A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too

A review of Serious Men, by Manu Joseph

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In his debut novel, Indian magazine editor Manu Joseph takes on the caste system, Big Science, love, marriage, and sex, corruption in government, the news media, office politics, loyalty and betrayal, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the fate of the Universe — yet it all hangs together somehow. This is Black Comedy, Indian-style.

Serious Men — the book’s satyrical title — refers to Aravind Acharya, the world-famous cosmologist who directs the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai with its numerous minions. All are high-caste Brahmins. Acharya’s deputy and most of the other scientists in the Institute seethe under the dictatorial and dismissive director, who sequesters all available funds for his project to prove that extraterrestrials “seeded” life on earth as microbes arriving on meteorites — and continue to do this to this very day! Acharya is, of course, quite mad, and apparently has been so throughout his very long life. As he gradually loses control and lets slip the mask of sanity that has shielded him for decades, the Institute’s deputy director and the cadres of radio astronomers who follow him stage a coup and seize the directorship once Acharya has fallen desperately in love with a beautiful young astrobiologist, the Institute’s first female researcher.

However, it is Acharya’s secretary, a Dalit (“Untouchable”) named Ayyan Mani, who is the protagonist of this richly woven novel. Ayyan, we learn, has an IQ of 148, clearly higher than that of most of the Institute’s researchers, and boils with resentment toward high-caste Brahmins with a consistency worthy of a revolutionary. As the drama unfolds in the Institute, with Ayyan recording every revealing conversation through a phone line left open into Acharya’s office, the secretary applies himself to a clever plot to convince the world that his half-deaf 10-year-old son is a scientific genius. The principal action shifts among three sets: the Institute, the adjoining Professors’ Quarters, and the filthy, run-down “chawl” (high-rise slum) where Ayyan ekes out a bitter existence with his son and his fearful and superstitious wife.

Humor aside, Serious Men abounds with insight about India today in all its dynamism, its contradictions, its promise, and its sad, pervasive poverty. Manu Joseph is a writer worth watching.

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Filed under Humor, Trade Fiction

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