Book review: “Serious Men”

I finally picked up Manu Joseph’s “Serious Men” the other day. I started reading it while waiting in the queue in the passport office, and while I began in a positive frame of mind, it is possible that the environment prejudiced my reaction. It is a book that I have been wanting to read for a while, because of its setting in Indian science. So, having read it, here’s my review.

The main characters in the book are the director of the “Institute for Theory and Research” in Mumbai, cosmologist Arvind Acharya; his colleague, radio astronomer Jana Nambodri; a new faculty member, an astrobiologist with the Anstey-like name Oparna Goshmaulik (why not Oporna, one wonders); and the director’s clerk, Ayyan Mani, a Dalit; and Ayyan’s prodigy son, Adi.

Joseph has suggested that Ayyan’s son and Ayyan were respectively drawn from the real-life prodigy, Tathagat Avtar Tulsi (who joined the Indian Institute of Science for a Ph.D. at the age of 15, and at the age of 22, joined the faculty of IIT Bombay), and his father. In terms of scientific achievements, it appears that Arvind Acharya — a man who detests the Big Bang theory of the universe, prefers and has contributed to the “steady state” theory, and believes that the universe is filled with unicellular life that “seeds” life on planets, including on Earth — is drawn from Jayant Narlikar. Jana Nambodri, who is responsible for the “Giant Ear” — an array of radio telescopes known in real life as the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), and referred to by that name by a bureaucrat in the book — would likewise appear to be modelled on Govind Swarup. It is not clear to me whom, if anyone, Oparna is modelled on. Meanwhile, the “Institute of Theory and Research”, like the real-life Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, is situated in Navy Nagar at the southern tip of Mumbai, has an L-shaped building with a lawn in front and a backyard that leads to moist boulders by the sea, and is characterised internally by dark, endless corridors. Narlikar and Swarup both spent much of their careers in TIFR Mumbai; neither ever became TIFR’s director, but both were directors of institutes in Pune (Swarup’s institute being a branch of TIFR). One hopes that the personal equations of Acharya and Nambodri in the book, and the personal life of Acharya in particular, are not meant to be modelled on real life. Nevertheless, given the similarities that do exist, I find the standard disclaimer, that “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely
coincidental”, disingenuous.

I do not personally know any of these real-life models in real life (other than the institute itself, which I have visited many times). From what I have heard of Tulsi, Joseph’s article is an unfair exaggeration with some truth in it; time will tell what Tulsi’s scientific achievements prove to be. Ayyan, in the book, is deliberately and calculatingly fraudulent in seeking to portray his son as a genius; I see no evidence that such was the case with Tulsi. But let us assume that, in this case, Joseph’s inspiration from real life was less literal than with the institute and its faculty.

The book is written well and is easy to read. It opens with everyday Mumbai scenes portrayed using a disconcerting amount of odd imagery: hair parted like British-drawn geographic borders, buttocks like commas, young women walking as if they fear resembling their mothers, strides that seem to measure the coastline, beautiful women that depress like Mercedes and Blackberrys, a shirt tucked directly into underwear — all within the first two pages. (The pace, inevitably, slows, and some of the author’s imagery later in the book is genuinely amusing or thought-provoking.)

Every character is portrayed with some amount of negativity and cynicism. Acharya is arrogant, dictatorial, and judgemental of others’ research interests; he turns out to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Nambodri is shallow in his science, ineffectual in his attempts at leadership, and — it turns out — bigoted in his views of others. Oparna, the first woman faculty member at the institute, is unsure how to handle the attention — of various kinds, from various people; eventually, she is the victim of an extraordinary case of gender stereotyping at the hands of the author, and unceremoniously dropped from the pages. (In real life, the theoretical physics group at TIFR indeed currently does not have a single woman faculty member, which makes it something of an anomaly in the country; but there are other research groups at TIFR, and many women in their faculty — including, I believe, three in mathematics.) Ayyan is calculating, opportunistic, and mendacious — but, in his way, a sympathetic character, and the hero (if there is one) of the book.

The book is intended to be satirical — relentlessly so. An inflexible and unremitting cynicism worked for Evelyn Waugh, but lesser writers, I think, need to lighten the picture a little. Don’t expect to get a realistic picture of how scientists talk among themselves, or what sort of jokes they make, or how they view the rest of the world, or how they conduct their politicking and backstabbing, by reading this book. I doubt the book’s portrayal of a Dalit’s life in a decaying block of one-room houses in Mumbai — or of the detailed thought-processes of that Dalit — are more realistic.

