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Anis Shivani

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Manu Joseph, Author of "Serious Men" (Interview)

Posted: 09/18/10 08:30 AM ET

This remarkable debut novel is one of the very best novels ever to come out of South Asia, and points to a new direction after the earlier wave of writing by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, and Vikram Seth. Aravind Adiga did class resentment really well in The White Tiger, while Rana Dasgupta does metaphysics as well as the great European modernists in his forthcoming Solo. Put these two elements together, and add the relentless satire of Mohammed Hanif in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, and you get Manu Joseph's Serious Men.

One thing that unites the four books is a supreme confidence that Indian writers can chart their own literary destiny without regard to prevailing fashions in the West. The novel's sallies at overeducated Brahmins and resentful Dalits are universal in application (each nation has its own Brahmins and Dalits, with unique anthropologies of subtle and not-so-subtle class exclusions). The Indian middle-class may well be rapidly growing, but regressive cultural attitudes die hard. Serious Men skewers the pretensions of any governing elite carried away by its own rhetoric of progress. This is not a dark satire though--perhaps those are reserved for countries experiencing rank authoritarianism; instead, one experiences moments of light and ecstasy throughout the keenly observed playscapes of Bombay's haves and have-nots.

Joseph's Ayyan Mani is a Dalit (untouchable) secretary at Bombay's Institute of Theory and Research, working for Arvind Acharya, a high-class Brahmin perennially rumored to be on the list of Nobel Prize winners. While Ayyan ekes out an existence in an overcrowded chawl (tenement), sending his ten-year-old son to a Catholic school, Arvind puts the Institute's energies behind sending up a balloon in space to gather evidence that alien microbes are always raining on earth (hence explaining the origin of life). While doing his part to inflame the Brahmin egos at war in the Institute, Ayyan cheats and lies to have his little son accepted as a bona fide genius. This plot offers great possibilities to explore class conflict, and Joseph takes full advantage of it.

If there is one novel you must buy this year, whether or not you have the slightest interest in South Asia, make it this one. It will revive your hope in contemporary fiction, and make you convinced again that the novel at its best has no competition in making sense of our world--which seems so complicated, but is still driven by the same fundamental delusions novelists have been exposing since Cervantes and Swift.

Shivani: How long did it take you to write the novel? Was it always basically the satire that it is, or did it evolve from some other genre? How long have you been writing fiction?

Joseph: I can tell you that I took three years to write which would be the truth but when I measure this time, I cheat. I calculate from the time I wrote the first line (which I don't remember anymore). But I had been developing the idea for a long time. I find it hard to accept though that the novel was in my head for so long, seven years probably. For some reason I want to believe that I didn't take much time. Do other writers too feel that way? Some writers seem to be very proud of the fact that they took 15 years to write a novel.

Strangely, I had imagined it as a film at first. Then I thought I should write a novel which derives the best from the simple linear structure of a screenplay and also the playful introspection that is possible in a novel. When I began to write I must have been really vain. I behaved as if I had never written before, as if I was about to do something extraordinarily important, as if here with the first tap of the key I would set in motion a literary revolution. I really enjoyed my self-obsession, though I now figure I was only inexperienced. This would be particularly hilarious if you were to read the first ever draft of Serious Men, which was really terrible and heartbreaking. Somehow I realized it only after I finished.

People tell me, like you do, that I have written a satire. Sometimes, when I am careless or bored with a person I am talking to, I use that word myself to describe Serious Men. But I feel that a person cannot sit down to write a satire. Satire is the analysis of the reader, probably even the creation of the book reviewer. There is only one way in which I can write, and it appears that it can be called satire. So, according to me, satire is not a conscious process of a writer, it is the reaction of the reader.

Shivani: Was there a conscious way in which you rebelled against the conventions of Indian fiction, before you even began the novel? Were there familiar patterns you wanted to avoid, thematical and structural issues that seemed to you obstacles to the development of your own narrative style?

Joseph: I was very certain right from the beginning that I would not write an autobiographical novel. Everybody around me was writing one and I had made so much fun of them (though not when they were present in the same room) that somehow I had lost the right to write one myself.

I don't think Indian writing in English is a formidable thing right now for anybody to have to rebel against. Clearly, considering my view, I was not emerging from any literary tradition. That was actually an advantage. I really do believe that if I was the first ever person to write a novel I would have written Serious Men this way.

Shivani: Satire seems to be undergoing an incredible worldwide renaissance. The Bush years helped it along in America. In rising countries like India, it seems like a very suitable form of expression. Perhaps one will see an outburst in Russia too. One thinks of Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes as a parallel novel that mocks absurdity.

Joseph: I don't think there will be a satire explosion. As I said satire is not a conscious process. It is a consequence of a form of literary delinquency and not everybody has it. For example, it is not easy for the refined elegant new breed of Pakistani writers with foreign accents to even attempt A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which is an absolutely brilliant work. It is the best subcontinental English novel I have ever read. Satire cannot and will never be a trend.

