In a short but revealing chat, Writer Manu Joseph deconstructs his memories of the city he grew up in

It’s a very wet day and Manu Joseph is late for our meeting, apologetic and startled to find that Madras (we mutually forfeit Chennai) disintegrates quite so rapidly in the rains. The Madras he grew up in was more civilised. Yes, we know. The relative order the city once claimed as its own has long been replaced by chaos. But sitting inside Piano, the restaurant at Hotel Savera, it’s easy to forget all that. It has an old-world air; the waiters serve us filter coffee even though it’s not yet opening time, and sweetly offer to switch on some lights. Manu wants to order something in confident Tamil, but it doesn’t quite come out. “I say something I think is Tamil, but it comes out as something else,” he confesses. And it can’t be easy when we are all watching him hawkishly.

You sense that about Manu, that he is a little self-conscious with all the attention; like when he later asks the photographer to lay off for a bit; but the slight shyness is endearing. And it adds an interesting edge to the sharp intellect of his writing.

Manu came to Madras when he was six months old and stayed till he was 21. Loyola School, Loyola College, Rajaram Colony in Kodambakkam (transmuted to Balaji Lane in his book), playing cricket, being a Kamal fan and watching movies in Alankar, talking philosophy with Tam Brahm friends, and always worrying about PCM marks and entrance exams. What can be a more quintessential growing-up-in-Madras than this? And, as Manu says, such sly happiness in knowing that for this city’s readers you don’t need to expand PCM.

Ours was meant to be a rambling chat but the rain and the many claimants to Manu’s attention have put paid to that. We fast forward, and Manu is journalist enough to know just what he must say. But it’s not all glib; he unwinds enough for a vignette to emerge. He talks, as he has before, of his college friends, for whom philosophy and the whole meaning-of-life question was of overwhelming interest. They took the subject of Jiddu Krishnamurthy or the concept of hell seriously. “This was unique to young Madras boys. I don’t think it would have happened in Bombay or Kerala. I am surprised not more people are writing about it,” he says.

Manu defends Madras’s claims to being cosmopolitan. “Bombay celebrates a fraudulent cosmopolitanism, where the Sindhi or Parsi is part of the ‘cosmopolitan’ world but the Bihari or UP-ite is an immigrant.” On the other hand, if one were to limit the definition of India to South India, then Madras even then was truly cosmopolitan. “On the cricket ground, I played with Sinhalese, Keralite, Andhra, Marwari boys.... This brand of cosmopolitanism is an underrated quality of Madras.”

Did this inclusiveness, I ask cunningly, get him invited to meals in Tam Brahm houses? After a brief pause, when he might have been gauging the political correctness of this fraught topic, he replies smilingly, “No. The smells that emerged from their kitchens were tantalising, the sambar, the spices… I always hung around at meal times, but not once did they invite me to eat.” One tiny piece in the puzzle of being the only Syrian Christian family in a Tam Brahm colony. Another piece: Manu’s was the only family that bought the Indian Express, all the other families bought The Hindu. Go figure.

“I think of myself as something of a Tam Brahm,” says Manu, only half-joking, talking of how some intense experiences from his childhood still resonate. “I still feel uncomfortable wearing footwear when I am eating. I still find the candle alien even though my mother forced me to go to church regularly as a child. I don’t eat much meat. I still get excited when I see vegetables in a market…” he ticks off memories. It’s a sense of belonging that is clearly important to him. Home is still Madras and Mumbai.

When I ask him to share a clichéd “favourite memory”, he refuses to be rushed. “I want to say something really nice about the city,” he explains. Then he remembers. “I used to save up money as a kid to take a bus to the lighthouse. It wasn’t so much the view; it was the only building with a lift and I loved taking it to the top. LIC building wasn’t open to everyone.”

But the best love is seldom sentimental. The characters in The Illicit Happiness of Other People are cold-bloodedly etched, warts, prejudices, cruelties and all. “There was always something ruthless about Madras society,” he says, “they loved their own but nobody else.” He speaks hesitantly, but you sense what he means. And the book, well, yes, it’s a part of his revenge, he admits with a laugh.