Monday, August 23, 2010

Serious Men By Manu Joseph: A Review

By John Cheeran
Every English language journalist in India has a novel project. Manu Joseph has completed it in a remarkable manner and Serious Men is the result.
It’s smart novel, one that you dream of producing at a writers’ workshop. It’s about a daring con job that a Dalit pulls off on scientific society with stealth and a large dose of insouciance.
A lot of thought has gone into the making of Serious Men.
Just as Ayyan Mani had a project to turn his son Adi into a genius, at least for a short span of time, making use of paid news and other tricks, Joseph too had his grand design of vowing readers. Please note that both Mani and Joseph chuckle at the end of the story.
Joseph does not need a certificate from me on how well he writes. Of course, he writes well.
Familiarity with journalism has helped Joseph hone his writing skills and it is a pleasure to read his measured, clear sentences and sardonic wit.
But one cannot ignore the artifice and intellectual pretension that inform and, in the process, harm Serious Men. In the end it is a deflating experience to realize that Joseph’s Serious Men derives its strength from Mani’s stealth and voice recorder as well as the ire of a spurned woman to sustain the narrative and engineer the denouement.
In a recent column in Open magazine Joseph has explained how he seized upon the idea for his novel project while reacting to a newspaper story on a childhood prodigy. His skepticism shows through the novel and results in smart aleck moments such as when Arvind Acharya notes how human beings can live without water, citing Tamilians as living proof. Well, I loved Acharya’s speech where he observes that how every mediocre fellow rails about mediocrity without realizing his own shortcomings. Such wry observations sit well in a column but a great novel requires insights and inspirational writing.
Joseph, however, has brilliantly captured the social tension in the post-Mandal India, and racial and class divisions that alarm and frighten the Brahmins. The big stories in a liberalized India are the rise of Dalits and Naxals. Again there can be opinions on whether the journalist has triumphed over the novelist or vice versa.
When markets crashed in India in 1998, Joseph had written a piece in Times of India that began with the lines “every time a friend of mine succeeds a little part of me dies.”
It’s a line made famous by Gore Vidal and though Jospeh chose not to acknowledge the American, the success that Serious Men has attracted will leave you no choice but to say it aloud.

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