Elections. The worst ordeal possible for a person with negligible decision making prowess. Their natural appearance annually, if not more often, is thus but inevitable, given my equation with lady luck. With another blockbuster edition done and dusted, I find myself bereft of responsibilities (only those pertaining to the organizational aspect of fests), friends (they do not abound, by the way), and any residual love for elections. And oh, the ‘power’ that my position of responsibility entailed. The romantic ebb of power has disappeared and it has taken everything along.
I recollect writing an emotionally charged post the last time I underwent the harrowing and gruelling procedures of an election. I was angry that people had chosen the pursuit of power over friendships, winning over ideals and mutual respect. The utter disregard for others’ perspectives was even more saddening. Now, with the latest addition to the already overlong list of experiences, I am neither. Call it acceptance of defeat, if you must, but I’m just exceptionally relieved that my powers of choosing will not be called into action for the remainder of my college life, at least not in an election.
Anyway, the above mentioned bereavements ensured that I finally ran out of reasons to delay what I’d been wanting to do since the beginning of the year: start a new section on the blog. Despite the plethora of possibilities on offer and the ensuing dilemma, I ended up with book reviews. Because well, originality isn’t my strongest suit. And because Goodreads deleted my drafts!
Serious Men, by Manu Joseph is a novel set in Mumbai and primarily focuses on the life and times of Ayyan Mani, personal secretary to the fearsome, yet enigmatic director of the prestigious (and fictional, albeit the resemblance to a certain institute in Mumbai is highly palpable) Institute of Theory and Research, Arvind Acharya and the latter himself. Acharya is again inspired by a very real personality, one of the more hallowed names in Physics from India.
It was the first of Joseph’s two novels, but the second that I read. Coincidentally, it was the through the machinations of my former position of responsibility (or past life, whichever you prefer) that I’d been introduced to his works. Anyway, I don’t know whether it was due to the book’s setting in Mumbai, that oh-so-real depiction of Marine Drive and the Worli Seaface, his writing style or the familiarity with the premise of a technical institution being more obsessed with politics than science, but I was instantly and immensely hooked.
“That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men. That the fellowship of men, despite its joyous banter, old memories of exaggerated mischief and the altruism of sharing pornography, was actually a farcical fellowship. Because what a man really wanted was to be bigger than his friends.”
Serious Men has a lot of, for the lack of a better term, counter- Bollywoodesque moments and elements. The hitherto image of chawls in my mind, which happened to be a crossover between Hrithik Roshan’s replete with ladies abode from the Agneepath remake and the in your face third world issues of Zee TV’s Pavitra Rishta, gave way to a dark, brooding neighbourhood where Ayyan, every bit as revered as Hrithik was and disdainful as he wasn’t, plans to break free from the chains which he believed have been imposed on him and his kin due to their caste. Did I say counter- Bollywoodesque? It is this desire, to quote my favourite lady, “to break the wheel” which drives most of the events in the novel. His son, with a hearing impairment, becomes a willing instrument for him and a child prodigy for the world, and the father-son duo seem to pull off every trick which poor Jamal Malik from Slumdog Millionaire was accused of.
Engineering, Adi would realize, is every mother’s advice to her son, a father’s irrevocable decision, a boy’s first foreboding of life.”
To be fair, the anti-hero is not romanticized. He leches at women, looks down on their “modern” ways, craves for power and eagerly looks forward to the war of the “Brahmins” (as he puts it). His office bugging skills outclass that of Louis Litt’s and seem like a direct manifestation of Black Mirror’s “Shut Up and Dance”. Only six years earlier. His dreams for his son, like most of the lower and middle class Indian parents are audacious, yet plausible. He’s an opportunist and he knows and shows it.
Acharya, on the other hand, is an enigma, his brain a black box, till that one defining moment when he chooses to break free. His disregard for authority rivals Ayyan’s, while his aloofness with the world in general, is in stark contrast to the latter’s deliberate indulgence and often, interference. He’s dismissive of Jesus’s water to wine turning feat and seems to have an innate eye for situational humour, despite the fits of temper . Very relatable, the latter half of the sentence. It is tough not to be intrigued by a character while admitting his extramarital affair to his wife reassures her of her place in his life with “But you’re still my email password”. Passwords and love, do seem to go hand in hand, for our generation, at least.
“Clever people will always be disliked. Don’t exploit that to crawl your way to the top. By the laws of probability most of you are mediocre. Accept it. The tragedy of mediocrity is that even mediocre people shake their heads and mull over how “standards are falling”. So don’t mull. Just know when you’ve to get out of the way. Most of you will be sideshows, extras in the grand unfolding of truth. That’s all right.”
What really lifts this simple and linear story, is the quality of writing on display. I went in knowing what to expect, having read TIHOOP, and I wasn’t disappointed. Acharya’s covert love affair deserves a special mention. Joseph’s writing deftly captures the transformation of a sexagenarian into a teenager in the throes of first love. The pain of the fallout is also well encapsulated and Acharya’s conversations with Oparna is Joseph at his finest. Quotable lines abound, as Joseph coats the politics inside and outside the institute with philosophy and an eclectic contrast of ideologies. Nambodri, Acharya’s friend turned foe and rival (in more ways than one) is another quirky character, despite his flirting skills getting more attention than his altercations with Acharya.
Joseph falters towards the end, though, much like our former cricket captain. Acharya’s rise isn’t chronicled as well as his fall. Nambodri’s character oscillates between a flirt and a power hungry authoritarian too often. Nevertheless, to have taken a plot full of cliches and converted it into a satire on the numerous divides and struggles that our lives are filled with, takes some doing. Here’s to a book well written, a simple tale told well.
“The fate of every love story, he knew very well, is in the rot of togetherness, or in the misery of separation.”
Read it for Mumbai. For Science. For what power and the struggle for it does to people. And for love. For if any book has embodied Jaime Lannister’s infamous “The things we do for love”, this is it.