Manu Joseph is a writer who seems to have an equal share of fans and haters. The reactions to his latest work – Decoupled – a Netflix series has just reaffirmed this. In the eyes of the critics who flaunt their tools of political correctness too often, Manu Joseph is a serial offender. He, however, is nonchalant in the face of all such criticism.
In this interview, the journalist-writer answers questions about his perceived hatred towards activists and insensitivity to the weak. He also explains his writing process and reading habit.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Decoupled is streaming on Netflix. It has received a mixed review. Now, is it time you could give us an honest assessment of the work by yourself?
I won't tell you my absolute honest assessment but in any kind of writing which involves deep assessment, I would not release even a paragraph if I'm not happy with it to some extent.
Do you think it could have been better or avoided a few much-expected criticism by paying a little more attention to some areas?
I don't have to improve something just because there's some criticism, especially with the quality of the critics. I haven't even read them because it could be worthless. But anything can be better especially when you work on a visual medium because you are constantly learning. For that matter even a novel; everything that's out there could have been better.
Your works are known for brutal sarcasm. As a writer, what's your take on sarcasm and satire? Is there a fine line between the two?
I do agree that I'm sarcastic. My definition of sarcasm is something which is exaggerated. One thing I try to stay away from is some kind of a hyperbole. Sometimes, it's needed for stylistic reasons like humour, comedy or drama, but otherwise my only interest is in capturing reality and absurdity.
Satire is an even bigger exaggeration of reality. For example, the film on Netflix 'Don't look up'. That's a satire because there's an analogy and you are supposed to interpret that the comet (in the film) stands for global warming, and how people are ignoring and approaching catastrophe. I have no interest in being metaphorical in a story when I can say things more directly. In fact that film would have been more interesting if it was directly about climate change. There was no reason for them to use this analogy and go for satire.
Certain times, for example for political reasons and for your own safety, you cannot attack certain things directly. In those cases, I can understand satire has its own purpose. But satire without reason seems to be an exaggeration. It's like someone being loud when there's no reason to be loud.
In one of my books a character mentions, “in sarcasm you say the opposite of what you mean to say”. And he calls it the second lowest form of humour.
Why do you hate the so-called liberals, intellectuals and activists so much?
Hate is a very strong word. It really doesn't matter to me to be that emotionally invested to hate them. First of all, most of these labels don't make sense to me because they are all equally the Taliban.
I can't argue or give reasons to this, but the way I see it is, the greatest purpose of life is that the lucky should take care of the unlucky and the strong should take care of the weak. This is the foundation on which our society is based and if it does not exist life itself will not make any sense to me and I myself will not have any drive. Even though I'm driven by greed and materialism even that makes sense for me only because at some level it's useful. The better I do the more taxes I pay and there's a system in place to take care of the people. I just feel that it's extremely dangerous for society to have mediocre good. You can have mediocre writers, lawyers, or artists but people who are in the business of doing good have to be exceptional. What the mediocre good do is that they block the way for other people to come out. I feel that greed and materialism are good for society than mediocre good.
I didn't have a very comfortable life. I come from a lower middle class family which became very poor by the time I became 17-18 in Madras. I think it's difficult to be young and it's very difficult to be young in difficult circumstances in a society which is prospering. Now what happens is that young people who are afraid of losing find a highly moralistic refuge where they feel that they are doing something great while they are just fleeing from reality. I think it's important for writers to address that this exists, and you should know what you are doing. The irony is that I feel that activism or humanitarianism is so important but it just can't be the refuge for people fleeing from other things.
It makes sense for me when an Elon Musk or billionaires or people who are in the 50s or 60s who have achieved their goals focus on humanity. You have already done your best and you have enough experience and wisdom and the material to transform society. What I find useless and probably to some extend even dangerous is people claiming they are activists because they are capable of saying the right things. This sort of posturing is just useless and we can't have useless humanitarians.
I assume that you don't subscribe to any particular ideology or 'ism'? Is there one 'ism' that you find at least relevant?
Interestingly, of all the 'isms', I find capitalism and feminism the most relevant. I find a lot of similarities between the two. I feel feminism makes complete sense -- not the sort of feminism that some men claim that they have, especially in Delhi -- when people who have had the experience of being women try to take care of themselves and their community and fighting against a world which has been created for men. You need to dismantle it makes complete sense to me. It also makes sense to me why there should be a revolution and why it should be nasty also sometimes.
