Manu Joseph, whose second novel was released recently, talks about writing, being humorous and how journalism has helped his fiction.

Manu Joseph’s acclaimed first novel Serious Men won The Hindu Literary Prize 2010. In his new novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, a man named Ousep Chacko tries to understand why his teenage son Unni, a cartoonist, killed himself three years earlier. Joseph brings to this tragic premise his trademark gift for humorous observation, creating a multi-layered story about how the mind works, the difference between “madness” and “normalcy”, and the aspirations of young people in 1980s Madras.

Writers often say that second novels are very difficult to do. Was this one hard, especially given that Serious Men was so well received?

Not at all. I rate this higher than Serious Men — maybe writers tend to do that with their latest work. This is actually a completely different book. It is called a comic work chiefly because the first one was like that and because of some of my earlier, journalistic work. But if you look at this as a book that isn’t comic, then it’s easy to see why it’s so different.

When I was writing large parts of Serious Men I didn’t even know how to write a novel; I just knew when some things weren’t working. That’s the only gift I have. Ironically — given the theme of this new novel — I’m not delusional, so I can see delusions very easily. That was one of the reasons for this book: I have always been fascinated by the power of delusion in people who are clear-headed in other ways.

When I wrote the first book I was younger, angrier, and just emerging from my own urban poverty. I also had a certain contempt for the artistic side of writing a novel, because I thought a lot of pretentious stuff was being passed off as literature. But by the time I wrote The Illicit Happiness of Other People, I was more confident and self-assured.

It’s a very complex book; it is about many things, including pseudoscience, morality and parental grief. What was your chief imperative while writing it?

I had many objectives, but one theme I’m fascinated by is the pointlessness of everything. To paraphrase Updike, life might be pointless but the novel might not be. I don’t agree with that. I feel life is pointless and, by that logic, the novel is too. People often hold on to one thing, hoping it is precious, but there are those among us who can see pointlessness very clearly: a child does not do anything to them, love does not do anything to them. I don’t say a lot of these things directly in the book, because that would make for a very bad novel. But that was the chief driver.

To me, the shell and the message are equally important. And I wanted to tell this story by taking characters through the process of investigation and resolution: to me, it’s a mystery novel. But the starting point was my interest in the humour and the melancholy of pointlessness.

It can also be described as a Madras book, in a way. It is set in a pre-liberalisation time when you were growing up there, when most young boys in the city were busy conforming — preparing for IIT etc — but there were also exceptions, like Unni in the book.

It’s all real, I haven’t made up anything. There is a particular type of adolescent boy — I’m sure this wasn’t just a Madras phenomenon — who gets deeply into philosophy, and people find this very amusing. But a friend of mine got deeply sucked into it, and much later I realised that he had shown many of the symptoms of schizophrenia. One of the book’s themes is that we all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building. The pursuit of truth itself is a psychiatric condition.

Do you relate to Unni in any way? Did you ever feel you were close to the edge?

At 17, I too was in a certain phase and I knew what someone like Unni was about. I was a silent, removed, isolated person, wandering in the night for hours; I was comfortable with myself. Ultimately boredom plays a big part too. Strip away everything and it’s just boredom. And especially when you’re young and growing up in Madras: you can’t touch girls, you can’t go out with girls, it’s a s**t city; all the f****rs are doing entrance exams. But if depression is a condition, I would argue that inexplicable happiness is also a mental condition. Cartoonists often deal in diametrical opposites. I had moments of inexplicable happiness.

Still, I did briefly lose my nerve when I was 20; I wrote some of those MBA entrance exams, went for the XLRI interview. I remember they asked me: what is the difference between “basilica” and “cathedral”? But fortunately, circumstances ensured I would come back to journalism.

How did that happen?

I had met journalists and thought they were such losers. But I had to make a living. I saw an ad saying that Magna Publishing was looking for people, I went there and there must have been a hundred candidates. (Laughs) People forget how things used to be back then in India. Anyway, the person interviewing me asked “Do you believe in God?” I said I don’t believe in such s**t. So she hired me only because she wanted to reform me. It worked out perfectly.

If you had merely said a timid “No”, she would probably have lost interest!

Yes.

One of your strengths is a knack for seeing the funny side of solemn situations. In one passage a woman comes home from shopping, looks through the door and sees her husband, who has died of a heart attack while she was away. And she tosses a brinjal at him to check if he is alive. You just slip that line in, you don’t make a big deal of it, but it is there all the same. Does this quality come naturally to you or do you have to work hard at it?

I like the juxtaposition of humour and tragedy. You see more of it in movies; in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, for example (no relation to Joseph’s first book). I’m always fascinated by why people laugh when there is turbulence in a plane and you fear you’re going to crash. I’m terrified of flying and I think that’s the last thing you should be doing: laughing. But it’s such a serious thing: laughing.

One important thing I believe about humour is that at its core is accuracy. When you’re extremely accurate about something, it becomes funny.

You have a line like that in the book… “Humour assaults us with a slice of truth.”

