Manu Joseph’s award-winning debut novel has been lauded for breaking away from the norm in its depiction of the dalit male character as an intelligent but cunning person. In the words of the author, Ayyan Mani is an “exceptional” individual who is “a freak, in a way” (Joseph 2010). While historically, dalits have mostly been represented in mainstream literature as docile, sympathetic beings, Joseph tries to give Ayyan Mani, who is an important figure in the novel, agency and self-awareness.
The criticism available on “Serious Men” mostly centers around the dalit character as the protagonist but it can be argued that Arvind Acharya, the brahmin scientist in the novel, is an equally important part of the narrative. The essay will continue with this basic premise since it will provide the primary objective of the argument, namely that the novel, in its attempt to humanise dalits, further stigmatizes them. This paper, firstly, through a comparison of how the brahmin Arvind Acharya and Dalit Ayyan Mani are portrayed, will attempt to prove how the process of “discursive discrimination” (Boréus 2006) takes shape. Next, it will try to show how the novel is actually about a tussle between two brahmins: Arvind Acharya and Jana Nambodri and the Dalit character and his world is there just to satiate the author’s (and savarna readers’) voyeuristic gaze.
The term “discursive discrimination” is taken from a study conducted by Kristina Boréus published in the European Journal of Social Theory in 2006 which sought to present how language participates in, and normalizes social discrimination. Although Boréus’ work concerns itself with the public debate on immigrants and other excluded sections in Sweden, I will borrow her methodology to show how “Serious Men” supports casteist stereotypes against dalits. While Manu Joseph strains to defend and even justify the actions of Arvind Acharya, who is presented to the reader as a grand misunderstood genius who is a victim of the situation he finds himself in, Ayyan Mani on the other hand is the scheming “anomaly” (Joseph 2006). Arvind Acharya is the brahmin man-child, a paragon of knowledge and deserving of the reader’s pity even if he cheats on his wife or is dictatorial and obnoxious. A cursory review of the novelist’s linguistic attributes, in the way that he engages in “negative other-presentation”, including “negative labels and descriptions”, and “discriminatory objectification”, “denial of subjectivity” (Boréus 2006) in the parts of the novel where he specifically writes about dalit characters including but not limited to Ayyan Mani, suggests his perception of dalits as the Other.
Instances abound in the novel where Manu Joseph uses denigrating language to refer to Dalits. His voyeuristic male gaze is made further lamentable by his mediocre sense of humor. In fact, his caste supremacist attitude is matched only by his rampant misogyny and obsession with the body parts of women. Segments of the novel read as throwaway erotica. “Serious Men” in addition to presenting dalit characters as individuals lacking subjectivity, caricatures their political organizations as violent and extreme too. While there can be “good” and “bad” brahmins, as represented by Arvind Acharya and Jana Nambodri respectively, dalits are fit to perform the role of criminals and crooks only. The scholar Kanak Yadav writes, “By reducing Dalit politics to a violent, angry mob, Joseph only satirizes the popular bourgeois stereotype of politics as well as politicians without considering the complexity of subaltern politics.” (Yadav 2019)
I will now discuss the epistemological basis of Manu Joseph’s “Serious Men”: the figurative, and towards the end, a literal war between the two sections which occupy opposing ends of Hindu society – Brahmins and Dalits. While the brahmin Arvind Acharya, his lifestyle, family, and worldview become the superlative standard, something to be emulated and inspiring awe in the view of the author, the world that Ayyan Mani occupies becomes an aberration. Ayyan Mani is the other to Arvind Acharya, to make a contemporary analogy: he is the Oriental in Edward Said’s study “Orientalism.” In the novel, Arvind Acharya’s home is the ground where the best of human civilization and culture blooms. Acharya might have been the recipient of Nobel Prize. The Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti is his favorite, the alarm clock gifted by his daughter plays a Thai song, he ponders about dilemmas inherent in theoretical physics, about supersymmetry, abstract geometry and so on. In other words, his life symbolizes the Brahmin in the Vedas, the Supreme, the Absolute.
