Manu Joseph and I have
some things in common. We like to call the city we grew up in Madras. We
studied literature in overrated arts colleges, among people he aptly labels
disabled or destined for the clergy. And neither of us pretends we don’t think
he’s a wonderful writer. We meet at the Madras Club, as he’s touring the
country on what he calls “the performing monkey routine after the book is
released, where I go from place to place, doing readings and launches.” Amid
the cawing of crows, the power walking of pear-shaped women in bright T-shirts
and sober leggings, and the indifference of waiters dressed to look like relics
of the British Raj, we settle down to talk about women who throw brinjals at
dead husbands, men who make conversation in the loo, the colours of Indian bras
in the Nineties, and less crucial concerns.
There’s a fine line between caricature and stereotyping. How do you make sure you don’t cross it?
See, I often come across these definitions. I can understand “caricature” I would say that “stereotyping” is a very overrated criticism sometimes. I suppose, if people are not offended, they’ll call it “caricature”. If they’re offended, they’ll call it “stereotype”. The thing is, I think as writers we have to be very confident about what we want to say, and that this is how we wish to describe certain things. I’m not very intimidated by stereotyping, because I feel that sometimes there’s a lot of truth in generalisation. It depends entirely on whether you’re able to pull off the paragraph. Maybe what people want to say is that the paragraph was mediocre. Or, maybe they want to say, “I’m offended because you’re right.” People are never clear in their heads. Sometimes, when I’m describing something, I do know whether it will be perceived as funny or not. Or maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe people want to see your book represent every single kind of person, a national integration sort of thing, of unique characters.
Haan. Or, if you have that, they want something else. If you have a scene where a Tamilian has a lot of oil in his head, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re right.” I guess it depends on whether you want to accept it, or whether you want to accuse a person of stereotyping. I remember some people passing around one paragraph, apparently from that opening description of the Madras lane where there’s a mention of how bras were white, and asking whether this is stereotypical, or whether that is Madras. So, these people are not in Madras, they want to find out. The moment you want to find out whether this author is stereotyping, it means you have a bias against what he’s trying to do. But if you’re talking about the Eighties, that’s just true, you know.
Yeah, I liked it because those were the images I grew up with in Madras. The scooters and the jasmine folded in banana leaves and the white bras on clotheslines. And I can’t understand why people find that strange.
Yeah, same here. Because that’s also true of the rest of India. So, I don’t know why they’re pretending to be more fashionable.
Maybe they had black bras in the North?
I don’t think so.
I remember going to Naidu Hall, which had the biggest lingerie section back then, and I think the major innovation was a skin-coloured bra, and they were quite proud of it.
Which year was that?
Sometime in the early Nineties, I guess, when I was a kid and found bras funny.
Yeah, Nineties, it must be. That’s interesting. A skin-coloured bra must have been a big thing in Madras then. Yeah, but that’s exactly what it was, that was that generation. And if you want to show the difference between that generation and this one, that’s the most important visual.
See, I read this short story by a certain writer, and I knew he didn’t know what he was talking about because that story was set in Madras. It was about two old men. Crap story.
But The New Yorker carried it. It was just rubbish. Here, you could see what people mean by stereotyping sometimes, because what strikes a foreigner, like it would strike a North Indian, are things like, “Oh, that strange music” or “Oh, strange film dialogues coming from houses.”
So I think it’s a question of being very familiar with what you’re trying to say. There’s that famous example Borges gives, on how the one word that is not there in the Quran is “camel”. Because Mohammed was an Arab and, obviously, “camel” was a blind spot for him.
But a foreign writer would have mentioned the camel, because that’s the most obvious thing. I see merit in both. I think the Quran could have been more exotic with the camel, or maybe it’s fine without the camel. (Laughs)
But one thing I did notice about your Madras was that it seems to consist only of Mallu Christians and Tam Brahms.
Yeah, but again, this is true—the only other community which was there at that time in the colony in which I grew up were the Telugus. And the other kind of Tamilians, they lived in a different locality. I’m talking about one particular colony here. The Marwaris, and the other communities from elsewhere, they had their own ghettos. So the only integrated communities were the Malayalis, Telugus and Tamilians—as in, high-class Tamilians.
