Arvind Acharya is an elder statesman of physics, a figure of international standing notorious for his criticism of the Big Bang theory. His obsession is the idea that alien bacteria are raining down on Earth and can be sampled by high altitude balloon; he rejects other astrobiological ideas, refusing to allow the Institute's radio telescopes to be used to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Chafing under his autocratic rule, the radio astronomers, among others, are biding their time before staging a coup. They get their chance when Arvind and Oparma, the one woman academic at the Institute, fall in love with one another.
Ayyan Mani is Arvind's personal secretary, who secretly listens in on his conversations and always knows what's going on. A Dalit, turned Buddhist following Ambedkar, he has a deep-seated anger against the Brahmins who run the Institute, and posting invented anti-Brahmin "thoughts of the day" only lets off a little steam. He has a remarkable understanding of the feelings and motivations of others, but is prepared to use that to manipulate and control them. Even his own family is not spared, as he draws his son into a complex charade in which he is given out to be a genius prodigy.
The depiction of the workings of the Institute is quite convincing, capturing something of the strangeness of academia without exaggerating it. And there's plenty happening outside. Arvind's relationship with his wife is only sketched, but becomes unexpectedly moving. Ayyan lives with his wife and son in a tiny room in an ageing estate block in the slums, in a teeming community with its own fascination. And we get glimpses of the networks of influence and patronage that underpin Indian politics, of the education system, and so forth.
Serious Men is a serious, intelligent novel, but nevertheless easy reading. It's never quite comic, but any potential tragedy is undercut. The central characters are smart people driven by goals that transcend the ordinary, which gives them a certain immunity from the vicissitudes of life — and gives their interactions with everyone else a certain dramatic irony.
Note: Arvind Acharya is clearly based on the physicist Jayant Narlikar.
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