Not-a-review of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous (but perhaps a review of its author Manu Joseph, and of misogynists, liberals, and reviewers)

The first thing I did after finishing Manu Joseph’s Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, was send him an email, in which I said:

“I don’t know how you make your readers laugh and cry at the same time, and I don’t know how anyone could possibly review this book. (I have not been asked to, thank heavens, or I’d have had to write a book length review just so I could quote all the lines I found funny.)”

But then, I went on to read several reviews of the book and interviews with its author, all of which I found so excruciating in their staid analyses and stock questions that I decided I should put my feelings into words that were available for public consumption.

First, though, I must admit to my feelings for Manu Joseph, which are at odds with those of most people. At the Hindu Lit for Life after-party in 2014, as I was chatting with Manu and his wife, it occurred to me that we should take a photograph to capture the moment because it may be his only photo op with all the women who don’t believe he’s a misogynist. We didn’t get around to taking the photograph, because we were interrupted by another speaker who was trying to hide his satisfaction as he conveyed his condolences to Manu for not winning the festival’s fiction prize and the award of Rs. 5 lakhs, for which he had made a convincing pitch when he introduced himself on stage as “Manu Joseph, unemployed graduate”.

There is a certain pleasure in following a writer from the beginning of his career. I met Manu Joseph before I had read his first book, which reached me for review on the same day as its Madras launch at the British Council. The first page made me want to meet the author – particularly a line about the sound of bra hooks snapping throughout the Worli seaface.

Following this writer’s journey is particularly interesting when one knows – as I did at the launch – that he is going to be hugely successful. Will fame and success change him, will it not? In the case of most brilliant writers – and V. S. Naipaul, Amit Chaudhuri, Doris Lessing, and J. M. Coetzee come immediately to mind – there is always a conviction of their own talent, as is the bewilderment that the world has not recognised it yet. When the recognition does come, the conviction remains and the bewilderment morphs into, perhaps, a sort of resentment that it took so long for their genius to be acknowledged.

One of my favourite things about Manu from the launch, and an aspect which remains unchanged to this day, is his willingness to name writers to whom he referred, however unflatteringly. I eventually reviewed the book and interviewed him, twice, and never – not even in private conversation – did he say, “Don’t quote me, but…”, that presumptuous line that belongs equally to the pompous and the cowardly.

When his second book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, was released, I reviewed it and interviewed him at great length. (In re-reading the reviews and interviews now, I realise I repeat myself a lot, and will do so in this piece, for which I have already made notes.)

But though it was a no-brainer that I would read Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, as soon as it was out, I could not bring myself to pitch a review or interview to the media. And even as I find myself stupidly writing a review which I will not monetise at a time when I should be editing my own book, I do know why I didn’t want to publish this elsewhere. Mutual respect is a rare thing among writers, and perhaps only possible between those who are funny and intelligent and know it. Unfortunately, it can also appear to be networking, which I abhor nearly as much as I do the word “abhor”.

I do have a bias, and I don’t think it comes from my liking for the writing or for the man (which, I hear, is a more difficult task), but because the way he sees the world strikes a chord with me. It could have something to do with growing up in pre-1991 Madras. In one of our conversations, we spoke of how both of us had thought we were being rebellious in not “taking the (JEE) exam”, and choosing literature, the refuge of science rejects who needed a degree. He found himself in a class of prospective priests, established failures, and physically challenged people. A few years later, I found myself in a class of prospective nuns, aspiring housewives, physically challenged people, and delusional feminists who made me generally suspicious of -isms.

In several interviews, Manu Joseph has said he had no social life as a child. My siblings and I didn’t either, not in the conventional sense among Madras families anyway – my parents were/are terrified of small talk and staunchly stayed away from Clubs. At my last interview with Manu, I was disappointed he was staying at the Madras Club because his being a member of that colonial relic would have shattered the image in my head. Happily, it turned out a friend of his was a member and booked him a room. Our interview was delayed because the staff would not let him pass through a restaurant, which interrupted the passage from his room to the verandah where I was to interview him, because he was wearing a T-shirt. They wanted him to wear a formal shirt, and over the course of a quarter of an hour, he managed to reach a compromise, change into a collared T-shirt and join me.