You’ve said the novel is the most autobiographical thing you’ve written because you knew someone like the main character, Unni. What was it that made you want to write about him?
What I probably meant was that it was biographical, and to that extent it was autobiographical, because it was a biography of someone I knew very well. When I was around 17, I was part of a small group—there were just three of us, chiefly two—and got into this philosophical thing, which happens to most adolescents, like I’ve explained in the book.
And one of us just went too deep into it. And once you reach that level of... it could be clarity, or obsession... well, it can be potentially dangerous. And as I was growing up, I was reading other things, and I was quite amazed that some of the psychiatric conditions I was reading about matched him.
Because he had such an impact over me, he may inadvertently have in many ways informed my initial thinking. You know, when you’re seventeen and you’re searching for Truth, you become a different kind of person—you spend a lot of time alone, and it leads to many other things, which seem very important.
So, I always thought he was a very important figure in my life. Though it was not a mutually shared view. (Laughs) He usually wanted to get rid of me. He wanted to be alone, and I was always probing and asking questions. Later, I realised, what if some important things are actually psychiatric conditions. I always wanted to write this novel. Maybe I had to develop the skills for it.
One of the things about your characterisation of Mythili was that you’ve looked at her awareness of her sexuality when she’s 13. And that’s something people don’t talk about often, that transition from child to adolescent.
Yes. And I had an important decision to make there. You know, one of the things she imagines a lot is Unni running his hands over her face, which is a very powerful, important imagination, completely taboo. So, even when she’s dreaming about it, she’d have so many problems. In one of my drafts, I thought I’d keep it ambiguous, where she doesn’t know whether it actually happened, or whether it was her imagination. People don’t realise how easy it is to make something ambiguous, and there is something slightly more artistic about ambiguity. But then, I didn’t want to leave it ambiguous. Because I was confident that I could appear to resolve it, while still leaving it unresolved.
The way you describe Unni reminds me of the way you described Anand Jon in one of your articles.
Yeah, yeah, yeah... that’s a good observation. (Laughs) See, there is a connection —there’s a slight trace of Anand Jon in Unni, which starts with the good looks. Sometimes, I feel that good-looking men have an understanding with women, which other men don’t get.
Okay, this is very strange. (Laughs) See, I used to feel that there are dos and don’ts, and there is a larger morality in the universe, but between good-looking people, I suspect that some things collapse. They have to just look at each other, and I think it’s like in Inception, when all those buildings collapse, and the regular rules are wiped off.
Maybe that’s why film stars appear to be somewhat more forward always, in every generation. I don’t think it’s because they’re always thrown together and isolated. No, it’s not. I think good-looking people have an understanding. When you’re attractive, beyond subjectivity, like Anand Jon was, when he was 17 and in Loyola in Madras, he was a very interesting guy in that way. So, you’re right. There were elements.
When I did the piece about Anand Jon, obviously the novel was also taking form. And I thought this was a very interesting combination—an artist to whom something has happened, and you’re telling the story of that guy through his art.
But the thing that really excited me about telling the story of an artist is this —I always rated myself as a cartoonist, and I find it unfair that, while the least important gift in cartooning is the ability to just draw, you can’t do it without that, you know. And I always regretted that I can’t draw that way, I always have a bitterness about that, because I would just love to be a cartoonist.
And I thought this was fascinating— now, a lot of people would not have the guts to write about a cartoonist because then you have to talk about his cartoons. Then, you’ll be exposed. But I’m a cartoonist, you know—so I’ll write the cartoons, I’ll describe the cartoons. So, I was very excited.
I was just about to ask you about that, because you gave Unni just so much talent, as if it was your dream to draw like him. Very few cartoonists have that ability to draw people so realistically that you can recognise them, while still making them caricatures.
Anand Jon could. He was a very good caricaturist. He could sketch very well. If I had the gift of drawing, I’d love to be a cartoonist. But now, with software, I can approach it. And it’s not cheating, because to me, the humour in a cartoon is more important than the sketching.
I used to feel that there are dos and don’ts, and there is a larger morality in the universe, but between good-looking people, I suspect that some things collapse
In one of your interviews, you said writers like Arundhati Roy have become “naïve” because they don’t have jobs. Do you think all writers need day jobs too?
