The importance of being ironic

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Novelist and screenwriter Manu Joseph, author of three widely acclaimed novels, is among the new voices in contemporary Indian writing in English. The former journalist, now a full-time writer and columnist, published his first novel, Serious Men, in 2010, at the age of 36.

Witty, propulsive, irreverent, with a clever narrative style, Serious Men tackles the issues of Dalits, castes and inequalities in contemporary India by telling the story of one man’s angst and anger. Dalit against his upper caste boss and colleagues. His second, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012), is a dark and poignant human novel that revolves around the alcoholic patriarch of a Christian family who sets out on a quest to solve the mystery surrounding the death of his teenage son and in the process, the reader learns the history of the family, the society in which they live and the mystery of life itself.

Racy, daring, satirical and hard-hitting, Miss Laila, Army and Dangerous (2017), her third book takes off as a thriller that takes place over the course of a day from a building collapse to a real-life encounter with the police and expanding into the current social and political scenario of India with easily recognizable characters.

Joseph’s Serious Men was adapted into a Hindi film of the same name and released on a popular OTT platform in October 2020. Excerpts from an interview

From journalism to novel to screenplay. Did the transition happen naturally?

I think I was lucky because I didn’t have too many options; I had to go with the flow. And the flow can do you good. As a teenager, my primary interest was making films and writing short fiction films. A few years later, I became obsessed with the literary style, a kind of flamboyant and playful English literary style. My early twenties were an intellectually destructive time because if you weren’t writing anything remarkable or funny, I thought you were a sham. Amid it all, for a 20-year-old writer who needed a salary, journalism and advertising were the only jobs that paid. Culturally, in between, I belonged to journalism because I was not upscale; I was too provincial.

What about the novels and the screenplay?

I wrote a lot of screenplays that never turned into movies. I thought most filmmakers were just lazy, not equipped to handle the physically strenuous part of writing. They just wanted to benefit from their own thoughts and wanted someone they could use to write. I realized that writing a movie made me dependent on too many low-quality people, while writing a novel required me alone. So I gave up all the lures of cinema and concentrated on writing a novel. At 26, I started Serious Men.

‘Serious Men’ dealt with the delicate issue of castes and inequalities. How do you think it would be received in polarized India today and in a free social network?

There would now be more questions about the authenticity of my portrait, more questions about whether a guy who is not a Dalit can “have” a Dalit man; just because I was once poor, am I qualified to write about a caste outsider, and so on. All reasonable, good but uninteresting questions.

Usually, the most important talent in any sphere is not your identity but your intuition, which includes your ability to make paranormally accurate conjectures about experiences that you have never had. A talented writer who appropriates someone’s culture is more useful and interesting every day than a man without talent lamenting his real life in an authentic but tasteless way.

Your novels seem tailor-made for film / television. Is it intentional?

The most important part of the birth of a novel is the mess of intoxicating ideas and emotions and a few small actions of real people. But I never start writing until I have the scaffolding, a structure that signals that the novel is ready to be written. My lifelong respect for the structure has helped me a lot in my transition to the screen.

I wasn’t very involved in the Serious Men script. But since then, I’ve written and created an original series for an OTT platform that will be released this month. This is the epilogue of a marriage – about a married couple who have separated but decide to live together because they don’t want the child to know about it.

To what extent should writers be engaged and responsive to society and the contemporary events that shape it?

This business of writing fiction from a social angle is a big bore and half-absurd. It happened because of excessive articulation and analysis of books and stories by intellectuals who don’t write as much as they think they do.

How do you see the editorial scene in India?

Publishers are courageous. I love them. But they don’t have enough support. It is the only industry in the world that does not know how to sell its own products.

Your next novel?

No matter what I do, I think I’m basically a novelist. Something is forming and he’s reached the scaffolding stage. Hope to finish it next year. One good thing at 47 is that I write much faster. I no longer need a decade to finish a novel.


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