28.11.2013 - manu joseph

Manu Joseph, Serious Men (Harper Collins India)

Serious men is a dark satire on two opposing characters, two “serious” men in modern day India: a clerk trying to escape the class system and find happiness for his family, and a brilliant scientist who slowly comes to his downfall.

During this Read & Meet we will discuss style, characters and setting but we are also asking you to keep the following elements at the back of your mind when reading the novel and preparing for this event:

• The way castes and social differences are portrayed (with self-education as the only way out?)
• Science’s role in society
• The usage of satire and dark comedy in the novel

For your benefit we’ve also collected some links that might prove interesting:



Articles in Open Magazine by editor-in-chief Manu Joseph

NY Times Review:

Manu Joseph wins the Pen Open Book Awards for Serious Men:

Report of this Read & Meet

Manu Joseph turns out to be a very talkative writer, which is nice as he is subject to a whole series of questions from the audience. Some of which have nothing to do with the novel, but with other topics concerning Indian society. Themes Manu Joseph, the editor-in-chief of The Open Magazine, could talk about all night, were it not for the fact that at this Read & Meet we hunger for feedback on the novel  and wish to learn more on his writing proces.

Joseph: "I think the time of the big, fat drunk writers is over. I find it difficult to understand how writers who are not physically fit work. Of course there have been fabulous writers who were not fit, chiefly male alcoholics, but their time is up. I for instance run a lot, and long distance running is a great help with writing. Physical endurance is the same as mental endurance, through running I train both. Fit people also get out of bed quicker and are up to bigger challenges. Writing a novel is such a challenge."

Manu Joseph's stamina becomes clear when he explains about the dozens of drafts he writes before finishing a novel. "The first draft was as a disaster. I came to realise I hadn't written a novel but a lengthy review of the novel I had in mind. And I had already left a half finished novel when I was 24. I was afraid; maybe I haven't got it.  Only when I learned more about writing from character's point of view, something I never had any use for as a journalist, the novel started to come to life." 

The main character in Serious men is Ayyan Man, a clerk who shrewdly tries to work his way up in a society where this is impossible, as he is an untouchable from the slums. Manu Joseph was aware of the risk he took creating a character like this in class conscious India. He received a lot of criticism for it, on which he noted that this is also a class problem: "Most Indian readers of literary fiction written in English are of a certain class, and one of the recreations of the Indian upper class is compassion for the poor. I think the poor in India are increasingly very empowered, and the time has come when the novel can portray them in a more realistic way. Ayyan is still an underdog but that is due to his circumstances, not due to his intellect or aspirations."

Joseph himself comes from a small middleclass family in Madras. "I felt a certain hatred and envy towards the rich, but no more than any average teenager from my neighborhood. Not like Ayyan. I conceived him as the personification of male rage. How would an intelligent man, a man who unfortunately knows a lot of bad luck, look at the world? With this question the novel was born. Serious men is driven by the rage of this man. Only later did I ask myself where this anger comes from. I love Ayyan, it felt as I knew him, I could tell how his mind works. But it's not me, it's not my voice. I realised that I'd known men like Ayyan. Dalit intellectuals, men from my neighborhood with whom I'd often talk. And so I came to realize where Ayyan's rage came from. Only a historical anger, a historical rage could form a character like this.

Not that we should or could consider the novel as a social issues novel. "I loathe social issues as sole point of interest for a novel. A novel is much more complex than this, a novel is like a personality; it has many layers."

Questioned on characterization of female characters in the novel we hit a sore note. The book has been perceived by certain critics as misogynistic. Joseph admits that he would, with all the knowledge and craft at his hand after writing a second novel, would portray some characters differently but also emphazises the importance of female perspective in Serious men:

"Without them, without women, you are left with only half a novel. Everything the male characters undertake, they do because of the women. The male characters get their tone and colour from the female point of view. Writing from a woman's point of view as a man is tricky, difficult even. Bigger writers than myself have failed at it. Take for instance Tanne Tyler, a writer I respect a lot. She once wrote a novel from the male perspective, which was to me -by her standard- flawed. She seemed to be writing from the male perspective like a woman thinks men think. A love story, but in the first fifty pages the word sex is not once mentioned. Instead we get all the different patrons of wall paper. Did I write the women well? Possibly not, but if you say they play no part you simpy haven't read the novel."

In the end, Manu Joseph tells us, the novel is not so much a portrait of life in the chauls or the relations of men and women in contemporary India. Serious men is a portrait of the intellect, of the minds of two men.