Yes, I think so. I’ve noticed with novelists, as with most artists who don’t do anything else, you’re stuck in your own crowd. See, you can say a lot of things about journalists that are not very complimentary, but the one thing they cannot afford to be is naïve. It gives you that edge, being a journalist. Also, it forces you to meet people. As an editor I meet a lot of people I don’t want to meet, and whom I usually wouldn’t. But in hindsight, it’s very enriching for a novelist.
Long back, I’d asked you what it was like to be editor of a newsweekly while writing your book, and you said, “It is hell”. There are obvious disadvantages to having a job when you’re a serious writer too.
Oh, of course. There are times when I envy people who don’t do anything aside from writing. There are times when I feel, “Why am I doing this? I’ll just write my book!” It just needs so much time, so much thinking space, you’re always in the buzz of that thinking. Sometimes, I think when I start my next book, or when I’m really into it, I may just leave. I don’t know.
Did the success of Serious Men surprise you? Because it seems like Illicit Happiness was the more important book for you.
When I started writing Serious Men, what I enjoyed was how complex a novel it became—I didn’t expect it, you know, I’d underrated it. But I was always hoping, maybe being an optimist, for great success. I’m never surprised by something good happening to me. (Laughs) I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’m always surprised by why not more than this.
This Tamil film you speak of in Illicit Happiness, a whodunit about a woman who gets knocked up, that’s fictional, right?
You know, it is not? I remember watching it when I was very small. I tried to check on Google, but there’s no record of this film... I think it was called something that means “Innocent Girl”, some Penn. And I thought it was fascinating, because there were some very good Tamil films then. It’s just that MGR dominated everything, and only crappy films became very well known. But that film is not fiction.
You know, there’s an undercurrent of melodrama, bordering on the cinematic, in both your books.
Yeah, I don’t know if it becomes a problem or not because a novel is supposed to be a certain way, but you’re right, I like that. See, I would always defend myself saying we are a melodramatic society. But because the novel is a Western invention, we accept melodrama in film, and in a novel, we look at it as melodrama.
A few days ago, someone I know got a call from her mother saying, “It’s all over”. Just, “It’s all over”. And apparently what happened was some relative’s house was being sealed by the bank. So, at some point, film has derived from society, and now, society has also derived from film. Some fifteen years ago, I remember my friend’s servant maid here, in Madras, thought her husband doesn’t love her because they’re not near the trees, doing things, like running and chasing each other. It’s just like a lot of people think foreplay is sex, I’m sure a lot of people thought these things will happen—once you’re in love, you’ll feel like running around trees or whatever. You’re right when you say it’s a cinematic approach, because I like writing the novel that way, and I think I’m lucky that I’m in India, where these things are closer to reality. Those pauses, those stinging lines, all these things do happen.
If you were to
actually make a film, what kind of film would you make?
I think it would be very similar to the novels, you know. The kind of film I would make would be something like A Serious Man, by the Coen brothers. I actually have a very strange connection with it, because the film was announced just when my book was accepted, and everyone I knew was waiting for it to come out. And I was like, God, what bad luck.
I like movies that are funny because of their accuracy and what is called ‘depth’. I do enjoy watching Mr Bean and all that, but I think a more serious form of humour is when the film is also very strong, because of what’s happening within it. There’s something comic about a certain kind of tragedy, because it’s so powerful, but there’s always a funny side to it. I don’t know why.
I’ve said it before, and I mean it, I really feel J M Coetzee is the most underrated humour writer. Because I can see how he’s looking at it, and it’s quite ruthless. Ah, I think that’s the word, you know – that ruthlessness, it’s a great form of humour. Just like you know that “pun” will be at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a potential for being ruthless through humour.
And as a reader, it makes you feel ashamed. Because when someone is tossing dog carcasses into the incinerator, you don’t want to laugh.
Yes, but to me, the humour is not because the character is finding it funny —because the character is not—but the whole situation is strangely funny. Like I write about that marble-bottle soda thing that used to happen in Madras. This man is suddenly broken and is sitting and crying, and Madras gives him a marble-bottle soda. It’s like an award. It’s like “Now, you’ve fallen.” I was petrified of the marble-bottle soda when I was growing up—one of my hopes from life was that, “May I never be offered this marble soda”. Because that means something really bad has happened to you.
You speak of laughter as evolving from a ferocious face. Is that made up?
