Saturday, September 15, 2012

“I’m a cartoonist who can’t draw” – a conversation with Manu Joseph

[This is the longer version of a Q&A I did with author and journalist Manu Joseph for The Hindu. I loved Joseph’s first novel Serious Men – as you might gather from this post – and have also enjoyed many of his columns, particularly relishing his ability to be clear-sighted and funny at the same time. The main subject of this conversation was his new novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People, about a man named Ousep Chacko trying to understand why his teenage son Unni, a cartoonist, killed himself three years earlier. That’s an essentially sad premise, but Joseph brings to it his talent 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.

Since our chat was very free-flowing, this has required a bit of structuring for clarity. Apologies for repetition, abrupt jump-cuts, etc]


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.

At the time of the first book I was younger, more angry, 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. Updike said 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, 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 shit city, all the fuckers 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?” and I replied I don’t believe in such shit. 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!


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, but I 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. An important character, a neuro-psychiatrist named Iyengar, is a cameo. He is very 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.
If this had been my first novel, he would have had a prominent role right from the beginning. 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 - or don't 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 come up with funny descriptions in "real life" too, during casual conversation?

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. 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 women than men, and more curious about them. They are infuriating at times and I don’t like a lot of things about them, but I’m very curious. 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... (long pause) 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 that 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, 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 might have done a bleeding-heart piece, which of course 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.

Your feature writing does sometimes intersect with your novelistic work. The very tongue-in-cheek profile of John Travolta, for instance, which touches on the fact that his son died at age 17 following a seizure, and Travolta’s own belief in Scientology, which tries to “liberate” people from “the illusion of their physical prisons”. Weren’t you already well into writing this novel by that time?

Yes, I was – and I wasn’t as fascinated by his son’s death as by the Scientology thing. He’s a gone case. You see this so often with successful, rich people: they go through life and do some things well enough but they are deluded. I’m not surprised by Scientology itself. If you take any religion and describe it in one paragraph, it looks totally loony. Honestly when I meet people who are really, deeply into a single idea, even if it’s socialism or something else, it takes me back to that line in the book: “Maybe the actual dominant species are thoughts, which have colonized human bodies.”

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. They don't even cry at funerals, I don't know what the fuck is wrong with them. I told someone in England recently, “Hysteria is a dialect of Tamil.” When I see too much sensitivity and elegance and sophistication, I get impatient.

Yes, your prose does have an informality about it, which rallies against over-sophistication. 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 always 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 theorizing, 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... I also think Rohinton Mistry 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 I would 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 asshole 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.


[An excerpt from The Illicit Happiness of Other People is here, and some of Joseph’s columns and essays are here]

[A few earlier conversations with authors: Amitav Ghosh on language and opium; Mohsin Hamid on hyper-nationalism and the divided self; Anita Desai on an earlier literary age; Vikram Chandra on cops and gangsters; Rajorshi Chakraborti on surrealism and being adrift; Ramachandra Guha on makers of modern India; Hari Kunzru on My Revolutions; Manjula Padmanabhan on Escape; Roddy Doyle on working-class heroes]


  1. Ahh! I'd have killed for the question: "So what were you thinking when Hartosh Bal made that silly statement about IWE, and that 'names speak for themselves'". But just asking, didn't you really ask that question? (or was it not supposed to be a part of the published interview ;) )

  2. Anon: I may have discussed that with Manu at an earlier point. I may even have discussed it with Hartosh. But those conversations aren't for public consumption!

  3. seems like an interesting book. will grab a copy. was happy to see the mention of Coetzee as someone who can write comic stuff. conversations with writers is the best part of your blog, Jai. Great work. It is beyond the scope of discussion. I read few articles written by Joseph in the link you provided. And yes, they are not only well written, they also show a sensibility not seen in the columns of other journalists.

  4. Read this first in The Hindu and now here.

    The only thing I identify with him is that I too can't read too much, haha.

    Enjoyed reading this interview.

  5. very enjoyable. agree with him about present indian writers. so much talk about craft and such self-conscious tripe.

  6. Loved this statement : "I don’t like using semi-colons; I try to avoid them."

  7. NightWatchmen: glad you noticed that - it was a bit of cheekiness on my part.

  8. Could have asked a little bit more about his editorial work at Open, not about the scoops but his editorial tone and why his articles have the tone " Oh I just woke up and I'm pissed off" . He seems to be a couple of years away from AakarPatelism. he does comes across as self contradicting attention hungry guy stuck in a wrong profession.

  9. that’s a society that doesn’t comprehend melodrama like we do. They don't even cry at funerals, I don't know what the fuck is wrong with them. I told someone in England recently, “Hysteria is a dialect of Tamil.” When I see too much sensitivity and elegance and sophistication, I get impatient

    I don't like the tinge of typically Indian conceit in this sentence.

    The "Tamil" tradition of crying aloud in a vulgar fashion in front of dead bodies is just that..Vulgar. It is not "melodrama" - which is an honourable art form.

    There is no dearth of melodrama in Western art. Be it novels or movies.

    Melodrama is an artistic technique of resorting to somewhat unreal events / improbable coincidences to evoke emotion of great intensity.

    There is good melodrama and there is bad melodrama. Arthur Conan Doyle's famous "I am Birdy Edwards" line in the Valley of Fear is melodrama! So is the climax of It's a Wonderful Life where the whole town comes to the rescue of George Bailey.

    Even several great Hitchcock films are ridden with melodramatic devices. That doesn't make them lesser films.

    Melodrama is given a bad name by the inferior tripe that often passes for it in Indian movies/television.

  10. Shrikanth: you know I'm completely with you on the good melodrama-bad melodrama thing, and on the melodramatic tradition in some of the old films we love. But I can't agree with summarily dismissing an entire tradition of cultural behaviour as "vulgar". And let's at least allow that melodrama in Indian cinema doesn't have to follow the exact template of melodrama set by western forms (even if you and I identify more with the latter) - Hindi film has a tradition of episodic, florid melodrama drawn from Urdu theatre, which is very different in tone and purpose from the melodrama one encounters in Capra or Sirk.

    Also, much of what Joseph says is wryly provocative and tongue-in-cheek - I don't think it should be taken too literally.

  11. But I can't agree with summarily dismissing an entire tradition of cultural behaviour as "vulgar".

    I am not decrying an entire culture, but the specific behavior of crying aloud at a very high decibel level deliberately (as opposed to sobbing) in front of dead bodies with the specific purpose of attracting attention. This is not melodrama. It's just bad behavior.

    Ofcourse, many of my own family members have demonstrated this behavior, but that doesn't mean I am going to defend them.

    Maybe Manu was being sarcastic. But I don't see why so many Indians label the West as "unfeeling" simply to justify their own failings when it comes to controlling emotions.

    There's no point being non-judgmental about such things.

    And let's at least allow that melodrama in Indian cinema doesn't have to follow the exact template of melodrama set by western forms

    No. It doesn't. Having said that, it is a problem when an entire society starts regarding "elegance", "sensitivity" and "sophistication" as pretensions as opposed to virtues! Heights of inverse snobbery!