Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Review of Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit, lives in Mumbai’s BDD chawl. His life is quite meshed with that of his neighbours, and yet, stands a bit apart, in that he dares to think beyond his grim circumstances. Working in the Institute of Theory and Research as PA to its Director, the formidable Arvind Acharya, Ayyan uses his power to make people wait, read confidential letters, listen to private phone calls, and delightfully, to subvert the thought-for-the-day once a week.

A conflict is brewing between Acharya and Jana Nambodri, the Deputy Director. To Ayyan, it is the War of the Brahmins, an event he longs to witness. An astrobiologist, Oparna Goshmaulik, enters the situation somewhere in the middle of all this. The playing out of academic politics takes an ugly hue, weaving its way around sexual politics and Ayyan’s private drama of creating a myth around his child.

Joseph’s plot is a tale that breathes around us. It is a story that needs the parallel realities of Mumbai to flower. His treatment of it, however, sometimes becomes clich├ęd and tedious, as in the drawing out of his main characters. The less important people – Jana, Ayyan’s wife Oja, his son Adi and Acharya’s wife Lavanya – are drawn with a delicate precision. The descriptions make you sit up, recognizing this human charade here and that foible there. While Ayyan, Acharya and Oparna populate long passages, somehow, their actions seem poorly etched and unconvincing. Acharya, the academic who falls for Oparna, definitely needed more skilful rendering.

Oparna’s character is almost cruelly drawn. She goes from a restrained yet stunning scientist, to a lovelorn seductress and finally, a vengeful saboteur who spills the beans on herself conveniently. Just in time to aid the plot, she disappears. Though Acharya sleeps with her for a fortnight and then tamely goes back to the silence of his marriage, he emerges as the idealist, whose job and personal life fall back in place nicely.

Joseph’s is a male novel, interested in the interior landscapes of men – whether poor or rich, Brahmin or Dalit, scientist or peon. How everyone reacts to Oparna in the Institute that has next to no women, leave alone attractive ones, is keenly observed. This focus on a male internal landscape is not problematic in itself. Many novels have engaged with the landscape of women’s worlds and still worked. Here, however, the plot suffers for it. You could perhaps accept Lavanya’s prompt forgiving of her husband; what you don’t feel convinced by is Oparna’s startling volte face.

The language ranges from tart, funny observations and brilliant single-stroke descriptions (the silver-haired Jana ‘had this affliction to be with the youth’) to awkward, embarrassing turns-of-phrase (like ‘the unmistakable insanity of formidable women who long to crumble’ or when looking at the young mothers outside his son’s school and their clothes, Ayyan observes that ‘their asymmetric panty-lines were like birds in the sky drawn by a careless cartoonist’). That is when you are not skipping pages of pointless prose. Annoyingly, the authorial voice keeps popping in disruptively. Ayyan, an intellectual and a political being, refuses to convert to Christianity and rejects Hinduism. His disdain is discussed economically, often humorously. He has opinions on everything, and sometimes, you suspect they are Joseph’s.

Read Serious Men because it explores the many small politics around us – between the smart man in a chawl and the more laidback; between the parents of the poor-but-brilliant boy in school and the more prosperous ones; between husband, wife and the rather unfortunate child. There are stories here which need to be told – that Joseph drags them all into his first book is perhaps a mark of a writerly courage which stands on the edge of bravado.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the DNA of Sunday, July 11, 2010