No, it’s something that neuroscientists like V S Ramachandran have discussed. You know, this whole scientific obsession with what makes us human, I find it asinine. I mean, imagine pigs getting together and discussing what makes them pigs. And the argument will be that pigs can’t do it, that’s why there’s a significance to the fact that humans are discussing it. I find that whole debate silly. But this idea of the evolution of a smile, that is not my invention.
Strangely enough, both
your novels end with near-psychotic laughter.
Yeah, yeah. And in my initial draft, the last line was, “And how they laughed”, which is identical to Serious Men. And I thought all my books will end with that line—“And how they laughed”. And then I thought it could be misunderstood as a gimmick. But I do know that all my books will end with some kind of laughter, not exactly funny laughter. Even in Serious Men, I’ve told you the whole story behind that laughter. Ultimately, the whole novel is about that laughter, what it takes to arrive at that. So, I thought it’d be interesting, like a signature, to end every book on laughter. (Ironically, laughs)
You're considered a
satirical writer. But I think a lot of people miss out on the poignancy in your
novels because of that label.
I think the publishers
should mention the word ‘poignant’ in the blurb, and call it ‘poignant
satire’. Then it brings in everybody, you know. Those who want poignancy,
those who want satire...that’s what a blurb is supposed to do, no? (Grins)
In Serious Men, you brought in the theory of Panspermia, and here, you speak of how things look in Unni’s head.
Yeah, it’s the whole idea of the theories. A novel can also be the introduction of your own theory of life. The theory of everything. That’s what literature is. And sometimes it appears to be microcosmic, and sometimes, it’s not. But my books are very evidently trying to show a theory and ask “What are the things you can come up with to say that this is not true?” So, in the case of Serious Men, I did take the theory from an already established scientific theory. But in this case, it’s more apparently philosophical in nature, so it’s different.
You have an interesting idea in the book —that our gods may be people who’ve been able to see a little more, or they may be schizophrenics, or delusional.
Which could be true, I believe. Because look at how powerful gods are now. And maybe all those gods really existed. When you go back further and further in time, it’s an increasingly simpler world, which does not know a lot of things. Even a person with two noses would be attached a certain paranormal importance. You never know. Today, people like Amrita Mata, look at how they began—it has to be a psychiatric moment, which made them go through a particular powerful phase. And it reached a certain critical mass of followers, after which you’re treated like some god. It’s something I probably believe, that all our gods were men with psychiatric conditions. All of them do go through a certain period of isolation.
Let’s talk about your first sentences. Serious Men begins, “Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.” Illicit goes, “Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.” Do you begin with the first line and let the story flow, or think of a clever first line later?
I don’t know. See, what happens is that this whole first sentence thing is something that I personally need even in journalism, to just start the thing, you know—because it sets the tone, it does a lot of things, it’s very important. Because the novel is being born with the first sentence. The first sentence belongs to the writer. I went through a phase when I didn’t understand a novel that begins with, “And she kept the cup on the table.” I mean, it’s like, “This is your novel, you’re starting.” Even when I was very young, starting out in journalism, I used to say that the first line belongs to me. Maybe it’s also a boyish thing? You’re setting out on an adventure. But the risk is that it can be misunderstood as something cute or deliberate or forced.
The novel is being born with the first sentence. The first sentence belongs to the writer. I went through a phase when I didn’t understand a novel that begins with, ‘And she kept the cup on the table.’ I mean, it’s like, ‘This is your novel, you’re starting.’ Even when I was starting out in journalism, I used to say that the first line belongs to me.
Since the success of Serious Men, you’ve started writing quite regularly in international publications. When you have Open to run, and your fiction to write, and you have to come up with something “deep” enough for the international audience of say The New York Times or whatever, can you really give your all to your columns?
That’s why I find writing very tough. And I do work very hard. It is tough. And I feel one aspect of my journalism has taken a backseat, which is that I really like to go out and report, you know. Most of the pieces are now opinion pieces. And I don’t enjoy that as much as my reporting. So I miss it. But reporting needs time, whole days. Yeah, I’ve suffered in that sense, because I’m missing out on reporting-based journalism.
Another thing you’ve had to deal with is that people have accused you of being deliberately provocative—like the Kashmir is Happy piece went viral, and now people say you write for effect.
No, those are the Kashmiris. (Smiles) That was a reporting-based piece, but then there was a lot of opinion in it. I just went there, and my brief to myself was, for the first two days, I will not meet the usual suspects. I will not meet the journalists, writers, melancholy poets, activists. I’ll meet the regular people, with translators to overcome whatever language barriers we have.
Ultimately, the trauma of an area is always the projection of the elite, which does not have the trauma, which imagines the trauma, through inheritance. They inherited wealth, they inherited class, they inherited their place in society. They’re accustomed to inheriting, without realising it’s an inheritance. So, they inherit the trauma also.
And sometimes, I’m very suspicious of culture and inheritance and history —how far or how deep is the impact of history? The importance of these things are always exaggerated by writers and academics, and life is usually very different. And I knew that in a place like Kashmir, there are so many poor people, though they're not as poor as the poor in the rest of India, and they just want to move on.
At the same time, they can’t help it— they’ve also inherited this idea, oh, yeah, the Indian government is doing this, doing that. And I went and tried to investigate these things. And then I went skiing. Because I’d never seen snow before.
Anyway, there’s the reaction from the Kashmiri elite to that piece, but then there’s also a whole Kashmiri reaction that supports the piece, which goes— “Who are these guys talking for us? They live in Delhi, they live in Dubai, they live in New York”. And these are Facebook revolutionaries, you know, who after a point, don’t stand for Kashmir.
Most of these people are elite Kashmiris, and they feel the loss of their power. They’re something in Kashmir, but they have to move out of Kashmir to work, and in Delhi, they’re nothing— they’re like any other, upper class people.
Obviously, clarity is not very simple. So they feel that they must say something important about Kashmir. But the whole thing of aazadi, it’s just ridiculous. I mean, what do they want? The Republic of Kashmir? It reminds me of these Tibetan activists. As an editor, every month, I get two story pitches on Tibet. It’s one of the things I have to deal with. In Open, I’ve banned Tibet stories, unless it’s a great story. It’s like, “You’re not going to get this, you know, move on.”
You’ve spoken of the whole Twitter phenomenon, and how authors tend to censor themselves. Do you also feel there’s another trend, of writers becoming commentators, becoming larger than themselves?
Yes, there are many things here. One is the relationship between the writer and the material. Initially, writers were storytellers, who had the gift for telling many stories. But now, there is a delusion that the writer is some kind of social philosopher. (Gestures to indicate a larger persona) And most of the time, the material is not there—and they have to manufacture the material, they have to manufacture the trauma, they have to manufacture the pain that they feel.
But the funny thing which is happening with writing is this idea that writers are these good people, who’re progressing towards goodness, and who’re commenting on a world gone astray. See, that’s why I feel that writers should have another profession—then you have a stake in that profession, you derive your livelihood from that profession, then you’re rooted in the world.
And that becomes very
important. Recently, I was at this writer’s conference in Edinburgh. And they
had this 30-second silence for Syria. And I was like, “What’s wrong with these
people?” (Shakes head) I mean, what are you trying to say? You’re trying to say
that you have a heart? I find that very naïve.
This celebrity-status given to writers...what is it doing to writing? Because if you’re a writer from South Asia, you’re seen as an ambassador for South Asia.
See, that’s the power of what I call the Western literary system. It’s very important because of its sheer power and reach and mass. But the Western literary system is almost like the United Nations— they’re searching for ambassadors here and there, and usually, they find them in people who were educated in the West, who are able to interpret their countries in a way that the Western society can understand. As opposed to a person who does not know how to tell the story to the West. So, these things are all part of the game, and sometimes writers will also play to the gallery. That’s the way it is, and it’s fine, I think.
And that becomes very important. Recently, I was at this writer’s conference in Edinburgh. And they had this 30-second silence for Syria. And I was like, “What’s wrong with these people?” (Shakes head) I mean, what are you trying to say? You’re trying to say that you have a heart? I find that very naïve.
Is it different writing about other writers when you’re a novelist yourself, as compared to when you’re a journalist? Because, suddenly there’s this politics of “Oh, look, he’s two books old, and he’s become the spokesperson for Indian writing”. You know, when you write on Rushdie, as opposed to when you write on John Travolta.
