Month: February 2014

Book Review of Serious Men by Manu Joseph: Why the misogyny?

SeriousMenI 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.

Spoiler alert

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.”

Even more

“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.

My alma maters take a stand against India’s anti-homosexuality laws

377On January 28, 2014, India’s Supreme Court declined to review its terrible decision to re-legitimize India’s colonial era laws against “unnatural sex”. I am disgusted by the judges’ decision to use “judicial restraint” to mask their prejudice. I wholeheartedly endorse this message from the Indian Institutes of Technology against the ruling. The IITs I attended in the 90s were misogynistic environments, with the student bodies being >90% men, with the women present being subjected to either constant attention or unbelievably nasty talk (mostly behind their backs). We received absolutely no guidance on how to treat women well. There was no dating culture, and given that I knew very little about homosexuality or queerness then, I shudder to contemplate what anyone not conforming to 100% heteronormativity went through. This blog post from 2012 appears to signal that not much has changed. The large number of people (including me) who felt deeply uncomfortable in this environment were mostly silenced. I remember speaking against the entrenched misogyny occasionally, but I also remember being silent often. I am glad that so many people associated with IITs all over India signed on to this statement condemning the Supreme Court. Do read their statement in full at the link below.

Where the Delhi High Court’s ruling was a bold effort to give life to the promise of Indian Constitutionalism, the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse it is a deceptive attempt to use judicial restraint as a cover for its refusal to critically interrogate the social effects of legal provisions. Ignoring the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in India altogether, it argues that Section 377 merely penalizes certain acts and does not stigmatize a class of Indian society based on sexuality and gender identity. By failing to recognize the fact that the law exposes LGBTQ people to illegal extortion, harassment and persecution, and by suggesting that the rights of LGBTQ individuals are less worthy of protection because of their “miniscule proportion”, the Supreme Court has failed to perform its constitutional responsibility and betrayed the trust of the Indian people.