Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Serious Men: Meh...

Serious Men: A Novel1 of 5 stars

I'm an Indian fiction nut...so when I saw this at the library, I had to check it out. It started off well enough, but then I kept debating whether I should continue because I found myself wishing I was reading something else. Never a good sign. But continue I did. I've since started a new book (Supermarket by Japanese novelist Satoshi Azuchi) and realizing how disappointing I found Serious Men.

Serious Men chronicles the lives and trials of two men in Mumbai. Ayyan Mani, a dalit (formerly known as untouchable) lives in the slums with his wife and son while working in the Institute of Theory and Research as an assistant to the director. He spends all day serving snobby Brahmins, whose caste is responsible for the historic degradation and humiliation of the dalit. His anger is ready to boil over, but he finds small ways to take revenge. I found Ayyan Mani's story--and his sneaky, deceptive ploys to gain attention for his partly deaf son--to be the most interesting part of this book. The fact that others did not see through his deception, I believe, is meant to be part of the satire.

The director, an arrogant astronomer named Arvind Acharya, has his own problems. He's dealing with office politics on a daily basis, as the other scientists attempt to overthrow his regime. He ends up falling into an affair with the only female scientist, Oparna, which threatens to destroy both his marriage and his career.

I found myself scanning over the pages of scientific debate about extraterrestrial life and the politics of which research projects should be funded...boring. Perhaps I would be more interested if I were a scientist? It's possible, but even science can be written about in a more interesting way.

What ultimately gave the book one star in my mind, though, was the sexist and demeaning portrayal of the women characters. Ayyan Mani's dull wife is addicted to soap operas and believes any yarn he spins her. He married her to get away from the clutches of modern women with whom he was sleeping. Acharya's wife is the most believable--she is way more grounded than her husband--but after she finds out about his affair, she fades away, presumably accepting her lot in life.

But the worst was the character of Oparna, who is introduced as a brilliant, independent, and strong woman. When she threw herself at the old, "fat" director, I didn't buy it. As a woman who has never been attracted to much-older, more powerful men, this plot line did not ring true. I found their sex in the basement to be repulsive. Then after Acharya ended the affair, she decided to ruin both of their careers by fabricating a lie about their dual research project. Manu Joseph clearly scorns modern, independent, single women.

These passages are a few examples of the way Joseph feels about his women characters--Ayyan musing on how he escaped the risky option of relationships with modern women:
"Free love, Ayyan knew in his heart, is an enchanting place haunted by demented women. Here, every day men merely got away. And then, without warning, they were finished. The girl would come and say, like a martyr, that she was pregnant, or would remember that all the time she was being raped, or her husband would arrive with a butcher's knife. Such things always happened in the country of free love. Ayyan Mani had fled in time from there into the open arms of a virgin. But Acharya had fled the other way."
Oparna on facing a jury of scientists to discuss her allegations against her ex-lover:
"She wondered how women would have handled this situation. What if the jury had been comprised of menopausal women? That was a disturbing thought. They would have butchered her in a minute. But this jury of ageing men was going to be easy."
And a description of Oparna's lot in life:
"She would wander through life beseeching men to love her, frighten them with the intensity of her affection, marry one whose smell she could tolerate, and then resume the search for love. And she would suffer the loneliness of affairs..."
I rarely give one-star ratings to books, because I research them before I read them (too little time to read, so why read trash?). This had so much potential--it could have been great social satire and commentary on the lot of dalit and the hypocrisy of modern science and office politics--but ultimately disappoints.

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