Book review: Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Ayyan Mani is a dalit with an IQ of 148. He is the personal assistant to Arvind Acharya, the (Brahmin) Head of the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. In an attempt to lift his family out of the chawls (high-rise tenements with shared toilets on each floor) Ayyan positions his son as a maths genius – a blatant lie that spirals out of control.

But Ayyan is exceptionally shrewd. His years under Arvind have taught him the value of information, and he proves to be a gifted, if unethical, strategist. In contrast to the academics around him, who move only within their small, impenetrable circles, unable to relate to the ‘peons’ who make the Institute function, Ayyan deftly gathers information about his high ranking masters through his vast network, thus illustrating his power. When jealously attacks Arvind’s reputation from more than one source, Ayyan understands how to mobilise his knowledge to help his boss, and help himself in the process.

Manu Joseph’s writing is economical and stark, and thankfully lacks any patronising tones about poverty and slum living. Serious Men is a clever insight into the caste system, its rigidity and the power of subversion. Winner of the Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010, and rightly so.

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