Serious Men, By Manu Joseph

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The Independent Culture

If the composition of our new Cabinet throws the British class system into unpleasant relief, then consider India. Social divisions anywhere have sharp edges, but the burgeoning superpower remains home to some of severest lacerations around. The lowest castes are the dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and many are still fobbed off with abysmal education, employment and housing. The anger and frustration that engenders provokes strife, and yet the wretched iniquities can also give rise to cruelly pointed comedy.

Serious Men's anti-hero is Ayyan Mani, a dalit living with his wife and child in a one-room Mumbai slum. Mani is one of the lucky few from his neighbourhood in gainful employment. He works at the prestigious Institute of Theory and Research as a humble personal assistant, but simmers with resentment at the Institute's retinue of supercilious Brahmin scientists.

Discontent can afflict anyone at any level, right up to Mani's boss, Arvind Acharya. He's a world-famous physicist with a stature as massive as his reputation, eccentric and autocratic. Despite his advancing years he craves success for his pet project, a hunt for alien microbes in the upper atmosphere with a giant balloon, dismissing a rival faction who favour radio telescopes. Archarya battles zealously on behalf of his balloon, but he wonders whether everything that happens in nature is wholly predetermined by forces unknowable through physics.

In the wider culture, determinism runs rampant. The barriers obstructing the lower castes - and women from all backgrounds - and are only slowly descending as modernity advances.

From Mani's lowly perspective, discreet subversion can be his only escape. To avoid going insane with boredom and to cheer up his doleful wife, Mani feeds his son Adi formidable questions to pose at school so that he can pass himself off as a genius. The staff are fooled - including bigoted Christian headmistress, Sister Chastity - and then the deception begins to get out of hand. Manu Joseph's first novel elegantly describes collisions with an unyielding status quo, ably counterpointing the frustrations of the powerless with the unfulfilling realities of power. With this astute comedy of manners he makes a convincing bid for his own recognition as a novelist of serious talent, the latest addition to a roster of Indian writers who are creating fine literary art from their country's fearsome contradictions.