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Serious Men by Manu Joseph

If ancient Indians were really the first to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Moon, why is it that they were not the first to land there? I look at the claims of old civilizations that they have done this and that with great suspicion.—Neil Armstrong

 

Manu Joseph’s scheming anti-hero Ayyan Mani, the son of a low-caste sweeper, writes such invented “Thought for The Day” quotes on the blackboard of the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai, where he is a lowly assistant. His boss is the world famous astronomer Arvind Acharya, who, some say, missed the Nobel prize by a whisker because of his opposition to the Big Bang Theory.

Acharya, the Director of the Institute and a Brahmin, is largely oblivious of the consequences of his caste superiority. He dreams his own dreams, working diligently for the cause of science. Mani, a Dalit (the bottom rung of the caste hierarchy) has many wounds to nurse, the wounds of exploitation and exclusion inflicted upon his people by the higher castes for centuries. Living in a shabby one room Mumbai tenement with his wife and school-age son, he thinks up sly, devious and often comical ways to get back at the Brahmins.

Mani and Acharya are the two characters that drive this exquisitely plotted story, presenting a poignant snapshot of the Indian present where the pursuit of excellence and global aspirations cohabit with centuries-old mistrust rooted in the monstrosity of the caste system.

So while Acharya pursues his pet project to prove that life on earth came from space and that alien microbes enter the atmosphere riding meteorites, his assistant cunningly works the system to breach the walls of the exclusivity enjoyed by higher castes, to torment and divide them and reclaim the space that has been denied the Dalits for centuries.

The underdog Mani’s calculated moves to break through caste barriers and push his son into the limelight, the juxtaposition of high science and low living and the motif of toilet queue small talk in a Mumbai chawl—where Mani shares his son’s eye-popping exploits every morning—place this book in the company of other contemporary novels that engage head-on with India’s fractured socio-economic landscape with smart stories about the opportunist trying to cross the chasms that cut up modern India.

Mani’s secret maneuvers to promote his ‘genius’ son, the ever-present threat of getting exposed, coupled with the scientist’s conflict with peers obsessed with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and his burgeoning illicit love affair with a colleague, keep the pages turning until the very end of this smart debut from an engaging storyteller.


Rajat Chaudhuri is the author of the novel Amber Dusk.