27 May 2011

Serious Men by Manu Joseph

A video game country
I saved this book to read “later” for such a long time that it’s now nearly a year old. Partly it was because I’ve been a fan of Manu Joseph for many years, knew I would enjoy it, and delayed gratification while dealing stoically with a lot of other sad stuff. There was also a mild worry that it wouldn’t be as good as I expected. Happily, it turned out to be better.
Just because someone writes well doesn’t mean that they are going to produce a good novel. But Serious Men has more than just a writing style that keeps you entertained and marvelling. It has interesting characters and an engaging plot too, and as you move along and the feeling creeps up on you that something big is going to happen for sure, well, you just cannot stop reading till you find out exactly what. The biggest charm, for me, was its originality in every respect – a rare feature in any book.
One of the major themes of Serious Men is the caste divide in India – surprisingly alive and flourishing even in unlikely environments such as the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai and even the intellectually elevated environs of the exalted scientific Institute of Theory and Research. But it’s not just caste that sunders this country. Manhood has been sadly depleted and it’s only among the poor that men continue to be men – in the homes of the privileged they put on aprons and serve dinner to their guests! And free love, our protagonist Ayyan knows in his heart, is an enchanting place haunted by demented women. Here, every day men merely got away. And then, without warning, they were finished. (Ayyan is safe from such a catastrophe however. Luckily, he loves his wife.)
There’s further irony in the manner in which the biggest problems of life are juxtaposed: a neighbour has burned his wife to death; alien life has been found, dropping coolly in to Earth’s atmosphere. A gardener, who somehow did not look naked in just his underwear, stands watering the main lawn. As Arvind Acharya, Ayyan’s boss and big cheese at the Institute drives his wife Lavanya to a doctor’s appointment, taxis broke lanes and crossed his path, singing cyclists almost died under his tyres and gave him self-righteous glares before resuming their songs, buses were at his bumper and pedestrians stood in the middle of the road waiting to cross the other half, but Acharya’s blood pressure did not rise. “This country has become a video game,” he mutters. Lavanya’s most critical ailment, one which Acharya shared, was her towering height. When she was young, urchins would follow her down the streets of Madras shouting, “LIC, LIC!” invoking the fourteen-storeyed Life Insurance Corporation building, the tallest in the city.
My favourite moment in this book is when Ayyan, who has a clerical job, casually announces his IQ. Everything he has done so far, mystifying and sometimes quite revolting, begins to fall into place.
Serious Men was shortlisted for this year’s Wodehouse Prize – and when the prize was awarded three days ago, I was sorry that another book won. On the other hand, Serious Men may have moments of utmost hilarity, but it would be unfair to classify it as comic fiction. It’s a serious, wonderful book.

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