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Updated: December 21, 2013 14:01 IST

Top of the charts: Manu Joseph

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Author and journalist Manu Joseph.
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Author and journalist Manu Joseph.

Meet Manu Joseph whose book The Illicit Happiness Of Other People has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013.

With his second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, Manu Joseph has firmly established his authorial voice. A strange, beautiful, blend of humour and tragedy, the book follows in the steps of Joseph’s debut novel, Serious Men, to find itself on the shortlist of The Hindu Prize 2013.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for the second time mean to you?

It feels like a homecoming. I feel that I may never write a better novel than The Illicit Happiness of Other People. It is the toughest project I have ever undertaken. My general view of morality is that, apart from the fact it ‘must have been the invention of unattractive men’, its influence comes from being a great literary device — it is morality that gives movement to plot. But I was attempting a novel that did not essentially have this facile movement and had to use the techniques of a mystery novel to provide direction without appearing to do so. Also, adolescent philosophy can appear very cheesy. I had to convey it in a way that would not compromise elegance or credibility. This was the toughest part. So I am grateful the novel has received the attention of a major award once again.

Was there any pressure in writing a second novel after a very successful first one? Did the process of writing undergo a change?

The major difference was that by the time I began The Illicit…, I was less angry at the world; had become a greater friend of women; had become a father and so fully understood my mortality and the true nature of fear. Also, I was far less in love with myself. I don’t know how this happened but I felt I had developed some techniques that let me use a subdued style of prose as the medium to build something of a psychological thriller. Also, I had become a better long distance runner (though at the time of answering these questions I have injured my back and I will not be able to run for several weeks, which is so horrible). All this probably helped me write a novel that is very different from Serious Men.

A little about the impetus behind writing your second novel. You’ve chosen a very different plot, with characters grappling with questions and resolutions.

I like the fact that you mentioned the word ‘questions’. It is very interesting. When I was an adolescent in Madras, I was in the grip of something powerful and transformative, and even now I don’t know exactly what it was that I went through. I really thought my mind was beginning to comprehend some great mysterious. I thought I was getting some answers. What I feel now is that what I was enchanted by were questions. That is what traps us — questions that we misunderstand as philosophy. In The Illicit…, Ousep Chacko implies that the true nature of philosophy is that it is a set of dim questions asked too early in the life of science.

One of the significant moments of my adulthoods was the realisation that J. Krishnamurthy asked great questions but never answered any of them. He used the ruse of experience. You won’t understand him until you experience being him. That’s very convenient. Also, as an adult I began to suspect that enlightenment is probably a psychiatric condition. The Illicit… is my tribute to the beauty and the power of questions, which have always been unfairly overshadowed by answers or phantom answers.

You have described the as somewhat autobiographical. Along with 1980s Madras, have you also known Unnis and Ouseps in your life?

I will be a bit stingy with information here. I knew an Unni, I know an Ousep, and all the other characters. There is a bit of me in all the central characters, including the women.

Your style, described often as satire, seems effortless. It feels like it is the way you think, as well as write, an unconscious process, not deliberated or constructed.

You are absolutely right when you say that it is an unconscious process. I do not rate myself as funny at all; it is just that I don’t believe your masquerade, that’s all, so I try to focus intensely on some kind of uncompromising accuracy in description or to extract the simpleton in me to wonder. But yes I do have a suspicion when something I write might be interpreted as funny.

How much of your job as Editor of Open affect your work?

The worst thing about it is that it takes away huge amounts of my writing time. I used to believe that writing is entirely thinking and that the act of writing is merely a mechanical manifestation. This is not true. When you write, it begins to transform what you intended to write. What being editor does to my novel-writing is that it introduces me to people I would not have wished to meet otherwise.

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