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Books

Labyrinths of the lab

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Serious Men By Manu Joseph HarperCollins 326 pages, Rs 499

If subversion is the slow virus that crawls through the underbelly of literature, Manu Joseph is its secret agent. His first novel set in the bi-polar worlds of Mumbai's bastis and Brahminical enclaves devoted to the pursuit of pure science is alternately riveting and repellent as one is drawn into its dark entrails. As you may know, a slow virus is a pathological term for a hidden pathogen that lurks in decaying bodies and manifests itself in a deadly form most often when it is too late.

This is the kind of scientific nugget with which Joseph studs his narrative, the golden apples with which he tempts the reader into taking him seriously. In his case, it has mostly to do with the exotica of pure sciences, the number theory that his Dalit hero, Ayyan Mani, feeds to his 11-year-old son, Adi, living in the BBD chawls of Mumbai, for instance, or the pursuit of physics and debates on the origin of the universe and our presence within it as refracted through the lenses of his anti-hero, Arvind Acharya, the head of what is clearly meant to be the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Land's End in Mumbai.

Joseph is a Michio Kaku for the chatterati, but whereas Kaku, the theoretical physicist and author, manages to make accessible the theories of an Einsteinian model of the universe, Joseph uses them as a grand tease, or expose of the many cul-de-sacs of scientific methodology. It makes him very similar to the female protagonist in his story, Oparna Goshmalik, the seductive scientist with brains, who may have wandered out of a Bond movie into the TIFR, purely for the purpose of taking the pants off the great man of Indian science, Dr Acharya.

It would not be giving the plot line away to add that they have some great moments on the floor of the basement of the temple of science, even while we have to imagine Acharya as being an orotund, balding scientist who tramps the corridors and washrooms of the Institute like a rampaging elephant. Must be a reverse Ganesha morphing taking place here, just as in the latter phases of the novel, we are introduced suddenly to a Dalit leader named Waman. Would this be a reference to Vaman, the dwarf avatar who has come to quell the incipient pride of the nouveau Namboodiri who has ousted Acharya, as head of the institute?

One cannot really tell, because Joseph is equally contemptuous of all his creations. For instance, he does manage to get in a great deal of Brahmin bashing through the mind of the Mensa-maxing Ayyan Mani, who lives in his chawl and sends us daily reports of what it is like to be there, while right outside on the promenades of Worli seaface, there are those delicious women who walk with their boobs and butts waggling in the air. Ayyan Mani's link to the Acharya and his privileged scientific world is that he is his personal assistant at the institute. Yet, for all his Dalit angst, he proves to be as devious as his Brahminical mentor.

They are not serious men as much as sad men trapped in a subversive world.

Reader's opinion (1)

Aswin Dec 1st, 2010 at 14:55 PM

I don't think your review does justice to such a wonderful first novel from a gifted story teller.

 
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