By Apekshita Varshney, ZEE JLF Official Blogger
Conversations at literary festivals, whether at launches, lunches or lulling talks, tend to range across a complex tumult of terms, from post-truth and nihilism, to ideas of ‘the other’ and rewriting mythology. So when a voice conducts a straightforward, intelligible inquiry into literature and activism, it stands out. Manu Joseph, is one such voice, injecting many entertaining theories into his festival sessions, such as his observations that ‘Trump’s victory may be a failure of literature,’ and that activism stems from an ‘elite discomfort.’
Joseph, journalist and author of the Hindu Literary Award winning novel Serious Men and The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is currently working on a new novel and has joined the recent flurry of journalists wanting to open a media house. The influence of journalism on his creative writing is evident: whereas many writers revel in the empty truths they expose, Joseph is all about the power of surmise. ‘An underrated literary talent is conjecture, everything else is your upbringing and what you’ve read,’ he observed wryly.
Why did you become a writer?
It was imitation. My father was a writer and that’s the only profession I seemed to know. When I was young, I felt that I could tell a story. You can call it a voice or a delusion or a talent, I don’t know what it is. At one point, I thought I’ll be a filmmaker, never that I’ll be a literary novelist.
Is writing self-indulgent? What kind of philosophical inquiry colours your writing?
There is a certain form of writing that emerges from talent and there is a certain form of writing that emerges from lament. While the lament form of writing is more influential, talent-based writing is broad and honest. I don’t accept that writing is self-indulgent and that’s the point social media misses. Just because something is important to you, doesn’t mean it is important and just because something is important, doesn’t mean anyone is interested.
Talking of social media, what do you think of the buzzing words like intellectual and liberal. Are you one of them?
(Laughs) That’s a clever question. No, I am not an intellectual: an intellectual is a scholar. and I respect scholars because they are interpreters of information. I am simply a seeker of knowledge. I am not as liberal as some of my liberal friends. I believe in balance, order and story.
Talk to us about your process of writing. Your last book, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People came in 2012, what are you working on now?
I spent the last year writing the various fragments that will come together as my new novel. It is provoked by activism. It had some powerful origins and I explored some characters – the sentiment and current around them – and brought it all together in a story.
The story came later?
Yes, the story always comes later. I will never, ever write a novel that doesn’t have a story.
You’ve written quite extensively about activism, called it an ‘elite discomfort’ but as a journalist, how do you separate the two?
In fact, I am amused when people ask why journalism is not doing well. Has anything that activism touched done well? People are not interested in breathing lament. For journalism to succeed, it needs to be relevant, engaging, and entertaining. Journalists are always taught that journalism is activism but if you possess the ability to be an activist, go out and do something good. Don’t talk about taking on power, because the really powerful people are your friends. I’m not qualified to teach but if someone lets me devise my own course, I would like to talk about specific things in journalism.
A lot of journalists are trained to hide the ‘I’. But just because you’re not supposed to be there in the copy, doesn’t mean you’re not important. I spent ten years unlearning that. Journalists must have a heart because it is important to have a heart. I think I didn’t have the personality to accept a mentor, but if I had found a mentor at a young age, I’d be a better writer today.
Your books, in a succulent and veiled way, bring out some unusual aspects of society. What’s the inspiration?
I believe that a misanthrope can think clearly, instead of someone who naively believes that human society is a collection of virtues.
For example, in The Illicit Happiness Of Other People, you talk about the need to document poverty. How do you perceive poverty in India?
The images that we grew up seeing are changing. When I was a boy, there was a certain deformity in beggars that doesn’t exist now. It is either vanished or hidden. Can you imagine a day will come when you don’t see a single urchin in India?
You write editorials about India’s socio-economic fabric, do you think electoral democracy is working?
A huge section of society is dependent on the government for hospitals, trains, etc. and they choose to elect a street-smart politician who, they believe, will get things done. It is under-reported in Indian journalism, but election is also a form of anarchy. The premise that the election is a moral event is bullshit. It is always about the short-term benefit for voters: voting is an act of self-interest.
The standard response to democracy is, ‘Yes it is flawed, but do we have a better option?’ I am not sure if democracy is the best option either. What influence do voters have, anyway? We all know our cities are messed up: has anyone been able to do anything about it? If an industrial house were to run Bangalore or Bombay, it might have done a better job. When you’re in the veil of politics, you value basics of living more than certain artistic freedom.