IN MANU JOSEPH’S DEBUT NOVELSerious Men—praised by one critic as “one of the very best novels ever to come out of South Asia” and the winner of The Hindu’s inaugural Best Fiction award in 2010—the protagonist, Ayyan Mani, is a manipulative, sly, scheming Dalit-Buddhist who almost gets away with passing off his partially deaf son, Adi, as a prodigy, a genius who can recite the first 1,000 prime numbers. The garb of satire—where almost every character cuts a sorry figure—gives the author the license to offer one of the most bleak and pessimistic portrayals of urban Dalits.
Ayyan Mani works as secretary to the Brahmin astrophysicist Arvind Acharya at the ‘Institute of Theory and Research,’ where he bestows on himself the subversive power of inserting anti-Brahmin statements into the “Thought of the Day.” While the novel’s bumbling scientists are at least earnest in their pursuit of ostensibly higher truths, Mani is an open fraud—a conman. The novel’s female characters hardly fare better: the astrobiologist Oparna Goshmaulik is purely a ‘sex item,’ described each time she makes an appearance, in Mani’s gaze, as “always a sight,” “a commotion” and “an event”; the wife of Ayyan Mani, with the unlikely Tamil name Oja, is draped in naiveté bordering on dumbness.
An undisguised contempt for women and Dalits goes hand in hand with the ancient Brahminical book of social codes, the Manusmriti, and Joseph decidedly lives up to his first name. Despite his savage portrayal of female and Dalit characters—or perhaps because of it?—Serious Men has won critical appreciation from a cross-section of readers and critics, including some upper-class feminists (“dodgy sexual politics but, basically, I had such fun reading it!”). As a friend remarked, even though India has never had a regime of political correctness, a section of the elite has decided it’s okay to enjoy jokes at such correctness.