To my absolute delight just two days ago my first Amazon book arrived bringing me Book 3 of the Man Asian Literary Prize. And in two days I have read it, enjoyed it and now write about it. This was Serious Men by Manu Joseph and was set in India again like the last one but this time in Mumbai. At its heart is the struggle between Brahmins and Dalits (formerly known as the Untouchables) in the complex caste system of India. I think it gave a good and nuanced account of some of these issues and certainly I found it instructive. I have read a number of reviews since completing it and it has attracted a mixed review which does surprise me, though most of the criticism seems to be about whether it has given an authentic (some think so) or sentimental (others, more critical, think so) view of the caste system and some critique of his writing and possible inherent sexism. For my part I thought it was quite well written, funny in parts and certainly easy to read and simply enjoy. His description of life in the slums of Mumbai was sympathetically portrayed without a major focus on it and this contrast so evient in India between wealth and absolute poverty was gently conveyed in the descriptive passages.
It is the author’s first novel and he appears to be a journalist by trade. This novel has already won a first prize award and I would have thought must be in the short list, though of course I have another 7 to go if I can locate them!!
The plot is centred in an Institute of higher learning and the pursuit of truth in science is the petty battleground between various high ranking academics, all Brahmins, who fight and war with each other just like any other higher education institution. This felt authentically drawn. The central characters are the head of the institute, a legendary astrophysicist, Arvind Acharya who I thought was a richly painted character whose complexity, gravitas and sadness shone through in equal measure. His secretary was the Dalit, Ayyan Mani who connived to make his live more interesting and engaged in his own ways of keeping one ahead of his superiors. He also contrived to get his son recognised as a child genius which was an interesting sub-plot to the main themes and showed how far his game playing could get him.
The one main weakness for me seemed to be the paucity of his portrayal of the women in the book. It has been criticised as a man’s novel, though not sure what that is. The female characters are though underdeveloped and appear only as adjuncts to their men and there is perhaps an underlying sexism to the narrative. This is certainly part of the critique I have read and I would accept to some extent.
But having said all this it is worthy of a read. It paints a picture of academia which is scurrilous but not too far away from the truth at times and for me explores the complexity of the caste system in all its unfairness and prejudice. Is it my favorite of the three so far – you will have to keep reading to find out!! I await the arrival of the next one.