SERIOUS MEN by Manu Joseph.  W. W. Norton & Company: New York. $14.95. 310 pages.  http://wwnorton.com 

The sky’s the limit” is a familiar phrase, but in journalist Manu Joseph’s prize-winning first novel, Serious Men, the sky is simply a work space for a group of highly-regarded Brahmin scientists and one surreptitious assistant. India’s participation in the space race is of less concern to these scientists than is testing and proving their personal hunches, hypotheses, and highfalutin hopes. But for all their education and intellectual focus, it is a devious Dalit who manages to instigate and orchestrate much of the chaos that invades their work place and private lives.

Serious Men is an amusing book—sometimes in a laugh-out-loud way but more so in that it elicits a
0ea704255b0aa9e6542a01b8a1bc12b5-2 – sustained, knowing grin. The characters are serious, too serious, and that’s what ultimately makes this novel so comical. They are serious about their personal crusades, few of which matter in the larger picture, but in their own small worlds and in their own tiny minds, they are enormously important.

Ayyan Mani works as the personal assistant to aging astronomer Arvind Acharya, Director of the distinguished Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. A Dalit in a Brahmin’s world, Ayyan is first and foremost a Brahmin-hater and second a Hindu-turned-Buddhist, because Hinduism is the religion of—who else—Brahmins. From his vantage point at the Institute, he coolly watches the scientists engage in their tedious pursuit of truth and carefully waits for those perfect opportunities to throw a wrench into the proceedings.  As if that weren’t enough to entertain, he delights in devising schemes to have his unremarkable hearing-impaired ten-year-old son Adi declared a genius.

Ayyan’s increasing delight in observing what he calls his “War of the Brahmins” fuels his drive to promote Adi. Spiraling out of control, gaining strength through havoc, with a smattering of mayhem, the lines separating family and work blur one into the other. When Adi’s genius collides with investigations into the Institute’s discoveries and business, none of the characters emerges unscathed.

Joseph is bold in pitting the Dalit assistant against the entire Brahmin scientific community in which Ayyan works.  The result is a well-rounded satire on Indian social conventions and how both ends of the caste spectrum tug and pull at each other. Ego and ambition strangle the ordinary and trample those who dare to get caught up in the pandemonium. Competition and jealousy infuse a touch of high-level bickering common the world over in academic circles.

Tackling the caste-class-religion issues of the day in a novel that pokes fun, examines, and questions them is serious stuff and seriously funny. And while the events and relationships in the novel vary from recognizably complacent to unquestionably ludicrous, the handling of the scientists’ focus on their work is where the seriously serious part shines. Acharya’s theory of alien microbes may appear to be a joke, but we readers have to reflect back to a time when putting humans in space to live for months in an orbiting mass of metal and technology was but an outlandish twinkle in some design engineer’s eye.

That realization, small in itself, connects the reader to the many subtle realizations the lofty intellectuals and the revenge-happy Dalit have as our planet rotates and revolves and as stars are born and die.  The characters—and we, ourselves—are mere microbes of the universe.

Serious Men points out that it is our ability to think, plot, connive, plan, demand, coerce, and blackmail, before coming to wise realizations, that make humans so tolerably absurd and absurdly tolerable. Only in this world can there be useless debates over the speed and velocity at which news travels or whether a once-Hindu-now-Buddhist is a good Christian.

Earlier crowned “India’s Most Stylish Writer” for his work as a journalist, Joseph recently won the Hindu Best Fiction Award of 2010 for Serious Men. He writes with both hands and both sides of his brain, for there are no fingers crossed for good luck, and there is a grounded (albeit it occasionally strange) logic to his novel.

Manu Joseph is the genius here. Seriously.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she is a paraeducator specializing in Reading, Language Arts, and Technology. She is working on two novels for middle grade and young adult readers.

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