Why Jesus Didn't Turn Wine Into Water

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 23, 2010 09:48 hrs

It’s a myth that Sanskrit is the best language for writing computer code. Patriotic Indians have spread this lie for many years. - Bill Gates

There are some people whose books you don’t want to finish in a hurry because you know, instinctively, that your next read is unlikely to measure up.

Manu Joseph’s Serious Men ranks alongside the others in my list - books by Amitav Ghosh, Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie.

His voice is so fresh that he ascribes quotes to Bill Gates the latter has no idea he is believed to have said. Well, in all fairness, it is Ayyan Mani, the protagonist of the novel, father of an acclaimed genius and resident of the BDD chawl in Mumbai who does this.

Inevitably, there have been comparisons to the driver from White Tiger. As the author himself confessed at a reading, he groaned when Aravind Adiga’s claim to fame came out.

“I was well into my book by then,” he says,” and I thought ‘Noooo!’”

But while Yann Martel’s and Adiga’s tigers didn’t impress me much, Manu Joseph’s writing is lyrical even when the thoughts he puts down on paper are coarse. Take the pages in the beginning, when the author gets into Ayyan Mani’s head, to describe the ‘long concrete stretch by the Arabian Sea’, made famous by the climactic scenes of Bollywood movies.

Between his lecherous appreciation of the girls with iPods and Mercedes cars, and his aspiration to liberate his wife from ‘jaundice-yellow walls’, the spectrum of Ayyan Mani’s thoughts is not quite lofty. However, the author neatly sidesteps the cliche of using equally limited vocabulary.

During the book launch, Manu Joseph, who is a journalist by day, pointed out that the only ones who can get away with any comment to the media are scientists, because any question can be countered with jargon. He claimed Serious Men is a defence of the right we lay people have, to laugh at these scientists. He even declares in his columns that he became a journalist because he didn’t have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one.

However, as it turns out, the book is also a defence of their right to dream of aliens dropping to the earth, their right to pursue the truth and their right to hold on to beliefs that merit descriptions such as:

According to him, the Big Bang was that moment in the history of white men when God said, ‘Try to understand from here.’

If you thought that was irreverent, you might well find this blasphemous:

‘Scientists want to search for alien signals because that’s what gets them publicity. They are like Jesus Christ.’

‘Jesus Christ?’

‘Yes. They are exactly like Jesus Christ. You know that he turned water into wine.’

‘I’ve heard that story.’

‘From the point of view of pure chemistry, it is more miraculous to make wine into water than water into wine. But he did not do that. Because if he had gone into someone’s house and converted their wine into water, they would have crucified him much earlier.’

However, the right to desecrate is not restricted to scientists. Here’s the philosophy of Oja, a woman who doesn’t realise one can get out in cricket, grows up with the fear of being burnt to death by her husband and lives in a BDD chawl:

Oja believed the Gods were angry. Buddha’s eternal smile, she had always interpreted as the peace of a cosmically powerless man.

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Manu Joseph’s strength is his ability to put himself in the shoes of people whose lives he can only imagine. He chooses to convey points of view in different voices, and each one is believable. One carries the aristocratic authority and righteous anger of the Brahmin scientist; another the fury of the Dalit peon who dares to dream, the longing to see the perceived oppressor humiliated; yet another, the fervour and frustration of the nun; the shock and betrayal of a cheated wife, the rage of a wronged mistress, humiliated by a series of men.

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However, to his credit, the author does not try to slip into Manolo Blahniks – or for that matter, Bata Size 6 slippers – too often. He certainly avoids the pitfalls of describing sex from the woman’s point of view, as many valiant (though misguided) men have done before him. In fact, the voices of the women in his novel strike one as more genuine than those in the works of many women writers (who tend to extrapolate themselves to Everywoman).

One can see why feminists would call this the ‘male gaze’:

So this is how a liberated woman looks when she is heartbroken. Dark circles, defeat in the eyes, hair unhealthy. She would let a man do this to her. Again and again. They appeared to do marvellous things, but what they wanted was a man. But there were many maids in BDD who would never let a man break their hearts.

But then again, anyone who has had coffee in an all women’s gathering knows the group could never sustain a forty-minute conversation if the men in their lives didn’t feed them with material to gripe about.

Somewhere between the contemplations of the two parties in a relationship, delicious aphorisms stand out:

The dedication of passwords was the new fellowships of marriage. To each other, couples had become furtive asterisks.

Manu Joseph has the ability to use language to create vivid images in the reader’s mind, which in turn trigger sensations. He pieces together phrases in such a manner that one often thinks ‘how true!’ Try this:

Between the news of the stockmarket upsurge and Islamic terror and a man stabbing his lover twenty-two times, The Times hurriedly summarized an epic scientific labour. Rather as an epitaph tells the story of a whole life in the hyphen between two dates.

Then, you have characters who describe hope as ‘a lapse in concentration’. Whimsical as they are, the characters are real. Often, one wants to know what they think of certain theories, certain bits of news. You’d like for there to be a respected scientist, eccentric as they come, who wants to pursue the truth and knows he’s doing it, someone who’s so convinced about his convictions you genuinely get curious about his beliefs.

When a woman’s act of charity does not quite go as she planned, you might find yourself torn about whose side you’re on. When a nun sets out to score a conversion, the pressure is so palpable you feel it’s happening to you.

While the author’s sense of humour has received much applause since the book released, Serious Men really isn’t ‘a savage satire on class, love, relationships and our veneration of science’ as the jacket asserts. There are intense moments, which it would be a shame to miss. Despite beautifully tracing the emotions a scientist goes through after a path-breaking discovery, this book is no tribute to science.

Manu Joseph can get rather snide about science:

Like every ray of light with a wavelength of 700 nanometres is always red, everyone who is in love is young.

The serious men he speaks about are people we read about in school - at that time, we wanted to be Newton or Einstein or Maxell or Fermi or Schroedinger or Kekule.

When we grow up, we wonder what happens to the other, anonymous men who dedicated their lives to the atom - the ones who will only be remembered by a team of two or three colleagues.

We usually shudder, sitting at our office desks. The book gives us a peek into their lives, a life where ‘a mathematical possibility, however small, is enough to go in search of truth’, because ‘in science, hope is everything.’

Couched between observations that sanitary pad ads show women in their happiest moods and contemplations as to what extent a minister will go to in order to show he is not unworthy of security, are delightful innovations such as a chess game through email.

In the end, you’re left wondering whether a satire on science is, in fact, a subversion of what the mass (in its literal, not physics-related, connotation) is doing to itself and the country.

What Serious Men needs is an award from abroad, so that we can certify Manu Joseph’s appeal as a writer enough for bookstores to hike up the price of the book. Until then, you might as well buy your copy fast!

Read an interview with the author

About the author of 'Serious Men'

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.

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