Manu Joseph

2 Books

Manu Joseph's debut novel Serious Men (2010) won The Hindu Literary Prize and the American PEN Open Book Award, and was nominated for many other awards.

It has been translated into several languages. A former columnist for the International New York Times, he lives in Delhi.


From the flea market of frailties: an interview with Manu Joseph

Manu Joseph, ready with Miss Laila, talks of Modi, modernity and unreadable novels

Manu Joseph calls himself a ‘failed prankster.’ He believes prank is closer to anthropology than literature, that sarcasm is a low form of humor, that it is indecent to bore people. His third novel, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, stars a young woman, Akhil Ayer, who plays pranks on liberal eggheads, Marxists, and ‘anyone in this country who eats salad.’

She makes short films with sassy titles such as, How Feminist Men Have Sex. Akhil stands at the center of this book, but connected to her is also Samirbhai — leader of the republic, with his silver beard and 56-inch chest; Laila —

full of chutzpah, who at 19 supports a family of seven, who is envious of ‘flashy girls’ and believes everything the poor do are ‘spoofs of the big games of the big people;’ Mukund an — a young man and poet — who has never chased a woman, but who knows the art of waiting; and the Patriarch — Professor Avid, who is perhaps Joseph’s most delightfully curmudgeonly creation.

Joseph tells me the idea for the book began as a thriller. One day after a run, he was sent to cover the Gujarat earthquake. It was one of the most influential events in his life. “There was a man we asked for directions.

His entire family was under the rubble but he was able to give directions… one man breaking open the top of an almirah with a body under the cupboard because he thought the army guys would steal his stuff. I thought, what happens if a guy in the debris is saying something, and that is unfolding outside. What will happen if you tell that story?” Excerpts:

Was there anything about your childhood that made you want to become a writer?

The only thing I’d say is that I spent hours and hours by myself. I didn’t even know I was being solitary. We never went out. Nobody called us anywhere, so there was no social life. You spend days and days... Just my sister and me. Sometimes as siblings you can be a unit, like couples. It’s as good as loneliness.

Your previous novels, Serious Men and Illicit… feel related. Miss Laila is different in tone and intent. Would you agree?

Both began with a very strong emotion. Serious Men was the unapologetic honest anger of a man who believed he was smarter than most people who had a better life than him, while Illicit was a deeper sentiment of what is sanity, and what happens when you go in search of it.

But for this one, I couldn’t get Modi out of my head as a literary character. This guy is meant for fiction. And not just an easy lampooning. There’s a complexity about him — not internally, but the perception of him. The way he’s projected as a hologram of half-a-billion people, and everyone has added something of themselves to it. So I couldn’t get that idea out of my head.

It’s also very of the moment…

I feel topicality is one of the corrupt things of our times. Journalism itself knows there’s no such thing as news 99% of the time.

So I ask myself, I have this beautiful creature like a novel, should I be topical? But increasingly, the way people are changing into zombies, regular people who were fine, because of politics.

Politics began to absorb all human flaws, democracy began to reflect it. It became such a good conductor of public opinion, which is what people wanted it to be, but it showed humanity for what it was, which is fascinating and terrifying, so that was part of it.

There are themes you explore as a columnist — the dangers of sugar, adorableness, science over art — that make their way into your fiction. I’m interested in how you differentiate dealing with them.

So, the individual themes are numerous, but they’re not as important as the overarching theme, which is that there’s a misunderstanding of how to approach the battle of evil versus good.

I’m one of those people who believes in the simplistic notion of evil versus good because I believe in mental balance and imbalance as what regulates the world.

I feel that evil inherently has a fantastic mechanism to reward the most evil. The greatest a*****s in the battle of a*****s will rise.

But there’s a serious problem with good. I feel that good is hiring poorly. Evil is an equal opportunity society. Good is actually a society where there’s nepotism, especially in the JNU crowd, in the Left liberal set up. You can’t fight evil from such a low level of preparedness.

I was going to tell you that your novels seem to open a curtain to modern India. But in Miss Laila you say that to be modern and Indian is on par with a virgin prostitute. Is modernity in India an oxymoron?

Because we were also a civilization that was destroyed, we had to borrow our icons of modernity. So we don’t know what we are when we’re modern. We know what we are when we’re ancient. We know what we are religiously, and to some extent sentimentally.

But we don’t know what we are when we’re modern if it’s not western. That’s what I mean by that. I’m fine with imitation, but then you should know you’re imitating. If you search deeper and try to find what’s Indian about modernity, you get confused.

Were you nervous writing women characters like Laila and Akhil? You know that some people think you’re a bit of a misogynist?

(Laughs). I’ve heard this. These are just labels that people give. You know, sometimes I feel if a word doesn’t exist in Malayalam, then it doesn’t exist. Of course, I’m sure half the state is just that. I’m being facetious.

