Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Serious Men is set in Old Bombay. It revolves around the mediocre life of Ayyan and Oja, who live with their 11-year-old son Adi in a one-room house. Manu Joseph has shown chawl life of old Bombay through the couple’s viewpoint, via their everyday struggles. Ayyan and Oja are Dalits, and Ayyan holds a lot of hatred for the Brahmins for the life long discrimination his people have endured. As we move along, we are introduced to Ayyan’s personality layer by layer and his brutal opinions about the Hindu caste system. The story unfolds the conflicts of Ayyan’s desires and his societal limitations, and how far he goes to bridge the gap between the two.

The kids were playing and someone decided that they were all very tired, they would play husband and wife. In their opinion, it was a relaxing game.”

Ayyan is the main character of this story and narrates the story from his viewpoint. He was raised poor and has not made much progress as he and his family still live in a chawl. He has a unique way of dealing with the problems, the ‘Jugaadu‘ way of handling things, which often makes you giggle at his actions. No sooner we are introduced to his brutal opinions about the caste system, which seems ironic at that point as he reflects strong patriarchal tendencies. He belittles a rising scientist’s achievement as she’s a woman, while at the same time accusing her of a privileged upbringing.

“And men were people who were different from him”

As a society, we have oppression ingrained in us. There is always a section that gains something at the expense of the other. The thing with oppression is that only the oppressed see it as a problem. This gets very real with Ayyan, he seems okay to pass on remarks to belittle women around him, but can’t stand a higher caste person do the same to him. He conveniently puts a remark of women being clingy in a relationship and wanting to marry a virgin who wouldn’t demand anything from him.

“And he found a virgin who had none of the memories he had given to other women” 

We are introduced to Oparna, the scientist whom Ayyan had belittled when she joined. Her character was very empowered however, it gets sloppy once she starts playing less of a scientist and every men’s love interest in the office. She is posed to have this weird sexual energy that lures every guy in the office. She starts playing dumb to impress her superior, to let him have the idea that he’s more capable in his profession than she is. Since the story is narrated from Ayyan’s point of view, this seems like a patriarchal viewpoint where they see women in the workplace as incapable and a love interest. For this reason, it got a little hard for me to get by whenever Oparna was in the scene. The other women character in the book is Oja, who’s Ayyan’s wife. Oja is innocent and full of spirit. Her character hasn’t been given much space to breathe in than being a caring wife and attentive mother. I would have liked it better if the female characters were a valuable addition to the plots and the story rather than just being there.

Ayyan aspires to break the societal stature he has been living in for years. In pursuing the same a dark side of Ayyan’s personality is revealed to us, which is a mixture of jealousy and illiteracy. His quest to be more like Brahmins, to defeat them in their game, and to take revenge for the discrimination takes a toll on him. This hatred makes him delusional and it’s intriguing to see how far he goes to pursue his unattainable aspirations.

“The tragedy of mediocrity is that even mediocre people shake their heads and mull over how standards are falling”

Serious Men makes you expect so much and leaves you with nothing, that’s what Manu Joseph does. This was my second book by Manu Joseph. I read the ‘Illicit Happiness of Other people’ before and loved it. One common theme I can spot in Mr. Joseph’s writing is a satire on the mundane life of an Indian common man and the helpless journey of the protagonist. This book is breathtakingly stingy, something very close to life. Where you can’t control everything, yet you do what is required. There is no moral in the story, it’s just driven by the circumstances. Everyone does and acts, what and how they should.