist has an affair with a female scientist which went on a bit too long, and which I felt portrayed the female scientist in an unrealistic light. I suppose this incident was necessary for the plot development, but it didn't have to take such a prominent position. Nevertheless, I recommend this book without reservations. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Nov 22, 2015 |
The Institute of Theory and Research is indeed a serious place where Astrophysicists and Astrobiologists search for life in the universe. This is especially true for the erstwhile director, Arvind Archarya. He finds himself at the head of scheming scientists and a personal assistance from the Dalits ( a group in India who are members of a lower caste)who schemes his way into by declaring his son a math genius and providing with questions to frustrate his teachers.

Arvind and Ayyan represent what at first glance seem to opposite ends of the spectrum but their stories become intertwined as one rises while the other temporarily falters. Manu Joseph has presented us with an insightful and faced paced comedy that reveals life in contemporary India.

This is novel of an emerging India that can provide scientific advances alongside of European and American scientists and at the same time preserve an ancient and oppressive caste system. Ayyan not only works the systems in behalf of his son but is adept at office politics and keenly aware that his caste status can be both a deficit and also of some use to him as he maneuvers the hallways of the Institute. ( )
  Wisconco | May 5, 2015 |
Not sure how I heard about this book but I am glad that I read it. It is a social satire about the highs and lows of Indian society set in Mumbai. The main character is a dalit(formerly an untouchable) who works for an Institute that explores potential extraterrestrial life and is run by the highest level of Indian society. The contrasts between the 2 create an excellent story. Ayyan the clerk manipulates and cleverly creates chaos to elevate his son and stir up problems at the Institute. I thought the writing was excellent and the insight into Indian society was a positive by product of an excellent and funny book. Based on this I am going to read his 2nd novel. I definitely recommend this. ( )
  nivramkoorb | Feb 18, 2015 |
When I read a wonderful book like Serious Men that actually debuted in 2010, I wonder how many amazing books slip through the cracks. This one certainly did.

Our main character, Ayyan, is poor and low-caste in India. His boss teeters on the edge of ruining the reputation of the entire institute where he works by pursuing a wacky attempt to prove the existence of aliens. His wife is nervous and his son is anonymous. Ayyan decides to embark on a crazy scheme to change his life.

Beautifully written. ( )
  debnance | Jun 1, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
An interesting campus comedy which includes some big ideas about the nature of belief and knowledge. ( )
  lanceparkin | Mar 27, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Manu Joseph's first novel elegantly describes collisions with an unyielding status quo, ably counterpointing the frustrations of the powerless with the unfulfilling realities of power. With this astute comedy of manners he makes a convincing bid for his own recognition as a novelist of serious talent, the latest addition to a roster of Indian writers who are creating fine literary art from their country's fearsome contradictions.
added by Cariola | editThe Independent, Peter Carty (Jun 11, 2010)
Joseph's finely portrayed characters exude wit and warmth in this engaging and introspective tale.
added by bell7 | editBooklist, Leah Strauss
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393338592, Paperback)

A poignant, bitingly funny Indian satire and love story set in a scientific institute and in Mumbai’s humid tenements.

Ayyan Mani will not be constrained by Indian traditions. Despite working at the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai as the lowly personal assistant to a brilliant but insufferable astronomer, he dreams of more for himself and his family.

Ever wily and ambitious, Ayyan weaves two plots: the first to cheer up his weary, soap-opera-addicted wife by creating outrageous fictions around their ten-year-old son; the other to sabotage the married director by using his boss’s seeming romance with the institute’s first female—and very attractive—researcher. Meanwhile, as the institute’s Brahmins wage a vicious war over theories about alien life, Ayyan sees his deceptions intertwining and setting in motion a series of extraordinary events he cannot stop. Unfailingly funny and irreverent, Serious Men is at once a hilarious portrayal of runaway egos and ambitions and a moving portrait of love and its strange workings.

One of 2010’s “First Novels to Savor.” —Sunday Telegraph

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:21 -0400)

Funny and irreverent, Serious Men is at once a hilarious portrayal of runaway egos and ambitions and a moving portrait of love and its strange workings.

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