Manu Joseph, whose debut novel Serious Men is a contender for the Man Asian Literary Prize, takes an uncompromising look at modern India through the eyes of an 'anti-hero' from the Dalit caste.
Manu Joseph's debut novel is a serious contender for major Asian literary honour
"Don't you often think that day-to-day life is hilariously pointless?" laughs the Indian author Manu Joseph. "This great importance we give to such irrelevant, frivolous things..." He's talking about one of the key sections of his excellent debut novel, Serious Men, in which one of his characters is trying to work out the meaning of life. But Joseph is also being overly modest. After all, his first book definitely is becoming important.
When the shortlist announcement was made for The Man Asian Literary Prize - the winner will announced on Thursday - one of the prize judges, the novelist Shashi Deshpande, was positively gushing in her praise. "Indian books written in English haven't yet approached the novel in the way Manu Joseph has done," she said. "He has spoken about caste. We are ignoring reality, but he has straightforwardly plunged into the mind of a Dalit man and has done it with style and panache."
And with a great deal of humour, too. Serious Men is a remarkable first effort, a seemingly satirical tale set in a modern India still obsessed with caste and tradition. Ayyan Mani is the anti-hero, a Dalit (someone from a lower caste) from a Mumbai chawl who dreams up a ruse to right all the perceived wrongs imposed on his family over the generations - by presenting his 10-year-old son as a child genius. Suffice it to say, not everything goes to plan. But this is only one strand of this impressively multilayered debut. Ayyan also works as personal assistant to Arvind Acharya, a Brahmin (upper-caste) astronomer at the Institute of Theory and Research. Serious Men also explores Acharya's trials and tribulations, as he hatches a plan to use a giant balloon to search for alien microbes.
All of which might sound ridiculous, but Joseph makes the two strands seem impressively believable. Perhaps that's not surprising - he has had a long career as a journalist in India and he tells me he often used to get calls from parents saying he should profile their "genius" children.
"It's a typical Indian mindset, to do this," Joseph laughs. "But that was only half the book. I've also always found it both intriguing and amusing that scientists can say the most fantastical things and get away with it. They're not frauds, necessarily, but because very few people can grasp what they're saying, they can question our whole understanding of the universe, just like that."
So, perhaps fired by Joseph's experiences as a journalist, Serious Men is very much about truth, and the lengths we go to in order to find it or avoid telling it. And that's why the novel isn't the typical tale of a poor guy trying desperately to make ends meet. Ayyan is, often, sexist. He's devious and cunning. And our "hero" is this way because Joseph thinks the reality of India is much more interesting than the cliched, exotic view of most literature.
"Writing about India in English has always been elitist and equated with intelligence," he says. "It's always the same, these books full of patronising compassion for the underdog. So I've never been that impressed with articulate people, because to me intelligence is what goes on inside your head. That's why, when Ayyan is actually speaking to people in the book, he says quite ordinary things. It's only when he's thinking that we see the deeper personality, how he understands the world around him.
"It was really important to make Ayyan different from how poor people are usually portrayed. I mean, I had to convince the publishers not to mention a Dalit on the cover. Because then it became just another book about caste issues, which is just such a fatiguing prospect. I wouldn't pick that kind of novel up any more, that's for sure."
Joseph also says Serious Men is as much a product of his fascination with changing gender roles as it is a book about social issues. The Man Asian judging panel admitted when the shortlist was announced that Ayyan is a chauvinist who expects his wife to care for him - although the two women on the panel said they were not offended. But the book is uncompromisingly, often uncomfortably, honest about the lot of the male in 21st century India. And by being so, it is, perhaps, another challenge to the status quo in Indian writing.
"Seriously, there's a cowardice in Indian writing when it comes to the characterisation of men," Joseph says. "It's as if authors are trying to say 'I am a good person and my characters share my sophisticated, refined sensibilities.' And I don't know if that's what goes on in the minds of most men."
Perhaps that's why one of the most shocking lines in the whole book isn't when a group of Brahmin scientists privately trot out astonishingly regressive views about Dalit, but a throwaway comment from Ayyan in which he remarks that "men live like men only in the homes of the poor". Is that a tacit suggestion that poor men still expect their wives to stay at home, cook their dinner and look after their children?
"It's more of a passing observation, really, but behind it there is a larger point," Joseph admits. "I was reading an article recently about the death of the alpha male in India, and whether men taking care of babies and so on makes them better people. From the point of view of Ayyan Mani, which I have to say is probably also my belief, there is a gap now between what men really want to do and what they feel they should do. That's fine. This is modern India."
Which could easily be misinterpreted as the rather archaic views of a bitter middle-aged man. But Joseph is as nuanced in person as he is on the page. What he's actually trying to explore is what constitutes being modern, sophisticated or "good" in the 21st century.
"Yes, I'd never actually write a paragraph spelling out those ideas," he says. "I'm really trying to encourage people to think more deeply about their society."
And to be honest, Ayyan is so engaging that any sexist comments he makes seem quite funny. In fact, for all the serious issues Serious Men deals with, it's genuinely entertaining rather than polemical or preachy.
"I'm glad you think so," he says. "I really want people to enjoy it first of all. The odd thing is, I never tried to be funny. I don't consider myself a humorous person. But humour, I think, is crucial because it is a form of accuracy. The reason why the best stand-up comedians are so funny is not that they are clowns, it's that we recognise their jokes to be true. So in wanting to be accurate and honest some situations will naturally come across as funny."
That might make Joseph sound remarkably self-assured, and he is - although he admits that he didn't realise how hard it would be to pull off a debut novel that wasn't just typical thinly veiled autobiography. "I got the first draft back and thought, "why is this so bad?" he remembers.
Happily, the answer to that question was the reason the book ended up working so well: it didn't have enough layers. And now that it does, he has a real chance of winning the Man Asian Literary Prize. Is he looking forward to it?
"Oh yes," he says. "I'm delighted with the nomination, but more importantly, I like the idea of being part of this incredible shortlist."
The other four authors on that list are: Bi Feiyu, for Three Sisters; Tabish Khair, for The Thing About Thugs; Kenzaburo Oe, for The Changeling; Yoko Ogawa, for Hotel Iris.
Distinguished company - in which Joseph certainly belongs.
- Serious Men (John Murray) is out now. The Man Asian Literary Prize is announced on Thursday. http://www.manasianliteraryprize.org/