“If you want to understand India, don’t talk to Indians who speak English,” says Salman Rushdie – or at least he does so in Manu Joseph’s gripping new novel about race, caste, sex and power in India, Serious Men. This citation of what appears to be an intriguing but improbable remark by Rushdie appears in the novel in the form of a “quote of the day” on an organisation’s chalkboard. The fabricator of these ingenious quotes is Ayyan Mani, a middle-aged Dalit who works as a secretary to the director of a fictional institute of physics in Mumbai called the Institute of Theory and Research.
Ayyan – the narrator always refers to him by his first name – deeply resents the power structures that continue to privilege the high-born both within the institute and more widely in society, while ceding a few concessions here and there to men like him. It is only under an alias – in this case Rushdie – that Ayyan can make himself heard, since in this environment the name matters as much as the thought. The remarks left by Ayyan on a noticeboard of the institute (and attributed to a mysterious “Administration”) constitute one of the ways in which he carries on a sardonic commentary, much of it within his own head, on the affairs of the institute and its elite, self-absorbed class of scientists, most of them Brahmins. As if fulfilling the ancient duties of their caste, the Brahmins spend most of their time thinking “deep, expensive thoughts” on abstruse scientific subjects – or else plotting a way forward for themselves, in little cliques and cabals. Ayyan loves these machinations that run in parallel to "the search for the truth" that seems to him such a charade, and does everything he can to stoke them, hoping to set off a “war of the Brahmins” that will provide plenty of viewing pleasure from his ringside seat.
Joseph’s novel opens with Ayyan sitting on a Mumbai seafront at twilight, ogling at attractive young women with their “tired high-caste faces” as they walk past. It stays with him as we see his envy of all the things around him that he cannot have, and goes home with him to the dilapidated room in a congested chawl where he lives with his wife and son. Ayyan is “something of a legend” in the chawl, having risen up to a white-collar job in contrast to the menial labour or joblessness of other men around him. But although he would like to cut himself off from his roots and take his family someplace better, more middle-class, there is nowhere for him to go, and he perfunctorily keeps up the old social connections. Here is Joseph's reading of why Ayyan behaves the way he does in the neighbourhood he should think of as home:
Even though the men here loved Ayyan through the memories of a common childhood, he had long ago cut himself off from them. He laughed with them always, lent money and on humid nights chatted on the black-coated tar terrace about who exactly was the best batsman in the world, or about the builders who were interested in buying up the chawl, or about how Aishwarya Rai was not very beautiful if she were observed closely. But in his mind he did not accept these men. He had to abolish the world he grew up in to be able to plot new ways of escaping from it. Sometimes he saw bitterness in the eyes of his old friends who thought he had gone too far in life, leaving them all behind. That bitterness reassured him. The secret rage in their downcast eyes also reminded him of a truth which was dearer to him than anything else. That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men. That the fellowship of men. despite its joyous banter, old memories of exaggerated mischief and the altruism of sharing pornography, was actually a farcical fellowship. Because what a man really wanted was to be bigger than his friends.Nor can Ayyan, even though he wishes to, forsake the burdens of his religion. As a gesture of rebellion against the disabilities and racial suffocation visited by Hinduism on the lowest castes for millennia, Ayyan has converted to Buddhism. But his wife Oja still retains her belief in Hindu gods, and ascribes the part-deafness of her son Adiya to their wrath. “Buddha’s eternal smile, she had always interpreted as the peace of a cosmically powerless man,” we are told (and what is striking about this sentence is not just the scathing thought but the odd syntax, which gives us Buddha’s smile on its own for a half-second, as Ayyan might see it, before Oja arrives to scythe it down with her contempt). “It was the other gods, the Hindu gods, who had all the magic.”
Even if Joseph’s novel was only a depiction of this densely imagined subaltern resentment and gloom (far more complex and convincing than the treatment of the same theme in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger), it would be a striking achievement. But as it turns out, Ayyan is merely one half of the field of consciousness sympathetically explored by the novel through a focus on particular characters, and the other half is that of a representative of all that Ayyan mocks about caste, class, and science: Arvind Acharya, the aging director of the Institute, and one of the “them” of Ayyan’s bitter binary worldview.
Like most Brahmins, Acharya is not greatly concerned by caste issues – his place in the caste order makes him oblivious to the privileges and constrictions of caste. Nor is he greatly interested, as his secretary is, in love or sex. These drives are to him are sublimated in the practicalities of marriage, and to him his body is more the shell for his mind than an agent or object of desire. What possesses him is science, and a search for the truth, even if that truth is only a new step into the abyss of all that is unknown, soon to itself fall away and be replaced by a new consensus. He seeks, and has always sought, "A moment in time – a rare moment in time – when man was about to learn something more about his little world."
