Manu Joseph, debut novelist, says that journalism is a high form of literature

You might put it all down to attitude. When journalist Manu Joseph moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), having been promised office accommodation, and found himself living in a chawl, he might have grumbled a bit. He doesn't say so. But he obviously put his experience there to good use. And now that his debut novel, “Serious Men” — brought out by Fourth Estate — whose protagonist is a chawl dweller, has simultaneously been published in the U.S., Britain and India, translated into a number of languages, including French, Danish, Serbian and German, and received critical acclaim, he might just be glad for the opportunity to observe life close-up in one of the beehives Mumbai is famous for housing its lesser privileged multitudes in.

It seems more and more noted journalists are turning to fiction. Joseph points out that writing the novel “was not an escalation” for him, because “journalistic writing is very challenging,” and is affronted when people consider journalism to be less of an art than, say, fiction writing. “I think it's very unfair that journalism is not considered literature,” remarks the author, who has held senior positions in the features sections of leading Indian newspapers and journals. “I believe that journalism, when done well, is a very high form of literature, especially feature writing.”

Besides, he feels, “Everybody becomes a journalist because he or she wants to write.” And who said journalistic writing is not allowed style? “I believe that there is a lot of scope for style, a certain personal trademark flamboyance and even experimentation in mainstream feature writing. Style need not be the preserve of the novel alone. But, while a writer can get away with a bit of literary exhibitionism in a novel, he or she will be more exposed if such vanity is employed in a feature story.”

There are obvious differences too. “When I'm writing a feature story it's just my view,” he notes. A novel, on the other hand, reflects the views of its many characters. “The borders of journalism are constituted by facts,” he adds, saying one might make the mistake of thinking a novel is not governed by borders, but a novel's borders are determined by its characters.

The background and personality of the various characters determine their actions. The coming together of differing characters constitutes the drama. In “Serious Men”, the protagonist is a young father determined to help his son rise out of the dull, luckless fate his Dalit birth restricts him to. His plan is outrageous, audacious…and saddening. In a country where people are regularly killed and tortured for aspiring to rise beyond their caste identity, it seems a bit sad that a such a strong Dalit protagonist should also be so unscrupulous.

“The U.K. publishers have correctly identified Ayyan Mani as an antihero,” comments Joseph. One can't help feeling that in a literary environment just about devoid of Dalit heroes, an antihero could have bided his time a bit longer. To the author, though, the novel is not about politics. He points out that the book's blurb does not even mention Ayyan Mani as a Dalit man, and that the sociological background is only for characterisation. “The cynicism or the political aspect is merely the backdrop,” he explains. “What ultimately fascinates me is the story, which is the story of an underdog.”

If Joseph takes care to keep his personal convictions away from the purview of an entertaining story, its fabric, interestingly, lies in another kind of conviction. “I have always wondered what makes the modern novel, modern,” he mentions, “and realised that people actually do not have a definite answer. I don't think it is important to have an answer to that question. But, considering the astonishing influence of science over our lives today I do feel that the so-called modern novel does certainly lack a scientific curiosity. I thought it would be exciting to weave science into a very human story.”

So “Serious Men” is also the story of the inaccessible geniuses who build fortresses of facts around themselves, the scientists whose labs must be entered — if at all we enter them — on tiptoe. The novel is premised on the prevailing reverence for science, especially physics. Did it require a lot of research, or did it come naturally to him to weave physics and maths concepts into the story?

“I am a natural fan of popular science in the form of science non-fiction, so I didn't have to search too hard for the scientific part of the novel,” says Joseph.

The novel was three years in the writing, says Joseph, who is already working on his second book. “I don't know when I'll finish it,” he says. Some of the best stories are like that.

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