New Delhi, India
Driven by the IT-boom and the skyrocketing SENSEX, the Indian economy touched new heights during the last two decades. But despite all the progress made by the country, social inequality still exists. There is a darker underbelly amid the shining India where people are not even entitled to two square meals. From that underclass comes Ayyan Mani, the protagonist and anti-hero of Serious Men, the impressive debut novel of journalist Manu Joseph.
Sitting at the bottom of the caste pyramid Ayyan Mani, is perpetually disdainful about the extra-ordinary clouts Brahmins enjoy in the public sphere of Indian society. Leading an unremarkable life in a one-room flat of a Bombay slum, Ayyan is an achiever by the yardsticks of the social class he comes from. A personal assistant to a renowned astronomer Arvind Acharaya, he is some kind of celebrity for his fellow residents of BDD chawl that mostly comprised of factory workers and labourers. To overcome the boredom of a lower class quotidian life and add some sparkle to his miserable existence, he embarks on a dangerous journey, weaving an outrageous fantasy around his only son. And to an extent he is able to convince everybody, including his innocent wife, that his son is a child prodigy.
At the Institute of Theory and Research, where Ayyan works, he is a peeping tom and takes unhealthy interests in personal lives of his superiors. He is a mirthful witness when the game of vicious office politics unfolds at the institute, between the formidable director of the institute, Arvind Acharya and his deputy. For Ayyan it is a war between Brahmins, and he has nothing to do with it. But when reputation of Arvind Acharya takes a dip involving controversy relating to a project about finding microscopic extraterrestrial, he jumps in to the fray. Ayyan not only saves Arvind but is also able to use this opportunity to make his son a national celebrity.
Ayyan Mani reminds us of Balram Halwai from Adiga's The White Tiger as both of them comes from the same Indian social class. But the character of Ayyan Mani is more credible and his approach to climb the class ladder is more sophisticated than the former. Metaphorically speaking, Ayyan's ambition symbolises the dreams of common mass. At another level, the novel is a subtle satire on all class systems in our society. This division of people into haves or have-nots are not exactly based on caste. It may be based on other considerations too, and most important among them is how much resources a person owns. The character has been sketched out well capturing the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist. But, the best-handled character in Serious Men is Arvind Acharya, the scientist par excellence who is as tall as his standings as an astronomer. He is able to inspire awe in his rivals. But his jumbo size ego and clarity about his ambition make him not to compromise on his beliefs. As the story gathers momentum and moves to the second half, he emerges out as the main protagonist and Ayyan is relegated to background.
Another interesting angle in the story is Oparna. An epitome of beautiful and an astro-biologist, she succumbs to the intellectual aspect of Arvind Acharya's personality. But the steamy affair between them doesn't last long. This has disastrous consequences on the career and reputation of Arvind Acharaya.
The author handles the characters efficiently and the story has a great start. The last few chapters are also dealt with superbly. But in between, the prose becomes laborious, sometimes, even forcing you to skip the pages. The voice of Ayyan Mani, at times, also becomes voice of the author and that sounds artificial. There are some minor plot-holes too. For example, Ayyan Mani's attempt to leak questions for quiz contest doesn't appear to be plausible.