As we were shaking our heads over the pursed lips of the waiters in livery meant for colder climes and which therefore smelled rather ripe in the Madras heat, a woman with the figure of a sixteen-year-old, the talons of an eagle, and the face of Gollum tore through a jogging path, followed more sedately by a driver-in-white-and-white walking an overweight Labrador. I think both of us were relieved we did not belong in or to the Club.

At the risk of destroying Manu Joseph’s reputation as generally obnoxious, I've found him to be thoughtful, considerate, and very generous. You can’t help but like a writer whose bio says his second book was on the bestseller list in Holland for a long time, only outdone by the Fifty Shades trilogy.

But it appears most reviewers don’t. Some are angry with him, while others consciously or unconsciously or subconsciously do him a disservice by making his book seem rather dreary. And so reviews painstakingly find characters who are counterpoints to each other, or point out the resemblance between his fictional characters and the non-fictional living, dead, and dying.

Among interviews which asked him to explain his various literary devices were reviews which called the protagonist of Miss Laila – who is not, in fact, Miss Laila (perhaps a literary device) – his first “truly etched woman character”. I don’t think Akhila Iyer is his first “truly-etched” female character. Among my favourite passages in Serious Men is one I can recall without having to refer to the book, seven years after I read it, about a woman standing alone after her lover has gone home to his wife: it is about the heartbreak of the “liberated woman”, who while appearing to be strong and knowing what she wants, would acquiesce in her own humiliation by a man, taking more crap from him than the maids who worked in her posh apartment complex would from their husbands, because all she wanted was a man, even a man who so obviously did not deserve her. But perhaps she deserved him, I thought, perhaps all women with such overwhelming self-pity and such low self-esteem deserve that man.

A particularly dense review, dense in every sense of the word and impossible to finish without the reader’s eyes glazing over, suggested Manu Joseph was too much in love with his hilarity to allow the narrative to take the reins. It says, “The opening chapters, though, are weighed down by Joseph’s compulsion to be funny. He lends cumbersome asides unlinked to the story.” This, of course, is a common whinge among those unfortunates who are bereft of a sense of humour and timing, the kind whose anecdotes flop – which is rather metaphysical in the context of the book.

This is the second non-fiction-in-fiction book that has come out this year. And I wish I could have made Manu Joseph’s 200 pages last half as long as I did the 50 pages I read of Arundhati Roy, before giving up and gifting the book to an acquaintance for whom I have little affection. If you must fictionalise high-profile figures, perhaps being compulsively funny, but helplessly, naturally, relatably funny is a better way to do it than flashing puns and wordplay and caricature for the audience’s visualising pleasure.

It may have helped Manu’s cause if he were a woman. Unfortunately, he is that guy whom men who perceive themselves as feminists use to score points with women whom they perceive as feminists. Worse, he is also the guy women who believe in a “sisterhood” use to make a case for portmanteau words like “manels” and Gwyneth Paltrow-ish phrases like “casual sexism”.

A few years ago, when Manu was editor of Open magazine, a journalist-turned-socialite who was complaining to me about his misogyny was a bit baffled when I said, in my experience, he was a rather lovely person who went out of his way to offer feedback and advice on pieces I had written, and sometimes not even for his magazine.

“Manu Joseph?” she asked, as if I might have confused him with another Manu who was editor of a newsweekly in a parallel universe. When I replied in the affirmative, she went quiet for a while and then suggested, “But, you know, there are some men who are in love with their boyishness?” She added a plea: “They don’t want to be seen as nice guys, so they try their best to prove they’re not?”