Shivani: I detect a fair amount of sympathy on your part toward Arvind Acharya. One might make a claim for him as the co-hero of the novel. On one hand, you generate classic Dickensian sympathy for the perpetually trampled-upon underdog, Ayyan, a resentful representative of the Dalit underclass, but on the other hand you undermine our sympathy for Ayyan by presenting Arvind so considerately. I love this ambiguous balance. It's exquisite--shall we say, untouchable?

Joseph: It is interesting that you mention this. In the beginning there was only Ayyan Mani. Acharya was a minor character. But I loved him so much that in the later drafts he became really big. In fact in the draft that preceded the final draft Acharya was the central character, the novel even began with him wondering if Time moves smoothly like a straight line, or in miniscule jumps, like a dotted line. But then, something amazing happened. I realized something almost paranormal. I have read many times authors with no known mental problems talking about how every novel has only one predestined beginning, and how you just cannot tamper with it. Even the great Marquez has said that. I have read about novelists suffering from frequent false starts that they somehow instinctively know. That happened with Serious Men too. I tried everything I could to start it with Acharya because I loved him more than Ayyan. But it just did not work. The tone of the novel was somehow Ayyan's right.

Shivani: Is being a newspaperman good training still for a novelist?

Joseph: I do read about some writers, a few of them very good, who have never been journalists. I then try to find out if they were princes or princesses or others of a type who never had to work in their lives. Because I find it hard to believe that a person who wants to be a writer would choose any other profession than one which pays you to write. When done well, journalism is indisputably literature.

The best thing about being a magazine journalist was that I did not have any romantic notions about the novel. I was not intimidated by the thought of writing a novel. If I were the type who would spit on his hands and say, "Now let's see what's the big deal about a novel," that is exactly what I would have done. That was the attitude I had when I first started writing. I behaved like an amateur.

I thought I was doing a good job until I realized that I had written a giant book review of the book I wanted to write. That is the problem with the journalistic approach and that is the problem most journalists face when they try to write a novel. The depth of a novel comes from the point of view of the characters (in my view, this is different from what is called "voice"), and even a seasoned journalist is usually not trained to narrate from the point of view of characters. That is because in a news or feature story a journalist cannot presume the point of view of a real subject. So the truth is that debut novelists, even if they are features writers, have to struggle a lot. A novel is a very distinct and very complicated form of story-telling. Nothing trains you to write a novel than your first novel.

Shivani: I see some parallels--and I hope you don't mind my saying this--with the Hollywood movie, A Beautiful Mind. Not only the references to Princeton, but for example the way Arvind keeps getting reintegrated into the higher community of scientists, despite his enemies' will and his own self-destructiveness. Was that movie on your mind?

Joseph: It is intriguing that you mention the film. It does not have anything to do with the novel or its characters but it has a more fundamental role. When I was thinking of the novel or probably I was a bit into the Ayyan Mani strand and Acharya was still forming, John Nash the mathematician on whom A Beautiful Mind is based visited Bombay. It was the most hilarious experience. The 5-star hotel's banquet room was filled with the management types and a lot of very pretty women. It was as if everybody had come to see Russell Crowe. In a way they did. When they saw John Nash they were shocked. This was no Russell Crowe. He looked a bit confused, and when he began his lecture on Game Theory the hall emptied because nobody understood what he was saying. That moment was crucial for the book. There is a sexy aspect to science which occupies popular imagination. What men talk about over beer is the sexy science--string theory, dark matter, even a flatulent version of game theory and things like that. But real science, the fundamentals, like the subject of Nash's lecture, is a dreary thing, like truth itself.

Philosophy is a bit like that. It has the appearance of high art, high science, but it is actually in the realm of entertainment. This thought, this character of philosophy became one of the invisible pillars of Serious Men.

Shivani: There is a fine line between genius and madness, isn't there? It seems like one of the most fruitful territories for a novelist to explore, in these days of hypercommunicative intelligence, oververbalization, and convenient technologies of expressiveness that encourage and publicize both genius and madness.

Joseph: I think almost everybody is mad. I really believe that. Very few people in the world are sane, one of the subjects of my next book.

You look at the average person--his or her beliefs, the huge cathedrals built for them, the religions that maintain order, the rubbish that people believe in, the imbeciles who can influence millions, the rover on Mars searching for water--it is very obvious to me that most people are actually mad. Sanity is a gift. In fact, Acharya is less insane than most people who think he is. Deep within him there is a clarity of thought. Sanity is about that--clarity. The struggle of humanity to achieve clarity is what all art is about.

Shivani: With respect to political correctness: at times it's a way forward toward truth (there's always more than a grain of truth to the imagination of past oppression). At other times, political correctness is an absolute denial of reality. Your novel seems to play with this notion throughout.

Joseph: Political correctness is not a form of sophistication as people claim or imagine, it is a form of cowardice, the lowest form of human communication. I prefer to hear frogs croak than read fake literature that tries so hard not to offend. At the same time, there is something fake about political incorrectness too. Some people try too hard to offend, it seems. I feel writers should write what they want and with honesty which is more transparent than they imagine, and let people bother with what they want to call your work.