Sneak Peek: Exclusive Excerpts from 'Serious Men'

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 23, 2010 11:17 hrs

Manu Joseph is the editor of The Open Magazine, an offbeat newsweekly. Serious Men, his first novel, is being published simultaneously in India, Britain, the US and Canada. It has also been translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian, Danish and Serbian. The author was listed among the top new novelists of 2010 by the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. Here are exclusive excerpts from the novel.

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AYYAN MANI’S THICK black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.

His eyes were keen and knowing. A healthy moustache sheltered a perpetual smile. A dark tidy man, but somehow inexpensive.

He surveyed the twilight walkers. There were hundreds on the long concrete stretch by the Arabian Sea. Solitary young women in good shoes walked hastily, as if they were fleeing from the fate of looking like their mothers. Their proud breasts bounced, soft thighs shuddered at every step.

Their tired high-caste faces, so fair and glistening with sweat, bore the grimace of exercise. He imagined they were all in the ecstasy of being seduced by him. Among them, he could tell, there were girls who had never exercised before. They had arrived after a sudden engagement to a suitable boy, and they walked with very long strides as though they were measuring the coastline. They had to shed fat quickly before the bridal night when they might yield on the pollen of a floral bed to a stranger.

Calm unseeing old men walked with other old men, discussing the state of the nation. They had all the solutions. A reason why their wives walked half a mile away, in their own groups, talking about arthritis or about other women who were not present.

Furtive lovers were beginning to arrive. They sat on the parapet and faced the sea, their hands straying or eyes filling depending on what stage the relationship was in.

And their new jeans were so low that their meagre Indian buttocks peeped out as commas.

Ayyan looked with eyes that did not know how to show a cultured indifference. He often told Oja, ‘If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical.’

So he looked.

From behind, a girl with a bouncing pony tail and an iPod strung to her ears overtook him. Through her damp T-shirt he could see her firm youthful back.

He quickened his pace, and regained his lead over her. And he tried to look at her face in the hope that she was not pretty. Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes.

He slowed down and let her march ahead. A few feet away, a man stood still and stared at her. His head moved from left to right as she passed him.

He was a short man who appeared to stand erect because his back was not long enough. Ayyan knew from the tension in his shirt that it was tucked straight into the underwear for a tighter grip. A thin brown belt ran around his slender waist almost twice.

His shirt pocket sagged under the weight of the many things it held. A red comb peeped from the back pocket of his trousers.

‘Stop staring at that girl,’ Ayyan said.

The little man was startled. He then opened his mouth in a sporting but silent laugh. Transient strings of saliva ran from the upper jaw to the lower.

They went to one of the pink concrete benches that were dedicated to the memory of a departed member of the Rotary Club.

‘Busy day,’ the man said, flapping his thighs. ‘I’m travelling. That’s why I troubled you, Mani. I wanted to settle this fast.’

‘It’s all right, my friend,’ Ayyan said. ‘The important thing is that we have managed to meet.’ He took out a piece of printed paper and handed it to him. ‘All the details are in this,’ Ayyan said.

The man studied it more carefully than he probably wanted to. And he tried to appear nonchalant when the envelope full of cash was thrust towards his chest.

After the little man left, with quick hectic steps to emphasize that he was busy, Ayyan continued to sit on the bench and stare. The game has to escalate, he told himself.

It has to move to a different level. In a way, what he had just done was cruel. It was probably even a crime. But what must a man do? An ordinary clerk stranded in a big daunting world wants to feel the excitement of life, he wants to liberate his wife from the spell of jaundice yellow walls.

What must he do?

The crowd on the Worli Seaface was swelling: it was now a giant colourless swarm. Pale boys with defeat in their eyes walked in horizontal gangs; they giggled at the aerobics of unattainable women. And they did not give way to the hasty girls. Ayyan loved this about the city - the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor.

In the miserly lifts and stuffed trains, he often heard the relief of afternoon farts, saw scales on strange faces and the veins in their still eyes. And the secret moustaches of women. And the terrible green freshness when they had been newly removed with a thread. He felt the shoves and pushes and the heaviness of paunches. This unnerving constriction of Bombay he loved, because the congestion of hopeless shuffling human bodies he was born into was also, in a way, the fate of the rich.

On the streets, in the trains, in the paltry gardens and sudden beaches, everybody was poor. And that was fair.

The desperate lovers were still arriving and they quickly stole the gaps on the parapet between other fused couples. And then they, too, sat facing the sea with their backs to the great passing crowds, arranged their bodies and did their discreet things. Among these lovers were married people, some of them even married to each other. When night fell, they went back to their one-room homes, which were as large as a Mercedes, to rejoin their children, elders, siblings, nephews and nieces, all heaped under a single roof in gigantic clusters of boiling tenements.

Like the BDD chawl, the mother hell. People who knew what BDD stood for were not the kind who lived there. But Ayyan knew such things, even though he was born on a cold floor there, thirty-nine years ago…

…He walked down the dim corridor of the third floor, which was the top floor. It was flanked by ageing pale-yellow walls with huge cracks that ran like dark river systems. There were about forty open doors here. Unmoving shadows sat on the doorways and gaped. Old widows calmly combed their hair. Children ran happily on the ancient grey stones
of the corridor.

