Cover image of "Serious Men," a satirical novel about India today

In his debut novel, Indian magazine editor Manu Joseph takes on life in India today. The caste system. Big Science. Love, marriage, and sex. Corruption in government. The news media. Office politics. Loyalty and betrayal. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. And the fate of the Universe. Yet it all hangs together somehow. This is Black Humor, Indian-style.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A mad (Indian) scientist

Serious Men—the book’s satirical title—refers to Aravind Acharya, the world-famous cosmologist who directs the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai with his numerous minions. All are high-caste Brahmins. Acharya’s deputy and most of the other scientists in the Institute seethe under the dictatorial and dismissive director, who sequesters all available funds for his project to prove that extraterrestrials “seeded” life on earth as microbes arriving on meteorites—and continue to do this to this very day!

Acharya is, of course, quite mad, and apparently has been so throughout his very long life. As he gradually loses control and lets slip the mask of sanity that has shielded him for decades, the Institute’s deputy director and the cadres of radio astronomers who follow him stage a coup. They seize the directorship once Acharya has fallen desperately in love with a beautiful young astrobiologist, the Institute’s first female researcher.

Serious Men by Manu Joseph (2010) 287 pages ★★★★★

Photo of the Indian Institute of Science, featured in this satirical novel about India today
The real-world Indian Institute of Science. Image: Bhanu Prakash Chandra – The Week

An untouchable protagonist

However, it is Acharya’s secretary, a Dalit (“Untouchable”) named Ayyan Mani, who is the protagonist of this richly woven novel. Ayyan, we learn, has an IQ of 148, clearly higher than that of most of the Institute’s researchers. He boils with resentment toward high-caste Brahmins with a consistency worthy of a revolutionary. As the drama unfolds in the Institute, with Ayyan recording every revealing conversation through a phone line left open into Acharya’s office, the secretary applies himself to a clever plot to convince the world that his half-deaf 10-year-old son is a scientific genius. The principal action shifts among three sets: the Institute, the adjoining Professors’ Quarters, and the filthy, run-down “chawl” (high-rise slum) where Ayyan ekes out a bitter existence with his son and his fearful and superstitious wife.

Humor aside, Serious Men abounds with insight about India today in all its dynamism, its contradictions, its promise, and its sad, pervasive poverty. Manu Joseph is a writer worth watching.

About the author

Photo of Manu Joseph, author of this novel about India today
Manu Joseph in Norwich, England, in 2013. Image: Writers’ Centre Norwich – Asia Society

Manu Joseph won The Hindu Literary Prize and the PEN/Open Book Award for Serious Men, the first of his three books. He is a journalist, formerly a columnist for The International New York Times and The Hindustan Times. Joseph was born in Kerala in 1974 and grew up in Chennai. He now lives in Delhi.

I’ve also reviewed the author’s Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous (An entertaining spoof of the right wing Indian government).

I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about India, which I visited many times over the years. I’m most impressed with the work of the contemporary novelist Amitav Ghosh. You’ll find one of my reviews at A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War. Another is at An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War. And here is the full list of the Good books about India, past and present that I’ve reviewed on this site.

You might also be interested in My 10 favorite funny novels or Top 10 great popular novels.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.