In contrast, at the BDD chawl where dalits live, people are in a long queue every morning in order to relieve themselves. Here, Oja Mani, Ayyan’s wife “cuts her arms and legs with a Topaz blade”, their pre-teen son watches them engaged in sexual intercourse and complains that his friends “wouldn’t let him play that yesterday” (46). There are drunkards and jobless men, families here construct illegal wooden lofts where the newly weds retire to spend the night together, a young, talented man called Pandu is killed in police custody, to put it briefly, Dalits are surrounded by a palpable hell. While Ayyan Mani is lecherous and lures women to have sexual relationships with him only to reject them later, Arvind Acharya has profound quests in the field of science that he must pursue. Even when Oparna Goshmaulik, also a Brahmin, falls in love with his intelligence and genius, and they have an affair, he is forgiven by Lavanya Acharya, his wife. Towards the end of the narrative, he is completely redeemed.
The aforementioned instances help underscore Manu Joseph’s ideological agenda. The novel is an exercise in constructing an image of the other. The Brahmin here is the occident, and in the words of Said, “the relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony… The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental”… but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental.” (Said 1978) Manu Joseph presents the dalit other to his mainstream reading public and his novel is awarded not because he portrays an atypical dalit protagonist, for the real protagonist is the brahmin world of Arvind Acharya. The achievement of Manu Joseph lies in creating a binary between the dalit-hating brahmin Jana Nambodri and Arvind Acharya, the “casteless brahmin”. Finally, it is the goodness of heart of Arvind Acharya which ensures that the secret about Ayyan Mani’s son, that he is not a science prodigy, remains a secret. Arvind Acharya, the hero, therefore, saves the day.
Coming to the politics of the writer Manu Joseph, he has expressed caste apologist views in multiple opinion pieces published in newspapers. In a column he wrote in 2019, he claimed that tasks such as skinning dead cattle being assigned to dalits gives them “monopoly over some professions”. He said “in skinning dead cattle, Dalits do not face competition from more influential communities that could have otherwise stolen their livelihood.” (Joseph 2019) In a typical Gandhian vein, Joseph states that the menial jobs dalits are engaged in have “greater meaning” than the white collar jobs of the Brahmins, suggesting that it’s the good fortune of dalits to not have high paying jobs like the Brahmins who are “fated to be in software, surgery, finance and academics”. Following this logic, it can be concluded that Manu Joseph feels brahmins are making enormous sacrifices by taking comfortable well paying jobs in cities. It is their generous decision to pass on the task of skinning dead animals to dalits and for this the latter should be thankful.
With a complete lack of self-awareness, Manu Joseph articulates positions that would qualify as self-parody if they did not betray his anxiety of dalit assertion. In a column he wrote in the year 2016, he states that the cause of Rohith Vemula’s suicide was depression and it had nothing to do with him being dalit. According to Manu Joseph, farmers killing themselves because of poverty, Tibetan monks immolating themselves in protest against Chinese authority, acts of terror by suicide bombers are all stories of depression and they have no connection to politics whatsoever. What is clear in his superficial understanding of these issues is an inability to participate in topical events without being a mouthpiece for those who wield coercive authority. It is therefore predictable that “Serious Men” has no transformative appeal and peddles formulaic, biased politics as satirical fiction. The book suffers from limited “social consciousness” of the author, a term Frantz Fanon, the psychoanalyst and social philosopher uses in his influential work “Wretched of the Earth” (1961) where he emphasizes the need for social and political consciousness for the emancipation of the oppressed peoples. Manu Joseph continues to publish articles and writes on social media where he displays apathy with alarming regularity.
Joseph, Manu. Serious Men, Harper Collins, 2010.
Boréus, Kristina. Discursive Discrimination, Sage Publications, 2006.
Yadav, Kanak. “Another high-caste woman beyond his reach”: Cast(e)ing the sexual politics of Manu Joseph’s Serious Men, Journal of commonwealth literature, 2019.
Said, Edward. Orientalism, Penguin, 1978.
Fanon, Frantz. Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, 1961.
Joseph, Manu. Depression or oppression: What led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide? www.hindustantimes.com. Web. 21st May, 2020.
Chanchal Kumar is from Jharkhand and currently lives in Delhi, India. His poems have previously appeared and awarded in The Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal, Name and None, Young Poets Network, UK including others. Recently, his poems were translated to Bengali by Harakiri Journal. He is pursuing M.Phil at University of Delhi.