First Published 2010. Harper Collins Publishers, India.
I do not see why the book won 'The Hindu Best Fiction Award, 2010' or the 'American PEN Open Book Award, 2011', maybe because its competitors were worse. It is a pretentious, fairly inauthentic, and mostly pointless story about the goings-on in and around a scientific research institute, called the Institute of Theory and Research (modelled after TIFR, obviously). There are two story strands in the novel.
One is about a Tamil dalit clerk at the Institute, called Ayyan Mani, who is PA to the Director. When the novel begins, he is in the process of setting up an elaborate fraud, projecting his 10 year old son as a prodigy, a child genius, able at that age to talk about the Fibonacci series and Supernovae. The boy Adi is actually only parroting words and sentences as tutored by his father. This is however sufficent to astonish and delight his school teachers. The effect is then enhanced by a fake 'paid news' item Ayyan places in a local Marathi newspaper, and by other such tricks. The fraud culminates in Adi being allowed to write the entrance exam to the Institute, at which, again by the fraudulent machinations of his father, he scores quite well, in the top five, much to the disbelief of the brahmin professors at the Institute. This storyline in the novel is based, as Manu Joseph himself admits (http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/voices/the-hilarious-case-of-avatar-tulsi), on the story of Tathagat Avatar Tulsi. It is also cast as a tale of Brahmin-Dalit conflict in academia, and, more generally, in the power structures of Indian society. But, though intense caste conflicts are perhaps the defining reality in most such organisations, there are several problems with the narration here. Some of these problems are mere irritations: Ayyan Mani, Oja and Aditya are more Malayalee names, than Tamil; his boss is described as a Tamil Brahmin, named Arvind Acharya – this is more a Kannidiga/UP name, a TamBrahm would be called Gopalakrishnan or Subramanian or...; Malayalee (Nair, not Dalit), and Tamil Brahmin (or at least upper caste) clerks are commonly seen in Mumbai offices – Tamil Dalits almost never; a clerk in Mumbai, especially one senior enough to be PA to the Director of TIFR, would not have to live in a chawl designed for mill-workers – the Institute would have assigned him quarters, or would pay him enough to buy/rent a small self-contained apartment in the suburbs; etc. But there are other more serious problems with this storyline, which indicate that the author has bestowed only superficially sympathetic attention to the caste conflict. To state this crudely, he seems to imply that a Dalit could get into the academic programme of the Institute only by fraud. Not only because the organisation is structured against them (this made clear in the novel), but also because Dalits lack the werewithal, the intelligence and (perhaps) the integrity to get in on academic merits alone. This latter point is not made explicitly, but Ayyan Mani clearly justifies his elaborate fraud to himself (and motivates himself to go through with it) on the grounds that he is a Dalit, pulling the legs (but, he thinks, only pulling the legs) of an oppressive system run by and for the Brahmins. His son, he appears to think, is too stupid to actually learn the necessary Physics and Maths, ever, and by his prank, Mani sets out to show that his Brahmin bosses are actually stupid too. They got in simply because they are Brahmins. Maybe the author want to show, through Ayyan Mani, that there is no such thing as actually 'knowing Physics and Maths', thus displaying a streak of anti-intellectualism, or at least imputing it to the Dalit clerk. This however may be stretching my interpretation of the novel too far.
The second narrative thread deals with gender discrimination – again a very distinct reality in Indian organisations, in Indian research institutions. And again, it's superficially dealt with here. The protagonist in this case is a Bengali woman, named Oparna Goshmaulik. I do not know enough about Bengali social interactions to understand the full ramifications of this name. However Oparna is described as an attractive, even sexy, young woman, and the only female member of the faculty. It is therefore not surprising that she attracts all the male faculty members, young and old. She falls in love with Arvind Acharya, who, considering their different positions in the organisation, must be about 20 years older than her, and who returns her love only tepidly. This love affair rather undermines the 'gender discrimination' angle, especially since it is she who goes after him aggressively, with the subtle implication that she does so in order to unfairly advance her career.
Manu Joseph thus comes down on the conservative (actually right-wing) side on both political issues that he deals with in the book – inverse caste and gender discrimination are actually the problem now, he appears to say.
When considered shorn of all pretences to depth and meaning, the novel is reasonably well-written and readable, but only just so. The cynical tone Manu Joseph adopts throughout, dissing almost everyone and everything, is probably meant to make him look 'cool', but ends up being boring. He has a way with words, and some of his observations on modern Indian life are neat – 'The country has become a video game', says one of the characters while driving through Mumbai traffic. But most of his 'nifties', though nice, are meaningless. They do not take the story forward, but contribute only to the air of superciliousness the author maintains throughout. Apart from the two main storylines I describe above, the novel also talks about intra-institute politics and the jockeying for power and grants. It does this however in a disappointingly shallow way, and in these situations the writing is far cry from the likes of John Le Carre who describes such meetings so well.
I could not like or identify with any of the characters. From my own experience of these places, I could however see that Manu Joseph has first hand knowledge of TIFR and the Mumbai chawls. There are no dissonances here, except perhaps an exaggeration, following 'Slumdog Millionaire', of the squalor of the chawls. My experience of these latter however dates from the sixties when I visited the homes of friends and relatives in chawls in Matunga (the Shankaralingam Pillai family) and in Chembur (the home of my classmate Moses). Things are almost certainly worse now.