He knocked on the only door on the corridor that was shut. As he waited, he felt the turbulence of all those open doors, and the milling shadows. An old familiar sorrow rose like vapour inside him. Oja was trapped here with him.

Once, her youthful words used to rush out like a giggle; she used to sing to herself in the mornings. But eventually the chawl seeped into her. The darkness grew, and it sometimes stared at him through her big black eyes. The door opened, somewhat slower and with far less anticipation than it used to years ago. Oja Mani appeared, her luxurious dark hair still wet from a new bath. As delicate as ever, entirely capable of touching her toes in the unlikely event of being asked to do so. But she was not sculpted by the vain exercises of those forward caste women on the Worli Seaface. Beneath her thin red cotton nightdress, she had a slight paunch that might flatten out if she rested on her back.

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 ‘FORGOT TO TELL you,’ Oja told her husband, ‘his teacher has written a complaint in the handbook again. You have to meet the principal tomorrow morning.’

Adi looked up and giggled. He was sitting on the floor and writing something.

His hair was oiled and severely combed. He was in a T-shirt that had the image of Einstein sticking his tongue out jovially. The boy had clear black eyes: Oja’s eyes. A hearing-aid was strung to his left ear. Its white wire ran into his T-shirt.

‘What has he done now?’ Ayyan asked with a proud smile. Adi winked at his father.

‘You are the one who is spoiling him,’ Oja said. ‘They are going to kick him out of the school one of these days.’

She went to Adi and twisted his ear gently. ‘He asked one of those questions again in the class,’ she said.

‘What question?’ Ayyan asked, now chuckling.

‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t know even if you told me now. This boy is crazy.’

‘What did you do, Adi?’

‘The science teacher was saying that if you throw anything up it has to come down. Basic things like that. So I asked her if the acceleration due to gravity of any planet anywhere in the universe can make an object travel faster than light.’

Oja was staring at her son with a mixture of fear and excitement.

Ayyan loved that look on his wife’s face, that sudden awakening in her from the gloomy acceptance of a life in BDD.

‘He is just ten,’ she said. ‘How does he understand these things?’

Last month, in the middle of the class, Adi had asked the science teacher something about arithmetic progression. A few weeks before that it was something else. Oja heard these stories from his teachers who were usually in some sort of happy delirium when they complained to her.

That night, Adi was sleeping near the fridge, as always, and his father lay next to him, holding the glass-bangled hand of his wife.

Ayyan wondered if he must build a wooden loft. He turned towards his son who was facing him, but he was fast asleep. After a few minutes the boy turned in his sleep and hid his face under the fridge. That was a heartening development.

A pale light was coming through the rusted grilles of the kitchen window and Ayyan could see Oja in the blue glow. Her open palm, with its clear fatelines, rested loosely on her forehead. Her red nightgown was far less arousing than the saris she used to wear after marriage. She was always in a sari in those days because her mother had said that she should not come across as liberal. Her silver anklets lay still. Ayyan ran his hand over her waist. She opened her eyes without confusion or protest. She lifted her head to check on Adi.

Oja’s face, in the inconvenience of love, was a cold face.

These days when he made love to her, she looked as though she was waiting for the bus.

Her blank disenchanted face sometimes frightened him. It reminded him that the woman he loved so much was stranded in a dull life because of him. There was a time when he thought he could save her from BDD and everything else, that love alone could make him superhuman and somehow take them to a better life. But that did not happen, and it probably was never going to happen.

He suddenly felt an irresistible urge to fall down and go to sleep, like the perpetual drunkards of the chawls.

On such days, when he felt stranded in family life, he always invoked the memory of the evening when Oja had first walked into his home as a terrified bride. She was so beautiful, and her fear was so arousing. But on the first night, when he sat beside her on the conjugal mattress that was filled with funereal roses left by neighbours and friends, he discovered that his new wife had cut her arms and legs with a Topaz blade. She had done it very carefully and methodically so that she did not damage her veins.

She wanted an excuse to be left alone. It was her way of saving herself from being undressed by a stranger.

‘I was afraid’ was the first thing she ever told him.

‘Of what?’ he had asked. And she looked even more frightened…

…The first year of their marriage went by in their endless chatter about things they no longer remembered, and in moments of loneliness that sometimes bore the gloom of exile and at other times the sweet isolation of elopement. And in their infrequent physical love through which Oja maintained a calm, interested gaze.

And in Ayyan’s perpetual knowledge that a box of condoms in their home outlived a jar of pickles. During that time, he had a nightmare that he would
never tell Oja. He dreamt that he was summoned by God, who looked exactly like Albert Einstein but highly illuminated. God asked him: ‘Why did you get married?’

Ayyan answered earnestly, ‘To have sex any time of the day or night.’

God looked at him with a thoughtful face for an instant, and then the creases of a smile appeared. The smile became a laugh and the laugh burst into echoes. Men and women on the streets, too, looked at Ayyan and laughed uncontrollably. People who were dangling from the doors of a local train threw their heads back and laughed. The motorman stopped the train to laugh. Fish-sellers in the market covered their mouths and laughed. Even the framed portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru held his stomach and laughed until the rose fell from his buttonhole.

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