Yes, and there is also a mention in that passage of the evolutionary origin of laughter; it came from a ferocious face that early man made when he wasn’t sure that a danger had passed.

I think the most underrated humour writer in the world is J.M. Coetzee; his eye is so uncompromising, his observations are so exact. In Disgrace there is a passing comment about how this part of the leg (bending down and indicating the part just above the calf) is the ugliest thing in a woman’s body. I don’t find most people very funny, especially the guys. The chap who walks into the room and says ‘I’m going to tell you something funny’ is never as funny as someone like Coetzee can be, from whom you just don’t expect it.

What happens with me is that if I meet someone really big and important — like V S Naipaul, or the prime minister — beyond a point I cannot be in awe. You begin to see the many layers of a person that have accumulated over time, and you dismiss the whole thing in the first five seconds.

It’s interesting you say that, because this is what good cartoonists — like your absent protagonist Unni — do. They cut through the clutter and see the essence of a person or a situation.

Yes, I rate myself as a cartoonist who does not have the talent to draw. Writing humour is a natural process but it’s also difficult — like long-distance running. It’s not like one is constructing a sentence for one hour; I just find the process of choosing quite difficult. I’m so aware of bad writing that I know when it’s my own, so there’s constant rejection. This would have been a one-million-word book if I had accumulated everything I wrote. But people don’t want to know everything you want to say. The very definition of a bore is that he is unaware of what is interesting and what isn’t.

Writers also tend to invest a lot of effort in creating characters, and then they try to showcase those characters in every scene. But I think there is a place for cameos. Apart from the four main characters, this book is full of cameos — there was a Tarantino-esque influence in the structure. A very important character, a neuro-psychiatrist named Iyengar, is a cameo. If this had been my first novel, he would have had a prominent role right from the beginning because he is so important to the resolution of the novel: he is trying to prove that sanity is not a majority condition; that you cannot consider a majority delusion as accepted human nature. But while writing this, I was confident enough to bring him in towards the end.

Also notable is your use of sharply humorous analogies. This is the sort of thing that can get tediously overdone in writing, but you do it so well that it gives the reader a fresh, clear-sighted way of looking at something. For instance, two girls at a cartoonists’ meeting survey the others with the amused look of the newsreader who has just got the “serious” political news out of the way and is about to announce that a zoo lioness has delivered four cubs. It creates a mental picture immediately and one understands something about these characters and how they fit in with their surroundings.

The maturity of girls used to annoy me a lot when I was growing up in Madras; the way they would hold a kerchief like this in one hand (makes a gesture to show what he means). And the condescension of newsreaders also annoys me: why put on that smile when you’re about to move from “hard news” to “features”?

Do you make many funny observations of this sort during casual conversation, in “real life”?

I don’t know. Only girlfriends comment that you’re funny; a wife never says her husband is humorous. And I’ve been married for 10 years, so I don’t know how funny I am.

Incidentally, I learnt from reading about neurology that the part of the brain that contributes to analogy-based humour is very different from the part responsible for puns. Puns to me are the lowest form of humour and I’m so glad that the two things are separated (laughs). I was reading V S Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain, where he mentions that.

Something you’ve done better here than in Serious Men is the creation of a well-rounded woman character — Unni’s mother and Ousep’s wife, Mariamma.

Yes, I wanted to come at Unni from various angles, through various people. What I liked as I was writing it was that everything you know about Unni was through other people. About the process behind woman characters: I’m generally more fond of and curious about women. They are infuriating at times and I don’t like a lot of things about them, but I’m very curious about them. It’s a tough process though. The character of Mythili (a 16-year-old girl in the book) would have been more fleshed out if I had been a woman, but I couldn’t get enough material or insight into her. Mariamma is someone I know very well; someone I know for decades. In fact I had to make her milder, just to be credible.

Reading your novels, I feel — and this is a compliment — that you should be the editor of something like MAD magazine, or a parody website…

I’d be pretty good!

…and yet here you are editing a weekly current-affairs magazine (Open). Your fiction has a nihilistic quality: one of Unni’s cartoons described in the book involves the appearance of an envelope which has the meaning of life written inside, and everyone laughs when they read it. You often lampoon the self-importance of people and the absurdity of the narratives we create for ourselves. How do you reconcile this with journalism, which is about trying to make sense of what is happening in the world?

There is a conflict. Nothing comes close to the process of writing a novel. But what my day-job has done is that ... being an editor trains you to accept failure, strangely. You’re not so isolated as an artist that you have a moronic interpretation of failure. What is professionalism? A professional falls; he gets up and continues to walk. And I find that some novelists are not always trained for that — I really feel they should spend some time in a profession, in an office. I was at a writers’ conference in Edinburgh and it struck me there is something childlike about writers — it can be scary. An artist who is a rebel in his or her own field, and who is constantly questioning, might still be naïve enough to not use the same faculties in another context.

Being the editor of a magazine helps me be less naïve, so I don’t start respecting things unnecessarily, for no reason, or saying simplistic things like dictators are bad and people are good. And I try to use that as a writer. I use everybody and everything for my process of writing. Of course, I can also see the benefit of being a novelist who isn’t an editor: everything you write comes as fresh work to the reader; nobody presumes they already know your opinions and your political stance.