But I’m not influenced by people who don’t like me, or the criticism about me. I’m not able to take these things seriously. I’m sure there could be sexist elements in all of us, but to brand someone as sexist — it seems like low intellectual activity, unless it’s a particular kind of person, which I’m not.

In your last book there was a powerful mother figure, Mariam, and this one has a dead mother, who exerts a strong presence. Do you have a mother obsession?

I don’t have a mother issue, although I was closest to her, and she is my savior. So Illicit is my mom. Actually, a mild version of my mom. But the mother in this book is completely different. She’s a posh, communist, good person who had a tragic end, and she’s based on a real life character.

When she died it was a story which moved me. She could have enjoyed a great life but she tried to save the world and then she died. There are a lot of people who appreciate this kind of stuff. While I’m moved by her story, I know she had some mental issues.

I see extreme altruism on the spectrum of mental health, like spirituality is generally considered as something good while that person rots inside and is destroyed. And I find daughters’ analysis of their mothers fascinating and severe. I wanted a daughter’s criticism of her mother, but filled with love… Do you think I’m a misogynist?

No. I think you have great affection for your female characters, whereas you’re quite ruthless about the men in your books. There’s this recurring type of man who is trying to be something but is trapped by the inconsequentiality of his life. You’ve done it in book after book. Why?

That was one of the reasons I went ahead with Laila and Akhil because I was tired of that man. I can do him in my sleep. That Mukund an guy — I didn’t want him to be a major character, but he ended up being so because I think that’s my default position as a novelist, you know? What I do naturally is to write the guy and show the world through his eyes.

And these men are all failures in a way…

They are. And that’s the most beautiful, because the lower you are, the more you see. I like the idea of an underdog because most of my life I was an underdog, so I know that thinking process.

When you’re not an underdog, the world reaches out to you, and there’s something lame about that relationship because the world seems to be a nice, beautiful place.

It happens when I go to Chennai now. It’s almost like Harry Potter for me because the doors open where I didn’t even know there were worlds. When I was a boy it was completely different. So it’s not just an instinct but it’s the very reason why I write a novel.

Without this ‘something’ in the heart of it — there are these eyes, this thing looking back at the reader. That is actually what I’m doing. You’re looking at me, and I want to look back at you, and I want to say some things to you.

Do you ever have conversations with that younger Madrasa self of yours?

Yes (laughs). I’m communicating with him all the time. I even congratulate him, because to me that guy got all the bad and I’m enjoying the fruits.

It’s very easy for me to think about him in the third person. When an Indian reaches a point when he starts referring to himself in third person — I’ve seen film stars do this, you know — it’s downhill after that. But this is different, because he feels so distant.

I’m extremely fond of him in a way I’m not fond of myself. He could have gone either way. Ironically, what saved me was that I had a narrow band of morality. I had a sense of duty which makes you automatically do your duty.

You don’t go wild. That’s why I have a certain contempt for this celebration of wildness. Contempt is a strong word, but I’m amused by people who mildly celebrate their insanity because they have no idea what insanity is. And this whole perception of people that they’re wild… I feel like they’re pussycats in a forest.

Flaubert said he was in all his characters. I feel you push a lot of your ideas into your character’s mouths.

Yes, of course. You have some ideas, though I’m not sure pushing is the word for it. I’m not even trying to persuade. This is my life. These are the rooms into which I go.

Why is love frequently unrequited in your novels?

Because married people are invisible to everybody. Because that’s what happens to love. Because among people who’ve got love, you don’t see it as love any more. We see love only when a couple has lost it. From a literary point of view it’s probably more interesting than love without conflict.

But literature is full of love, where it’s the central thing!

One of the reasons is that failure of love de-clutters my story. So it helps with navigation. Maybe I do it unconsciously for unremarkable reasons.

Maybe I try to derive tension from the lack of it. While I’m on the side of the strong and I have a lot of respect for happiness, happiness for me as a literary element is not satisfying.

And love is a deep form of happiness. I feel people who are searching for love — everything they do is because of that, and they do interesting things because it’s some kind of displacement.

The Patriarch Avid says, “literature is the flea market of frailties.” Where’s that coming from?

I have a grouse about what is considered serious literature. The way activists have created a reward system for unreadable novels is a crime against art. So when social frailties are sold in the form of novels, which don’t have any stories or anything — that irritates me.

But I accept it’s a personal grouse… People go through horrible things and I think all that should be part of literature. The only place weakness is celebrated in is art. No other sphere of activity has any space or time for it, so I can see the greatness in that.

But it’s a grouse when it’s exploited and when people hide in that. They destroy serious journalism through this. They destroy artistic storytelling. It’s very similar to the parallel cinema movement.

If you remember the 1:30 movie? A woman is combing her hair, water boils and then everyone dies. Because that’s life. The interviewer’s latest book is a collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods

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