This whole spokesperson thing is a new thing for me, because of The New York Times column. And people say, “Oh, are you the spokesperson for Indian writing now?”, which is a silly question because that letter is devised like that, you know. But then, some people see it as an insider’s take, and get into that whole thing.
And this is unfortunate, because I’m such an outsider. If there’s anything I like about myself, it’s that I’m outside this whole system, and people don’t realise how much I stand to gain by being an insider. For instance, I could use my column to really flatter Rushdie and other prominent writers, and milk them later. I can make so many friends, using my journalism.
Instead, look at my books—you won’t see any blurbs from writers, because they give blurbs to young writers they know. And no established writer knows me at a personal level. And I’ve been a journalist for eighteen years.
If at all, there are two writers who hate me, because of something I wrote long back—maybe I was juvenile. (Pauses) Something hilarious happened, that’ll tell you how bad I am at networking. I was in Edinburgh, and I was in the loo, and telling myself, “There are so many important writers here, and my book is coming out, and I should network. I should do myself a favour.” And there’s this guy who’s standing next to me, who was in the same conference, and he was talking about something a speaker said. Now, when guys talk to me in the loo, I don’t meet their eyes, I’m just looking straight ahead. So I ask him, “What do you do?” and he says, “I teach at MIT, Creative Writing.” I said fine. And I realised later it was Junot Díaz. And then I realised I had no hope. I mean, I’d seen him before and all that, but in the loo, I didn’t look at him because I was peeing. So, Junot Díaz was talking to me in the loo, and I ask him a question he wouldn’t have got for the last ten years.
I’m very disappointed with myself, actually. I think people who have complaints about my journalism should grant me this—that I’ve not used journalism to make friends, while I would have benefited a lot if I did.
Well, aside from this Junot Díaz thing, is there anything else you see as a big mistake you’ve made since you became a published writer?
Hmm. I do. In the sense that, though I do talk about networking as if it is something that is beyond me, I think it has its value. And I’ve done a disservice to my own literary career by not being networked. You don’t have to do anything dirty. You just reach out to people, that’s all.
And somehow, I cannot reach out to people. And it disappoints me at one level. But it’s a talent, and I don’t have that talent—to reach out, cultivate relationships. I’m not hostile. But sometimes, you realise that all these young writers are known to people who’ll give you lists of, like, “Five Writers to Watch out For!” And none of these guys will mention me, because they don’t know me.
As a new writer, it’s tradition, you know, you’re supposed to be known to these guys who mention these lists to people. And that’s how you grow. But maybe it’s too late now—I should have done it in my twenties. I don’t know whether it’s a mistake, or just a gift that I don’t have.
Getting back to the book, one of my favourite aspects of Ousep Chacko’s character is how he softens at a particular point, while speaking to Unni’s friends, how after coming across as a totally wacko guy, there’s this switch.
Yeah, after all he’s a father, you know. And that element is always there. Also, people forget fathers of a certain type. And Ousep Chacko is from that generation. There are types of people who are dying, who are going away forever, and this is a particular type that I like. And people will never remember that type. It’s also a comment on the New Men, how men have been forced to change in this generation, and it’s very comical.
The diaper-changing father.
Yes. You change diapers, you know the names of maids, you know. (Cringes) So the whole thing about being a guy...where Ousep Chacko comes from was a Golden Age for men. So Ousep laughs at the boys and says, “You’re going to become men in the age of women.” Those are moments of social satire, where I’m actually coming from the present and commenting through Ousep. All of us boys, when we were growing up, didn’t realise we were going to be in this Age of Women, for whatever it is. It has its own set of rules... I thought it’s interesting to comment on the demise of a certain kind of man.
I find the husband-wife dynamic in your books very interesting. Especially the older couples, it’s like they have nothing left anymore. But there’s a sort of tenderness within.
Yeah, I like the interaction of men and women. Many times, I feel that’s the only thing which matters. It fascinates me, because they’re so important to each other, and yet they’re such foes. It’s very interesting—a new word should be coined for the rivalry between men and women.
And there’s a sense of the seriousness of wives versus the silliness of girlfriends.
Yeah, actually that’s an interesting question. I find girlfriends are such suckers, and wives are so shrewd. There seems to be a distinction. The girlfriend is the one who’ll say, “Oh, my boyfriend is so funny, he always makes me laugh.” The wife will never say her husband is so funny, because she knows the whole trick.