There is an irreverent quality in your journalism too. I can’t think of many others who would write a wry sentence like “It is important for a revolution to be enjoyable” (while discussing the failure of the Anna Hazare movement) in an editor’s commentary. It reflects a very particular sensibility.

Think of (Pakistani writer) Mohammad Hanif’s journalism. Take the recent piece he did about blasphemy in Pakistan — one of those Harvard-returned journalists would have done a bleeding-heart piece, which is also journalism. But Hanif has such a different sensibility. It comes from a certain way of looking at things; he’s a delinquent, he can’t help it, and I find it very appealing. I think journalism is strongest when you don’t convert everything into lament.

I’ve worked at different levels in journalism, and I feel an editor should have people smarter than him around him — don’t be in competition with your own writers, don’t be scared. Eliminate mediocrity as much as possible — it can never be fully eliminated if you’re working with a team of more than 50 people. But within some broader boundaries, let the magazine be a platform rather than having a particular agenda.

Having said that, quality is not negotiable — of course that’s subjective, but it’s what I decide is quality. For instance, we wouldn’t have — just in the name of freedom of speech — carried Subramanian Swamy’s moronic essay (on “how to wipe out Islamic terror”) which DNA published.

You have said before that you are not very interested in contemporary Indian-English writing and the narratives that surround it. Certainly, you have never set out to write the mythical Great Indian Novel. Who are your influences?

I went through a destructive period in my 20s when I thought only style is writing, and writers who don’t have it are pretenders. I should have been more accommodating and less arrogant. Of course, in today’s climate where the non-stylish have become so powerful that they are making it look like style and content are two different things, I get tempted to be hostile with them as well!

To me, the opposite of style is Coetzee. If Marquez is one end of the spectrum — I’m only talking about the good stuff now — Coetzee would be the other end, and what we call good literature would fall between those two poles. I’m also influenced a lot by cinema; I use melodrama when I have to use it. As an Indian I’m not afraid of it. That’s another thing about the corruption of western publishers — that’s a society that doesn’t comprehend melodrama like we do. When I see too much sensitivity and elegance and sophistication, I get impatient.

Your prose has an informality about it. You often begin sentences with “And”, or use an extra word like “actually” to create a naturalistic, speech-like effect. These aren’t things that are usually approved of in western models for literary fiction, but one often sees it these days in good English translations of Hindi or Malayalam literature.

Yes, it isn’t a conscious process. I’m straight-batted in many ways; I like the beauty of the straight bat. Of course, I do like the Sehwag moments also — that’s one of the best things about art, how it can surprise you. I also use “also” very often. It’s convenient also from a technical point of view — many of my paragraphs are really one sentence that has been broken up into many sentences. I don’t like using semi-colons; I try to avoid them. I hate exclamation marks. In Open I’ve banned the exclamation mark.

Any Indian fiction writers from the last decade whom you have special regard for?

It’s a question I dread. I think Arundhati Roy’s novel deserved all the acclaim it got. I’m not a fan of her journalism — I think she’s an example of those naïve writers who became naïve because they didn’t have a job. If she had worked as a journo for some time, she would develop some weapons — you can’t be someone who keeps getting slapped around, mostly by yourself. And sometimes when you’re just theorising, it gets tricky — information is so vast and hard to access. Just like those early Brahmins never used to write anything down because they wanted to convey everything through the ear, I think academics can be lousy because they want to guard the information — they want money from the publishers but they also want to guard the info. Anyway, that’s a different matter. Rohinton Mistry I think is top-quality stuff.

I’m not going to press you about this because the two names you’ve mentioned are already a generation or so earlier than I had in mind!

(Laughs) One serious problem I had was I could not have a conversation with other writers, because they were so much into the craft of writing, they had read SO MUCH — I don’t know where they found the time to read so much. And when would I read their copy, it was shit. Why are you talking so much about the craft of writing when you don’t know how to write? So I had a low opinion of this whole process of theory. What I really wanted to know honestly was how I was going to buy those Adidas shoes for Rs.1000.

Maybe it’s turned out to be a good thing that I don’t quite have the writer’s personality. My own central character — the way I am — is probably not a writer. I’m probably a failed long-distance runner, or a cartoonist, or a filmmaker who’ll never get funds to make films.

What next, book-wise?

I know the third book will be very contemporary. One misfortune is that I live in Gurgaon and would never have the heart to set a novel in Gurgaon. Nothing I write will be like this one, in terms of subject matter etc. I haven’t begun yet; I’m waiting for the moment. Right now I’m attempting some short stories to get into that frame of mind.

I’m impressed with how much of an a*****e I was when I was writing this. I took a sabbatical from work, wouldn’t meet anybody, lost some friends. I was at home, just working on this.

Well, to quote another line in the book: “The misanthrope alone has clarity.”

Yes, that’s something I believe in. The thing is, if I were younger I would have explained that over 3000 words, which wouldn’t have been good for the book.

This article has been corrected for typographical errors