Serious Men

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Manu Joseph’s satirizes contemporary India, “pounding away at the caste system like a pitcher repeatedly throwing his best fastball.”

If Manu Joseph’s portrayal of the winner-takes-all nature of the Indian caste system in Serious Men is any indication, coming in second in a two-horse race is no fun. This is unfortunately true for Joseph, whose novel has been frequently, and justifiably, compared with Aravind Adiga’s hugely successful novel, The White Tiger; while brilliant in places, Serious Men is sloppier, less funny, and less human than Adiga’s novel.

Like Adiga’s India, the India of Serious Men is divided into the haves and the have-nots in ways so deeply ingrained that it could almost pass for post-apocalyptic science fiction. Joseph’s caste system is even more starkly bifurcated than Adiga’s; with few exceptions, the upper-caste Brahmins are egotistical and condescending toward the lower-caste Dalits, also known as “untouchables.” The Dalits are portrayed as desperate dullards, either shrilly resentful or so anesthetized by television soaps that they’re unaware of the most basic cultural identifiers. (“Who is Adidas?” one Dalit asks.)

Ayyan Mani is a lowly assistant to Arvind Acharya, the Brahmin director of a scientific research institute. Ayyan has the privilege of being the only Dalit in the book who is articulate enough to express anger against the prevailing social structure. Openly disdainful of the Brahmin scientists, Ayyan writes false “Thoughts for the Day” on the office blackboard: “A greater crime than the Holocaust was untouchability. Nazis have paid the price, but the Brahmins are still reaping the rewards for torturing others.” – Albert Einstein.

At home, weary of living in a tenement with his wife Oja and his deaf, eleven-year-old son Adi, Ayyan has given up on his life to such an extent that he tells his wife, “For the sake of our son, we must stop seeking our own pleasures.” Ayyan repeats this idea throughout the book: The life of a Dalit is so bleak and hopeless that only the next generation will have even the smallest hope of bettering their lives. When Ayyan fabricates a story about his son’s mathematical genius, the roller-coaster plot begins to roll.

Arvind, his boss, is ever the absent-minded professor, devoted to an experiment to prove the existence of alien life, despite the skepticism of his colleagues. When a beautiful scientist named Oparna joins the Institute, Arvind’s devotion to his project is displaced by a more terrestrial, and carnal, objective. His workplace infidelity leads to his slow and steady professional downfall, while Ayyan’s increasingly public lies about his son’s intelligence give him more and more power, as the Dalit community starts to regard the boy genius as the Golden Child.

Some of the novel’s strongest passages are Ayyan’s internal rants against the privileged, like this one in which Ayyan observes Oparna at the Institute:

Ayyan was watching her surreptitiously as she stared thoughtfully at the floor. Another high-caste woman beyond his reach. She went to the Cathedral School in the back seat of her father’s car. Then on to Stanford. Now she was here: the Head of Astrobiology, the solitary queen of the basement lab. So easy it was for these women. Soon, some stupid reporter would write that she had “stormed the male bastion.” All these women were doing that these days. Storming the male bastion. “Rising against the odds”—they all were. But what great subjugations did these women suffer, what were they denied by their fathers, what opportunities didn’t they get, what weren’t they fed, why were they so obsessed with their own womanhood? Oja Mani did not even know that there was something called womanhood. “Downmarket” was what women like Oparna would call her, even discreetly laugh at her perhaps if they met her: at the powder in the nape of her neck, the oil in her hair and the yellow glow of turmeric on her face. Ayyan felt an immense hatred for Oparna and all her friends.

Joseph pounds away at the unfairness of the Indian caste system like a pitcher repeatedly throwing his best fastball, but fails to show enough glimpses of humanity on either side of the caste divide. Ayyan’s motivations are murky at best: What does he hope to accomplish by making his boy a Dalit genius? How does creating this media illusion resolve his own deep-seated resentments toward everything Brahmin? It’s unclear what Joseph wants to say about the relationship between the caste system and media culture, or how any of it relates to the character of Ayyan. Arvind fares better as the scientist whose career and marriage is destroyed by his infidelity, but who, as a result of this journey, reconnects with his love for research and the search for truth.

The novel’s title is deliberately ironic: Ayyan and Arvind are both serious men moving through an increasingly absurd and comic scenario. But there’s nothing particularly funny about Ayyan’s rage, unbalanced as it is by characters or situations that might tell a different story about India’s haves. All the other characters are equally stuck in their heads: Arvind is obsessed with aliens and Oparna; Oparna is obsessed with Arvind; Ayyan’s wife is obsessed with soap operas and Hinduism. For a book billed as a satire, it’s unclear exactly what Serious Men is satirizing. The absurdity of the Dalits and Brahmins? The media culture? India’s politicized scientific community?

The overstuffed plot snakes and buckles, resolving in the only way overstuffed plots can resolve: the Hollywood Way. There are quizzes that recall Slumdog Millionaire, press conferences and television appearances, and even, finally, a riot. While Serious Men has its share of poignant, even transcendent, moments, it’s also littered with enough slipshod point-of-view shifts and imprecise scene writing to shake a reader’s confidence in Joseph’s editorial eye. In the end, one can’t help but feel that Serious Men, like Ayyan’s eleven-year-old son, could have been a genius but just wasn’t.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →