Serious Men by Manu Joseph

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Serious Men by Manu Joseph

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: A sharp, funny book about India's social hierarchy, and one man's attempt to defy his place in the caste system and pull off an outrageous scam.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: February 2011
Publisher: John Murray
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848543089

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Ayyan Mani is a Dalit, an untouchable, stuck in a flat in Mumbai's slums but hoping, somehow, for a better future for his son. Working at the Insitute of Theory and Research he uses all his cunning and wiles to stay ahead of the game amongst the Brahmin scientists. Does he have the intelligence, and nerves, to convince everyone that his son, against all odds, is a genius?

I enjoyed this story which deals with issues of caste and social tension yet handles them in a sharp, funny way. Ayyan Mani is a schemer, lying to his wife, encouraging his son to lie too, spying on his boss and secretly manipulating events in the workplace, yet somehow you find you like him, or you're at least interested in what will happen to him, through the story.

The story doesn't just rely on Ayyan Mani's tale as we read about his boss at the Institute and also the woman his boss has an affair with. The separate story lines pull together in an interesting way, though perhaps some readers will be put off by the treatment of women in the story. There is Ayyan's constant lies to his wife, who seems a rather insipid character lost in the world of her TV soaps and constantly warding her son from the evil eye. Then there's the single, young female scientist at the Institute who, somewhat surprisingly, falls in love with one of the old, fat scientists and has an affair with him. I wasn't sure that I believed in her actions leading up to the affair or, more importantly, afterwards. This felt like a very male book, but I think that if you don't take it too seriously then it remains funny rather than offensive.

I felt the emphasis was always on character rather than setting, so I didn't get much of a feel for India as a place through the story which is a shame as it's such a beautiful country. The focus, instead, is on Indian society and it certainly made for a fascinating, and disturbing, read. Ayyan's grand scheme to make his son a genius isn't the only subterfuge in the story, and the hierarchical struggles at the Institute are also sharply observed and funny to read.

This is an easy, accessible book which cleverly demonstrates the inequalities within contemporary Indian society but in a funny, thought-provoking way.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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