He has just won the first The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 at an evocative literary evening in Chennai for his Serious Men, an ironic and witty take on the embodiment of contradictions that is modern India. Still flush with excitement, Manu Joseph talks about his feelings on winning the award, his next novel and future plans with disarming self-deprecation and humour. Excerpts from a conversation…
There is a middle-aged lady in a bright gold block-print sari, holding out a copy of Serious Men. Affable and unassuming, Manu Joseph scribbles down her name and signs the book. Next to her is a gentleman, quite frank and honest. “My wife reads books, not I,” he says, only half in self-admonition as he thrusts a copy of Serious Men into Manu's hand for a signature. Then there is a couple, who confess they have picked up the copy of the book just minutes ago. And would he be so good as to oblige them with his signature on page one of the book?
The trickle soon becomes a stream. That is what success does: and Manu Joseph, having just notched up a bit of history by becoming the first winner of The Hindu Best Fiction Award for his novel, Serious Men, is today not just a successful author but a much sought-after one too. Soon, there are other admirers, waiting for him to raise his eyes as he signs copies of the book. Until there comes a lady who could not lay her hands on anything except the invitation card to the ceremony. She asks him for an autograph. Quite unaccustomed to this, Manu, however, does not let his modesty slip. “We just sign, na, for an autograph,” he asks, his simplicity so beguiling, so beautiful. “This is the first time I am giving autographs.”
He had better get used to it, for his novel is going places, covering an expanse of languages and continents, almost with an inevitability about it. Already translated into six European languages, its Hindi and Malayalam versions are on the anvil too. Just a few minutes after giving the winner's acceptance speech where he left the audience asking for more with his mix of self-deprecation, wit and humour, Manu says, “I did not really prepare for the speech though I must say my early grooming came in handy. I have spent 20 years in Madras and I used to make a living out of cultural things. There used to be jamming sessions, extempore speeches and the like.”
So that accounts for his soaring popularity in the immediate afterglow of the award. But what about the novel, a book he put together even as he worked for many well-known publications in the country?
This time he peppers his response with a dash of honesty, adding a pint of modesty to good effect. “I have not done serious journalism for many years now. But yes, it does get difficult to concentrate on your novel in the middle of your everyday responsibilities. But I used to sit and write in my office.” In that case, was it not tempting or at least more pragmatic to concentrate on the short story as a medium of narration?
“I agree, a novel is a very difficult exercise. But, at the same time, the canvas of the novel is appealing, its grandeur quite remarkable in itself. A short story is okay but turning a short story into a novel is not easy. And not every short story lends itself to a novel.”
Agreed he loves the medium of novel for narration, but Manu has also infused a novelty in the genre by bringing in science and research scientists to the plot. Aren't scientists supposed to be those faceless bespectacled men who are never suspected of having creative indulgences?
“Science has not been proportionately represented in our novels but scientists are extraordinarily talented guys, very creative in their own ways. They have the first right to be called philosophers as they are the first ones to ask questions. And with a scientist as part of the narrative, the information base you get as a novelist is vast, very complex. That helps in layering of the story.”
But then, on the other side, there is that constant strain of humour in the novel, something which broadens the appeal of the book. “Humour is a form of accuracy with clarity. That's why I like stand-up comedy — not the laughter challenge variety we see on our television. For me, humour is not about having a false accent but being able to take a dig at an aspirational character.”
In the book, his protagonist aspires for success through his child — filtered dreams, they call it. He is willing to use his intelligence to achieve his dreams, impervious to scruples. Manu believes he understands the mindset of such a person. Remember, as a youngster in Madras, he used to do the rounds of debates and other extra-curricular activities, even at times missing the first prize by a whisker. “The lead character is a man who believes in success at any cost. He believes you have to search for your own triumph.” What he leaves unsaid is, he did not have to take a path similar or make similar choices. His written words spoke for him! “I don't want people to judge my protagonist but like him.”
A science novel? Or one with shades of caste politics, as the book clearly has a clear-cut take on Dalits?
Once again, Manu refuses to be drawn into high-brow comparisons, letting his simplicity add charm to honesty. “I am a semi-literate man when it comes to these genres and classifications.” He makes an exception though for his next novel. He calls it a “comic mystery” novel. Set in Madras in 1985, it is likely to resonate with the energy of the city.
Any ambition with the next book?
“I would like to sell,” he says simply, his black coat luminous in lights, his wide forehead and thinning hair giving him the look of an achiever.