About capitalism, as a force, as an idea and something that you need not be apologetic for I think that makes complete sense at least for people who want to better themselves.
You are often accused of being insensitive to the weaker sections of society in your writing. How do you look at that criticism?
I understand why this criticism exists because most of the Indian writers especially writers in English come from a very affluent background, or comfortable background or a posh background. It's a class issue. So they have to make conjectures. They are constantly making guesses at what it's to be weaker or poorer. It's a certain decency that was born out of incomprehension and posturing. I may not have endured sub Saharan form of poverty but for me poverty is not a guess. I'm a provincial guy. I know these people and I have seen some circumstances. As a journalist, I have got deep into it. I just don't have any need to posture.
So it might appear (that I'm insensitive) in a world where writers are making an effort to use some kind of sensibilities which I don't understand what it is. I'm just seeing what they are not allowing themselves to see. For example, all these TV journalists used to have an expression for Bombay. They used to call it the 'spirit of Bombay'. By that they just meant there could be a bomb blast one day and the next day the people would go to work. I'm just saying that's a pathetic way to exist. People go to work because they come from very bad homes. There are 20 people in 180 sq feet so they get out of the home and it has got nothing to do with 'the spirit of Bombay'. It's just a poorly designed difficult city.
Also I have no great romanticism for the poor. I don't believe that they are made out of milk and honey just because they are poor. I don't think that anybody has said that I'm insensitive. It's just something there on social media and I don't know how seriously one should take that.
You have your roots in Kerala. Do you follow the politics of Kerala, the lone state ruled by communists in the country? Also many in Kerala believe that Rahul Gandhi will become the prime minister (of the country) one day.
I don't follow Kerala politics the way Malayalees do. Even before the Indian middle class became politically very sensitive, Malayalees and Bengalis were politically evolved and they used to follow the news very very closely.
I don't know if you were taking a dig at the Congress people in Kerala that they think Rahul Gandhi would become the prime minister but it's possible. why not? It looks improbable but why not? Because I saw during the second wave of Covid the first time a force that can affect the branding of BJP at a national level. They are largely an incompetent party. They have ideas and good branding but they don't execute many of the things they say. This is evident to me as a person who lives in Gurgaon which is controlled mostly by BJP. In a country which is ruled by BJP, in a state ruled by BJP they don't know how to run a city. So I can see how the branding of BJP can change unless they do some introspection and change.
Tell us about your writing process. How does an idea strike you and how do you take it forward?
You never know when the idea strikes. It's like something ancient in you which is always there. What we are dealing with is just the format. There's a format of the novel, or a series. I'm either excited by a sentiment or a character. I'm only interested in ideas. I have very little interest in the plot as such. It always surprises people because my stories seem to have a very strong plot but that's just an illusion. I'm only interested in ideas and characters. Plot is something that you fix. As a writer I know how to fix it. I know there's a trick but I don't work hard for months just to tell a story.
A story is what I give you so that I get the permission to take your time to tell you various other things. It's entertaining, the story is playful but that's not the primary reason why I write. It has never happened to me after the age of 15 when I used to write only stories because you hardly have any ideas. After that I have been driven by ideas so right now I'm developing my idea for my fourth novel and I'm getting excited because I know the idea can sustain itself in a character or in many characters or over the course of the journey of a character. There is a time when you realise it can become a novel and then I start writing it. I take notes, prepare flow charts. I start writing only when a reasonable structure is there.
How about your reading habit?
I just read anything which comes to me. Now I'm reading the second book of David Graeber who died recently. I have not read fiction in the entire last year except for one book by Tishani Doshi. I'm very erratic and I just have a wide reading habit.
What are your upcoming projects?
I'm trying to develop all my novels into series and I'm also working on a fresh series and my next novel. There are a lot of projects and I don't know how am I going to find time. But I have made one important change to my writing schedule. Earlier, when I used to work on something I would just work on that thing. Now I'm trying to allocate four-five hours to one thing and another few hours to another thing. So with experience I don't find the need to be marinated in just one idea.