It has always struck me that the only men who want to be seen as nice guys are the ones who grope students and interns after making an avuncular approach, a theory largely proved by Raya Sarkar’s list.

The other person who wanted me to agree that Manu Joseph was a misogynist was a publisher. I didn’t. So she asked, “But do you think he gives his women characters as much space as he gives the male characters?” I didn’t think he did. I also didn’t think “women characters” was the right phrase. The much-maligned “female” is the grammatically correct adjective. I did, and do, think “women writers” sounds as stupid as “men writers”. The only way to deal with gender, as with caste, is to not give a fuck.

And the problem with wanting to fast-track the feminist-friendliness of language and literature is the perception that someone is obliged to divide space equally among the characters of various genders. The movement against “manels” has only resulted in several shrill panels of women discussing why they are not treated with the gravitas befitting serious writers, “moderated” by men who respond with grim, emphatic nods, trying to look serious and guilty at the same time. And the case for female writers not being read as much as men has been miserably made by people who rage that men rarely read female writers while women are magnanimous enough to read male writers. The only female writer I re-read is Doris Lessing, and if I had to choose between reading her and Jim Crace or J. M. Coetzee for the rest of my life, there is no doubt in my mind that she would lose.

Manu Joseph may not have divided his words up equally among the genders, but I don’t see why he must. I love his male characters. They are a tribute to the ordinary, the men we avoid. His women are extraordinary, in the sense that they are the kind whom men find immediately interesting – attractive, funny, intelligent. Akhila is one of them, as is Oparna from Serious Men. But Akhila is more interesting for her lack of bitterness. Disliked by liberals and liberal-haters equally, as her creator probably is, she takes them on, the right-wing and the left-wing and the bleeding hearts, all of whom are characterised by the absence of a sense of humour, with a weapon they cannot understand leave alone combat.

And like most people who are adept at comedy, Manu has a keen sense of observation – one he uses not just to elicit laughs, but also sadness. And it has no greater presence than in the bereaved fathers of his books – the father whose face lights up on hearing Malayalam as he looks down at his son’s body, the father who regrets not picking up his toddler son seventeen years ago. The dynamic between fathers and sons is odd, troubled, rarely explored in contemporary literature. A relationship with so much love and so little understanding, perhaps so because the lines of communication are not demarcated as they are with mothers and daughters, who could be fighting like cats one moment and whispering in giggles the next. For me, another point of interest in his books is the mother-daughter dynamic – the devastation that occurs when this bond has not been forged, when a mother and daughter have nothing to say to each other, when a mother would rather save the world than cuddle her daughter, when a mother has no daughter.

As it happens, I have a rather healthy relationship with my mother, to whom I gave Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, once I was done reading it. Like me, she has the habit of quoting sentences she finds funny, and I realised it was both pointless to attempt this in an already-too-long review and that it would kill the delight of coming across those asides, which is as much a part of the beauty of the book as the realisation that one has been totally played by the author in the end.

It’s easy to figure out why people like Manu Joseph disturb the right wing. But they also disturb the liberals, perhaps because they remind them of what the latter could be if they weren’t so keen on being popular and politically correct and boring. They inspire envy in those who cannot – even if they are misogynists – come up with truisms as hilarious as “conscientious citizens” typically being imagined as “indignant women with short legs”. They cannot post a tweet like “The Wire’s revenues too will grow ‘16000 times’”, while quoting The Wire’s own tweet “Want fearless and independent journalism? Make a donation and support @thewire_in.”. At a time when everyone was going crazy over a half-baked story and shrieking about good journalism being in grave danger – which it is, and of which the fact that a poorly researched and written story could inspire so much righteous anger is proof – it is a relief to find someone who has an unpopular opinion of his own.

And when someone with an unpopular opinion writes a book that is as rich, as cleverly structured, and as beautifully balanced as Miss Laila, you should probably buy it.

Posted in Review

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