What is more, Joseph has the confidence to not merely assert these things about his protagonist, but to explore in great depth what the life of the mind of a man of science may be like. This makes his book stand out in the field of contemporary Indian novels. He works up a memorable picture of Acharya’s big, shambling figure, his bald head, his beautiful face that has something of an infant’s innocence, his impatience and irritability, and the iron hand with which he runs the institute. But he also explores, dramatically and persuasively, Acharya’s pet theory: that life on earth was seeded by alien microbes, and that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is taking the wrong form by imagining aliens as intelligent beings not very different from humans.
Acharya’s dream project is to send up a balloon forty-one kilometres above the earth, where no life is thought to exist, to return with samples of the air there. If any trace of life are discovered in this vicinity, “it would mean that it was coming down, not going up.” But Joseph thickens our sense of Acharya’s flaming mind by relaying to us his speculations not just about alien life, but on all kinds of conundrums. “Through life,” we hear Acharya say, in a moment of reverie, “the universe saves itself the trouble of making whole star systems by concentrating vast amounts of energy as consciousness.”
Nor is the auditor of that remark insignificant, for she herself represents a consciousness and an energy to which Acharya, despite himself, finds himself powerfully attracted. Oparna Goshmaulik, an attractive young collaborator on Acharya’s Balloon Mission and the only woman of stature at the institute, falls for Acharya’s unique charms. In attempting to seduce and possess him, she visits upon him all those agonies of body and mind, painful and pleasurable at the same time, that are commonly the torments of youth. Yet Acharya feels a loyalty to Lavanya, his wife of several decades, and walks away from Oparna’s first invitation to a tryst in her basement laboratory. Their short-lived affair (spied upon by the all-seeing Ayyan) and its disastrous repercussions are described by Joseph with a fine awareness of all that passes between two adults who have shared, and now regret, intimacies. What is most unexpected and pleasing about Serious Men is that his microbe-loving protagonist is one of the most unusual lovers in Indian fiction. Acharya seeks aliens, but instead finds something almost as strange and wonderful in the basement of his own institute.
Among the dozens of finely judged vignettes in the book, here is one. It has nothing to do with any of what we might consider the novel's primary themes, and so is all the more pleasing for the care with which it has been brought off. Acharya has promised to return early from the institute to drive Lavanya to the hospital for a check-up. Both husband and wife are now something of a mystery to one another; neither can quite believe how old the other has become, so different from the Acharya and Lavanya called up by their decades of memories. Here they are, driving to hospital in "an ancient sky-blue Fiat". The long sentence in the opening paragraph is one of the few in the book that sound off-key, excessive, but nevertheless the scene is striking:
Acharya did not say anything to her. That was not unusual. They got into the car and drove in silence. 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."At the reception, he realized he had left something in the car." That "something" is not used (although on second reading it might seem so) just because if the narrator said "Lavanya", the pay-off of the next few sentences would be destroyed. It also accurately describes the interim stage of discordance by which Acharya arrives at a perception that his wife is missing. And then (although Acharya himself accuses his wife of being dramatic for her passive resistance) what is striking is the undramatic nature of the conversation that follows, which nevertheless moves us, because we are allowed to fill in the gaps, to imagine what the faces of Acharya and Lavanya might be like as they stand next to each other, perhaps not looking one another in the eye. Good dialogue, one realises, is surprisingly rare in fiction.
'This country has become a video game,' he said. He did not speak for the rest of the journey.
When they reached Breach Candy Hospital, he got out of the car, locked the doors and went into the porch. At the reception, he realized he had left something in the car. He went back, muttering to himself. Lavanya was sitting inside the car with a calm expression on her face.
'You can open it from inside,' he told her.
'I know,' she said, as she struggled out of the vehicle.
'Then why didn't you do it?' he asked angrily. 'Why are you being dramatic?'
'I am being dramatic?'
'I know I forgot you in the car. So?'
'So nothing. It happens. Did I say anything?'
If there is a fault in Joseph’s novel, it is that the complexities and many layers of caste tensions in India are reduced, in the novel’s scheme, to a face-off between Dalits and Brahmins, with no other groups in between. This was almost inevitable, one sees, if the material had to be brought down to manageable limits, and the other aspects of the story simultaneously nurtured. But Joseph’s writing has an unmistakable assurance and intelligence, and he steers almost completely clear of the contrivances of plot, infelicities of style, stereotypical narrative arcs, and oddly ingratiating manner found in so many contemporary Indian novels in English. Ayyan and Acharya are shown to be, in their own ways, serious men, comprehending their fraught positions in great depth. Their disparate worlds and ambitions, and their belated, surprising complicity, are expertly realised in this very fulfilling first novel.
And here is an old post on another very good Indian novel about caste set against the backdrop of education: Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker.