Writers on Reading. Part One, Manu Joseph
Everyone has that moment in their lives when they come across this beautiful shiny new book on a dull day in the airport. The cover art is subtle yet insightful, the title sounds hilarious, the blurb seems terribly enticing, even the spine feels reassuringly strong and rather nice to touch. And so you spend 589 Rupees banking on all that and the shining compliments bestowed by famous-ish people on the back cover. You also take the trouble of making space in the vortex that is your bag, hoping but strangely confident that this book will not disappoint. But as you sit back in your uncomfortably tiny seat on your flight, between the man with invasive elbows and the grim-faced woman with a baby, waiting for the book to show the promise it promised, it fails you. The baby cries on cue. And Mr Elbows falls asleep on your shoulder. And drools.
The above happens with such astonishing regularity, that when I did find a book I loved, I decided to read and reread it just to be sure. And unlike most cases of love, I continued to like the book despite prolonged exposure. The book was The Illicit Happiness of Other People, by Manu Joseph, who happens to be the first writer I've had the pleasure of interviewing for this feature.
I've been emailing him so do not expect a description that runs to the tune of, Mr Joseph sits in his sunny apartment with a cup of black coffee and blacker humour etc. Just questions and answers.
Do you have any memory of the first book you ever read?
It was probably 'My Life and the Beautiful Game', the slim autobiography of Edson Arantes do Nascimento or Pele. Or, another slim book, actually a pamphlet called 'Sai Baba and the Gold Control Act' By B Premanand. I was fascinated by the latter because a) I didn't know rational people can be assembled in a group called rationalists. To me it was like assembling people and calling them 'Humans'. b) They sued Sai Baba asking him to explain the origin of the gold he produced from thin air. I loved that. I don't remember my age though, strangely. But, in all probability, I read Famous Five after these two.
Who bought the books in your household when you were a child? Who took those decisions and were they any good?
I remember the day when a door-to-door salesman came to sell my father the entire collection of Western and Russian classics and Encyclopedia Brittania. My father bought the expensive leather bound set and promised to pay the poor man later which he didn't. My first literary experience is that sucker coming home every week begging for his money. I never saw my father ever read a page of those books. My sister and I did. My sister was more intellectually advanced. She read all those classics while I scanned the entire Encylcopedia, including in the 'marine life' category, for a flattering mention of India.
Tell us about a fictional character you loved as a young boy.
I liked Enid Blyton's Fatty.
As children we didn't really have access to any great literature I'd make do with what was available and honestly enjoy it. Now I meet people who say they read Dostoyevsky when they were 13 and I feel a bit envious maybe but I don't regret what I read back then at all. I feel all kinds of reading influences you. Do you have any such book that you loved once upon a time but isn't something you'd freely admit to, or maybe you'd admit to it but the book was some kind of guilty pleasure?
There are a lot of these 'guilty pleasure' questions about in this literary world. Maybe that is because it is filled with pretentious charlatans whose reality and proclamation are often inconsistent. I am particularly suspicious of the types who have read Dostoyevsky when they were 13. I wonder why they didn't reread him when they were much older. A book that was hugely influential when I was 16 and which I now find lowbrow is Midnight's Children.
I see people commenting passionately on your articles on Facebook, people trying to be clever, angry people, people who have clearly been vigorously nodding and relishing every word. But was there any comment that really stayed with you for ridiculous or moving or funny reasons?
Long before I became a columnist I was actually a much loved features writer for Outlook and an old woman who met me told me that she was a very lonely old woman as everyone she knows was dead and that she waited for Outlook to come home so that she can read my articles and often laugh. Once a 12-year-old girl who had read an article sent me a Dairy Milk chocolate. Nothing in the present-day reaction compares.
What are you reading right now?
'From Third World to First' by Lee Kuan Yew.
Of all the characters you've written which one do you have a special connection with?
I can't tell you. It is a secret for a very specific reason which is a bigger secret.
How important is reading to the writing process?
Reading is the most overrated and over-celebrated part of the writing process. The reading that you do as a child is the only thing that really counts, to some extent- to your writing. The rest is, of course, your background as a person but does nothing to the writing talent. When you don't have talent, or don't have a grasp over your own talent, you imitate everything. I think that's all there is to it.
Do you have a writing routine?
I am trained to write anywhere anytime against any adversity wearing any clothes. Yes there are some ideal conditions like home and silence and a chunk of eight hours during which I am not disturbed and as for clothes they will be somewhat indecent.
How important is going offline to your writing process? Does the internet distract you at all? Like Jonathan Franzen once said, "It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." Did you find yourself more productive pre-internet?
What prozac is to modern poetry, is internet to general prose - destructive, I feel.
Illustrations by Pratik Deorukhkar
Interviewed by Meera Ganapathi