Science, deception, and class struggle in India
In his promising but flawed debut novel, Manu Joseph combines a satirical portrait of modern India with an unlikely love story at a prestigious scientific and philosophical organization. The author, the former features editor at the Times of India, currently serves as the deputy editor of OPEN, a new Indian magazine that is, according to its website, “boredom-proof.’’
I wish the same could be said about “Serious Men.’’ While certainly intelligent and often sharply observed, the narrative suffers from erratic pacing and periods of somewhat aimless philosophizing. The author’s strength lies in his portrayal of the slums of Mumbai and the firmly entrenched caste system, personified by the two main characters: Ayyan Mani, a Dalit (untouchable) who loves the city for “the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor’’; and Arvind Acharya, a Brahmin, or member of the upper class.
As the “Big Man’’ at the Institute of Theory and Research, a think tank dedicated to rigorous scientific inquiry, Arvind rules with unquestioned authority, but his latest project is causing an uproar among the other members. Ayyan is his assistant, charged not only with managing his daily affairs but also halting the advances of the increasingly displeased scientists, chief among them deputy director Jana Nambodri.
The power struggle between Arvind and Jana plays out amid another momentous occurrence: the rise of the institute’s first female researcher, Oparna Goshmaulik. While Jana and his hidebound colleagues continually question the expertise of a female scientist, Arvind falls in love with Oparna and embarks on a disastrous affair.
Meanwhile, despite his love for Mumbai and the companionship of his fellow Dalits, Ayyan longs for a better life outside the slums. He realizes “[t]hat the fellowship of men, despite its joyous banter, old memories of exaggerated mischief and the altruism of shared pornography, was actually a farcical fellowship. Because what a man really wanted was to be bigger than his friends.’’
To that end, he concocts a complicated scam to convince everyone that his 11-year-old son is an unparalleled genius. Though “[h]e found some comfort in the fact that he was not the first person to create the myth of genius around his child,’’ the weight of the lie causes him to pursue it further than he originally envisioned, and Ayyan is forced to bring Arvind into the fold.
Unfortunately, by this point Jana has framed Arvind for creating fraudulent scientific results, and Arvind has also suffered the embarrassing betrayal of Oparna. Reduced to a “wandering bard’’ who proselytizes outside the institute, Arvind has one last card up his sleeve to help both himself and Ayyan, but it will involve previously unheard-of duplicity and fraud.
Throughout the story, Joseph raises intriguing questions about the intersections of science, philosophy, and spirituality, and who has the authority to credibly discuss such matters. In the character of Ayyan, the author suggests the importance of democracy of thought, but despite his machinations on behalf of his son, Ayyan doesn’t possess the intellectual curiosity that drives the members of the institute. “So, why is there life?’’ he asks. “What’s the whole game? It was the sort of moment that frustrated him and made him wish that someone had left the answer in his drawer on a neatly typed piece of paper, so he could just read it and say, ‘Oh yes, I thought so,’ and go back home for a nice long nap.’’
Ultimately, there’s very little at stake in this comic caper, and Joseph is too quick to tie up the loose ends at the conclusion. It’s the kind of debut novel that will likely pass without fanfare, but the author’s ambition and evocative prose show enough promise to leave readers expecting more from Joseph in the future.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.