“Acharya’s keen twinkling eyes surveyed the boy through a comfortable silence that to him was always a form of conversation. Adi turned nervously towards his father and raised his eyebrows. Archarya’s eyes then slowly became lost and distant. 'Of all human deformities,' he said softly, 'genius is the most useful.’”
Manu Joseph’s debut book is seriously good – a wickedly funny, surprisingly warm and stunningly stylish satire that strikes its target over and over again, taking the reader along for a rollicking ride.
The book introduces readers to two equally willful men with runaway egos: Arvind Acharya, a bigger-than-life astrophysicist at the prestigious Institute of Theory and Research, a would-be Nobel candidate who is rumored to have been banned from the Vatican for whispering something untoward in the pope’s ear. The other is his personal assistant, Ayyan Mani, a Dalit (or “untouchable”) who is “smarter than the average bear” (in this case, the average Dalit) with an IQ of 148.
Ayyan, his wife Oja, and their rather geeky son Adi live in a large gray tenement teeming with humanity, “born into poverty that no human should have to endure” but Ayyan has his dreams and the wiles to achieve them. He and his half-deaf son play a secret little game: Ayyan feeds Adi some high-level math and physics answers to amaze and astound his teachers. At the same time, he spins flattering stories about his son that he pays a reporter to run. The result: 10-year-old Adi is soon hailed as a boy-genius throughout the community…and indeed, the nation.
Meanwhile, his boss Arvind is engrossed in his own quixotic project: an attempt to prove that extraterrestrial life is raining down on Earth through a “Balloon Project.” By doing so, he sets himself at odds with underlings, jealous scientists who are far more interested in searching for life in outer space with a “Giant Ear.” And to make matters more complicated, an incredibly attractive astrobiologist – the Institute’s first female scientist – has her cap set for the much-older Arvind and is ready, willing and able to betray him.
Both Ayyan and Arvan are involved in high-stake games: Ayyan is embroiled in the “bewitching life of creating a whole myth” with his son to save himself from “the tired face of Oja, the despondence of Adi, the thousand eyes that gaped vacantly in the grey corridors…” At the same time, the egotistical Arvind is aspiring beyond his capabilities with his belief in a souped-up theory.
As these two egos meet – as this “odd couple” becomes more symbiotic – Manu Joseph weaves an amazingly compelling story. We laugh as Ayann Mani writes his daily “quote of the day,” falsified sayings from the likes of Einstein or Newton that tweak the narcissistic Brahmins. Or when Arvind sets himself up against the “Big Bang” theory, which he considers a Western plot because “the Vatican wanted a beginning.”
Yet throughout, Ayyan, Arvan and the others who inhabit the world of Serious Men are not treated merely with humor, but with compassion – from status-crazy youngsters to pushy nuns, from May-December romances to predictable bureaucrats. The result is a pitch-perfect look at two evenly-matched compatriots who define their lives on their own terms and play for the highest stakes.
This article first appeared HERE.