In Illicit Happiness, there’s the idea that language has colonised us, trapped us, and doesn’t allow us to describe what’s really important—like Unni’s visions.
Yeah, that’s the whole point. I feel that because we’ve chosen language as the predominant means of communication, we don’t have a choice anymore. That’s what we’re supposed to do. Like birds fly, we talk.
One of the things which I’m discussing in the novel is also the limitations of language—how insignificant language is when we’re trying to actually understand a lot of things. I’ve used the example of how it’s impossible in the community of dogs to transmit or convey the thought that a car passed by. Similarly, there are many things we cannot transmit.
The implication then is that language is a huge trap. Because once you’re committed to language, you imagine that only what can be expressed through language is truth. And in that sense, even literature is overrated, because all it does is take you to the edge of what can be defined by language. And the idea here is to see whether these boundaries are intentional—you know, just like China tries to block Google or Facebook, is a larger autocratic force of nature trying to block things so that we don’t transmit too much information. Like it’s not good for nature. Nature as adversary, I find that very interesting.
Both Serious Men and Illicit show an obsession with delusions being transferred.
Yes, and here, it’s more clear. I do believe that what we call human society is an interplay of delusions, and conflict between successful delusions and failed delusions. So that’s what this book is about —the conflict. You know, as a boy, I went through this phase of imagining everybody mad, and having such a good time. Even in Serious Men, Ayyan speaks of how if you keep looking at serious people, they begin to appear comical. Which is something that even now, I believe in. Looking at people praying together, or in a protest march, or nationalism, these are all forms of madness, but people don’t realise. I find this collective madness very funny.
Speaking of delusions, how is it there are no junkies in this book full of teenage boys?
I don’t know. I was always a very responsible person, you know. (Laughs) I think I was always somewhat strong, and I always aspired to be strong. And I don’t have any romantic notions about things like drugs. So I won’t be able to write sympathetically. I mean, Ousep was very close to what I was growing up with, but beyond that, I’m not very sympathetic to characters who let themselves go. I like responsible characters. I like intelligent people as opposed to dumb people. I don’t mean junkies are dumb—I meant strong people versus people who’re not strong.
You speak very often of how everyone growing up in Madras was expected to be an engineer—every boy at least—unless he was blind, or planning to join the clergy.
Yes, that too. Is it something you resent?
It’s not that I resent it. But you know, a lot of people ask me if I took this (Joint Entrance) exam. I didn’t. It’s just that people forget what a huge cultural force it was. It’s dark, you know. It’s like a James Bond villain, like a Batman villain, this exam.
And it was a great cover for mediocrity. Even now, you see in various fields, an IIT-ian in arts who is completely mediocre will still get some sort of mileage, because that entrance exam was supposed to be so difficult.
But the reason why it’s an interesting cultural force is that more than the people who’ve made it through that—the entrance exam attracted the smartest guys, who would have done well anywhere, in anything—but what I find more interesting is the ones who didn’t make it. It was 1,00,000 a year then, now it’s maybe 4,00,000.
It does something to their minds. It does something to their psychology. And it was the untold story in Indian society, a failure nobody wants to talk about. And the thing is, many of these boys are actually smart, much smarter than the IIT-ians. But because of that exam, they unnecessarily go through life, thinking that maybe they’re second level.
Actually, they’re not. In terms of what matters to life, and what even intelligence is, I feel that there’s a form of intelligence which you can find only in adolescents. And that JEE kind of intelligence is for that period of time.
And I meet some of the guys whom I thought were the smartest in the world when I was growing up, now, in their mid-thirties, and I’m baffled. Because they have remained smart 17-year-olds. And you’re like, “What happened to this guy, he was the smartest 17-year-old.” And from his point of view, “Yeah, I am that. It’s just that I’m still 17, and I’m very smart, you know.” (Laughs)
Since you’ve written a book about science and one about cartoons and religion, is there a chance you might combine them all to write about Scientology or Godmen?
(Laughs) No, no, I just find all this godmen stuff very boring as a subject. I like youth and old men. I don’t know what it is. Godmen, somehow, they don’t interest me much. Or I would write a book on that Sri Sri character, who’s so funny.