Manu Joseph on his new book: 'Wanted to bring Narendra Modi into fiction'
Veteran journalist and former editor of Open magazine, Manu Joseph is back with his third novel — Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, published by HarperCollins India
Veteran journalist and former editor of Open magazine, Manu Joseph is back with his third novel — Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, published by HarperCollins India. Miss Laila follows The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012) and Serious Men (2010), and like its predecessors, showcases the dark humour — and nonchalant truth-telling — of Joseph's writing. Joseph answered a few questions for Firstpost about his latest book:
Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous comes five years after Illicit Happiness of Other People. Could you please tell us a little about how you conceptualised this book, and also of the journey you’ve had as a writer, between your three novels?
I wanted to bring Narendra Modi into fiction. I liked the artistic challenge of doing that. In many ways, he is already a work of fiction. He is not only a projection of himself, but also the projections of millions. He is a hologram beamed by the people. So, when I saw that he actually used his own hologram during the election campaign I laughed like a fool. But in a novel you have slip to into the minds of the characters and I did not like that process. It was not working. So I abandoned the idea of having him as one of the central characters. But this process led to many other things which resulted in Miss Laila.
While there have been strong female characters in your previous books, Miss Laila marks the first time a protagonist (Akhila Iyer) is a woman. Two, if you count Laila as a protagonist as well. Did that present any particular challenges in writing this book, as compared to Serious Men or Illicit Happiness — even though those also involved, to a degree, taking on ‘voices’ that were alien to you?
There is a view that it is no big deal really for a writer to create the other gender because, according to this view, people are all the same, men and women are all the same. You are making up everything, so what is the big deal for a male writer to make up what is going inside a woman’s head? I am unable to respect this view. There is a difference between a story that is fictitious and a story that is fake. Even as we fabricate things, we have to be true to our characters. A character, like a human being, is a set of rules. There are things a character will do and things a character will not. It is very tough for me to create these rules for a female protagonist.
Akhila Iyer, the athletic prankster, was a person I may have once loved. I entered her mind through affection; when we like someone, we do a good job of sneaking into that mind. The other character, Laila, we do not see anything from her point of view. I did not wish to get into her mind for reasons that I do not want to go into in this interview. She is told from the point of view a little girl.
One major evolution in me as a novelist (over these three books) is that I can now write children. I want to tell all of them all the time, ‘you don’t intimidate me anymore’.
When Serious Men was described as a satire, you’d mentioned that that was more a reader’s experience of it than how you set out to write it. But Miss Laila is very much a satire. Would you agree?
Yes, you are right, one strand of Miss Laila is political satire. I have used pranks to make fun of some very serious men, some of them patriots, some of them Empathy Uncles.
We’ve seen this vein of dark humour in your writing in your previous books — the scene from Illicit Happiness in which Thoma learns his father is in the hospital comes to mind. And we see that in Miss Laila as well. How do you make humour work so well with tragedy?
In the scene that you mention — from Illicit Happiness... — the little boy is rehearsing a school play, and he is in a frock when his mother, who is often dressed like a house maid, comes to inform him that his father has had a heart attack. Now this woman and this boy in a frock go through the most tense period of their lives as they are almost sure the man is dead and the doctors are not telling them the truth. You are absolutely right in observing that there are similar moments in Miss Laila.
There are many parts to what we generally perceive as humour. One is that it is a fundamental property of life and exists in all situations. You keep staring at a moment, a slice of life, a simple truth, there is something absurd about it and absurdity is funny. For example, the news that some villagers are sending their old parents into the forest in the hope that they would be eaten by tigers, a form of death that is eligible for government compensation. We cannot deny this is also funny. We confuse funny with happy, because sometimes it is, but most of the time funny is a type of seriousness, or an accurate depiction of seriousness. Often, humour points to something deeply absurd in our circumstances. Humour can work only if we are spot-on.
Among the high points of Miss Laila were Akhila’s pranks to expose a farmer-suicide-theory-espousing-activist and a prominent-male-feminist. You’ve also expressed a ‘hierarchy’ of comedy — puns and sarcasm at the lowest level, pranks at the higher end — which is contradictory to the general understanding of pranks as juvenile, and puns, the height of witticism. Why is that? And where do satire, or the art of political lampooning come in (on your scale)?
Being a juvenile in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you know juveniles and serious adults. It is not the prank itself that is interesting but how people who are pranked react. It is pure anthropology. There is one famous prank on YouTube in which the ghost of a little girl appears in an elevator as a person is riding alone. The way people react to the ghost, it is so beautiful, and the reaction is generally the same.
Would you say your ambition as a novelist has grown with each book you write, in terms of the scope of the narratives you take on?
Yes. I am desperate to write more stories. I often used to wonder if urgency is important to storytelling. I now feel that it is. We think that a story grows in our head, that it marinates and becomes richer over the long years when it is inside the head. I am not so sure. A story is a creation of a particular phase in our life and as we age, the story becomes a very different story. The stories I did not write when I was 20, I believe they are lost forever, like the person I was when I was 20.
How important is a sense of place to your stories?
I like places that contribute to the mental states of a person, places that are distinct. Bombay, for instance. Also, the claim that literature is a form of anthropology is an overestimation of literature. Literature, of course, is many valuable things but it is an unreliable record of mainstream human behaviours which include the culture, values and politics of a time. The quality novel, also known as the literary novel, is largely accurate, journalistic, even academic and reliable is in the description of real cities, and of physical spaces. We fabricate so much in a story that we crave to be very accurate about some things — like cities.
You’ve previously expressed some disdain for writers who dwell overmuch on the ‘craft of writing’. Would it be remiss then for us to ask, or would you talk to us about your writing process — how does it happen?
I don’t have contempt for writers who think a lot about the ‘craft of writing’ — it is just those who talk a lot about writing that I find amusing. When I was in my 20s I would meet these writers who had so many fundas about writing, about all the stuff they have read, then I would read their copy and I would be confused — where did all that wisdom go? Nowadays I see a lot of tweets with the hashtag ‘#Iamwriting. Why make so much noise? I am always confused when people are not secretive when they are writing. When I see ‘#Iamwriting, I am reminded of a popular poster I used to see in gyms: ‘Shut Up and Train’.
There are a number of fascinating aphorisms scattered through Miss Laila, but I was wondering if you’d elaborate on this one for our readers: ‘Evil is an equal opportunity society’.
There are a set of things that people with a particular psychiatric state, that we call evil, wish to achieve. When they compete, it is the survival of the fittest. That is why evil is so strong even though very important forces act against it; it is led by naturally selected giants.
On various occasions, you’ve talked about what you think the novel is not: social commentary, unreadable literature, topical. What do you think the novel is? And by extension, what the novelist is?
I love this question even though it seems like a reprimand. One of the reasons I say these things about the novel is not intellectual in nature but a consequence of a flaw, which I hope you will agree many of us have: I am essentially saying, ‘why can’t you be like me, why can’t you be like me’. Not a very wise thing to say. But there are other more honourable reasons why I reject some types of novel as fakes. A story, all through human history until recently when activism took over the arts, was something interesting, fascinating. Replacing fascinating with ‘important’ does not work. So all I am saying is that a novel has to be interesting. It may fail in the objective but it should at least desire to be interesting. Art need not reach out always, art can be brilliant even when it is self absorbed, and narcissistic, but a story, even an artistic story, has to reach out.
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