I have been meaning to read Serious Men by Manu Joseph for a while now, and I really wanted to like it as well. I did get my hands on a copy finally, and, what a disappointment. Serious Men is billed as a story of class struggles and politics in a government run university, very similar to the one I attended. And on those aspects, it mostly delivers, albeit with a heavy dose of unrealistic narrative moving incidents strewn predictably at all the right points in the plot. The class divisions in the book are real, and ones I was privileged not to really notice when I attended those institutions. The professors were mostly upper class, the lower/mid level administrators mostly other castes. The author brings these divisions out, and uses them to make what could have been an interesting and enjoyable story. But, don’t read it unless you like your women characters one-dimensional and devious.
Why all the should haves and could haves? The book is unfortunately steeped in a misogyny so deep that I wonder what Manu Joseph was thinking. One of the narrative movers is the accusation of research fraud levelled by a woman scientist Oparna against her fellow upper caste supervisor and institute head Dr Acharya. See, Oparna gets very attracted to Acharya, makes her intentions clear to him in a fairly unrealistic way. Their interactions culminate in a two week affair when Acharya’s wife Lavanya is out of town. Lavanya hears very quickly of the affair and confronts Acharya, who immediately ends the affair, while still continuing to work with Oparna on his dream project. Oparna’s character throughout this period is reduced to her looks and her demeanour around Acharya and at work. The juxtaposition of her sexual awareness and honesty during the affair, and her complete turnabout into a “scorned woman” after is unbelievable.
Yes, the book is a satire and as such, the author has additional license to exaggerate differences and character flaws, and little need for plot realism. However, an author has a conscious choice in whom they choose to satirize, privileged male authors violate my (soon to be trademarked) “poke fun upwards” guideline on safer humour by writing one-dimensional female characters and making them the objects of satire.
While the author makes both Oparna and Acharya question Oparna’s attraction for Acharya (it’s all about the projection of his charisma and power, never mind his age or his supervisory position), the unlikeliness is not explored further. Fine, young women do have affairs with older men in positions of power. But it’s a terrible stretch for Oparna to deliberately contaminate a sample in the glow of the affair “so he can feel happy about a positive result”, then once the affair ends, claim in public that he forced her to falsify the results. The use of a scorned woman trope in a book that is supposed to be about class distinctions in academia mostly ruined the book for me. India’s gender disparity means it is a minefield of sexual harassment and terrible power differentials in academia. This book fails completely at understanding the links between gender- and caste-based discrimination. There are three women characters in this book. Two are dutiful “wives”, no other role required, the third, Oparna we already talked about! Oparna is reduced to just her womanly essence, in the end, becoming an unprofessional “liar” for the sake of advancing the plot, which incidentally involves the lower-caste protagonist Ayyan helping the “good brahmin” Acharya against the other “bad brahmins”
Yes, this is a work of fiction and Manu Joseph is free to populate his book with very poorly written female characters and win prizes. But. as this reviewer points out, do you want to read books with passages like these?
“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.”
“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.”
“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…”
Ugh, don’t bother.