But if one reads it, as the author’s disclaimer asks, as fiction and not as social commentary or as an effective satire on real life, the book is a good and entertaining read. The story is of the politics at the institute, specifically, Nambodri’s (and others’) desire to use the Giant Ear to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and Acharya’s contempt (clearly shared by Joseph) for that idea; Acharya’s and Oparna’s attempt to find microbes at high altitudes using a balloon (again, an experiment attempted in real life by Narlikar), which would be evidence for extraterrestrial life; the evolving relationship between Acharya and Oporna; and, especially, Ayyan’s increasingly elaborate and always successful attempts to persuade the world that his son is a genius. Read it to find out what happens. It is an amusing story with the sort of chaotic ending that Tom Sharpe would enjoy.

But don’t read it to get much insight into Indian scientists. Or, I expect, Indian Dalits. Or Indian women. Or Indian men.

And don’t expect to learn much science from it. Howlers abound, such as a debate over the largest prime number (the proof that there is no largest prime can be understood by school students) to Acharya’s belief that “junk DNA” in humans is DNA that could be useful to lifeforms on other planets (though that same junk DNA does not exist in simpler lifeforms on this planet). Or is Joseph merely satirising Indian scientists’ grasp of science?

(Manu Joseph, Serious Men, 4th/Harper-Collins India, 2010)

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  1. Vijay

     /  June 27, 2011

    I also read the book and i didnt find it all that interestinig. I guess there was lot of hype built around it with Manu Joseph, the Author getting the award and it being based on Indian Science etc. I found it humurous at times but i felt like the plot got lost and the end was not all that telling as well.

    Rahul, could you suggest any other books which have a science based theme similar to this book but better than this one.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  June 28, 2011

      I don’t know of any books set in Indian science institutions. There are of course many books set in universities in the west. And a lot of science fiction — especially Arthur C Clarke’s — has fairly solid science in it: several of Clarke’s short stories are based on scientific ideas.

  2. gaddeswarup

     /  June 29, 2011

    I think that the novel is more about caste than science; see also the review
    The novel started well with bit about Bambay that corresponded with my memories (pre 1960) including life in chawls which I once visited to see brahmin friend preparing for his IAS examination. It did not seem to be all Dalits living in thos chawls. But the science parts are not at all convincing and seemed caricatures to me. I knew about Govind Swarup (my mail was sometimes interchanged with his, due to confusion between G. Swarup and G.A. Swarup) and Jayant Narlikar ( whose wife Mangala was a fellow graduate student and a brilliant one) but I did not see any resemblances in the characters of the novel. I thought that I saw traces of Yash Pal here and there.
    The novel is readable but seemed more of a polemic than literature. But I read very few novels and have not really been able to read those which are considered literature despite several attempts (like R.K. Narayan or Rushdie. I find that I can read both Naipauls, even when I feel that they are wrong). I wonder whether these depend on one’s background. In Telugu I like one Gopichand who comes from a farming background like me and find him a powerful writer. But many brahmin friends with him I grew up do not seem to respond to him. It seems strange that people of the same age, growing up in the same areas respond differently to the same writer. May be caste still is a strong factor in our perceptions.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  June 29, 2011

      Swarup – yes, Joseph’s treatment of Dalits seems to have attracted the most attention in India. But, in my experience at least, his portrayal of upper-caste scientists’ view of Dalits is far from realistic, so I doubt his portrayal of Ayyan is, either. Some commenters have objected to his portrayal of a Dalit as a sort of con-man. I don’t object to that — there are con-men in every community. And it is very likely that the personalities of Acharya and Nambodri were not drawn from their real-life counterparts, but I think it was lazy of Joseph to copy their science so literally from real life. What I found truly repulsive, however, was his treatment of Oparna Goshmaulik. It suggests a deep misogyny in Joseph.

  3. gaddeswarup

     /  June 29, 2011

    P.S. I forgot. I read the novel (browsed through love parts) only after seeing the review here. I have not heard of the novel before though I read qa couple of articles by the author.

  4. Sridhar

     /  June 29, 2011

    Rahul, thanks for the review. Suri and Bal’s “A certain ambiguity” “a math fiction” seems to have been taken seriously enough to be reviewed by SIAM/MAA etc, (though set in the US with Indic actors)
    As for books set in Indian science institutions, if one is allowed to include technology institutions, how can one forget Chetan Bhagat’s masterpiece :)?



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