How NASA, aliens and child geniuses led to a book

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 23, 2010 09:48 hrs

Manu Joseph is the editor of The Open Magazine, an offbeat newsweekly. Serious Men, his first novel, is being published simultaneously in India, Britain, the US and Canada. It has also been translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian, Danish and Serbian. The author was listed among the top new novelists of 2010 by the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. He speaks to Nandini Krishnan about what inspired the book, and shares his theories on scientists and aliens.

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What gave you the idea for the book? Was it a particular report of a child genius or a conversation with a scientist?

Well, phone calls were part of it - someone would call up and say ‘my daughter is two years old and she can switch on the computer, you have to write about it!’ And then there were all these newspaper articles about some genius or the other being invited by NASA, and I found it very charming - the idea of a person who would scam this for no material gain. Ayyan Mani does not do it for money.

I had, quite obviously, always thought I would like to write a novel someday. And these stories would occur to me. One of these stories was about a man like Ayyan, but it was not fully formed in my head.

The other part, involving Acharya, wasn’t really a story - it was the idea of questioning or challenging the supremacy of science.

When I sat down to write it, I brought these two strands together into a novel. Both of them had enough material to be single novels on their own. But I thought it would be better if they came together because I saw some similarities between the two - the Acharya strand and the Ayyan strand.

You’ve done quite a bit of research on scientific theories. How did you go about it?

Well, I have a natural affinity for science non-fiction. So the research was in fact supplementary in nature. The Acharya character itself was born out of my curiosity for science.  Then, I got into a conversation with some scientists regarding the theory of panspermia [the theory that life forms travel through space and take root at various planets], which is what Acharya pursues.

And then I used to interview string theorists very often. So the novel was born out of interpreting scientific theories. Because it was so long in the making, everything I was into would somehow be reflected in the novel.

A lot of people talk about research, which are extremely important. But what is more important is the conjecture that you can draw out of the information that you have. I find many times authors falling into the trap of information. So what happens is that you become a vehicle that information uses to broadcast itself. That is not a novel.
But I really believe a good writer will be able to describe a funeral from the perspective of a victim or a mourner, without having lost anybody. That is the aspiration of literature, I would say.

And whether your conjecture has been successful or not, depends on the cultrural background and even the psychiatry of the reader. A lot of these particular kinds of women in metros were not convinced by the Oparna character.

How long did you take to write the novel?

The actual writing process was three years, without counting the false starts. But I did think of it on and off, in many ways. I spent a long time trying very hard to start with Acharya. To start a novel is such a tough thing, because that sets the tone of the novel and everything else. And to me, even though Ayyan was the central character and Acharya grew in the later part, I thought Acharya was to be the central character. It just never works that way. A novel has its own way of beginning, you know. If you try to identify it and then change it, you can spend whole weeks, maybe even months, trying to go against the natural force of your own novel. But you figure out all that only in retrospect. With my second novel, I’ll probably be faster, because I’ll know what I must not do.

When I read the novel, I felt Ayyan Mani was the representation of the mass, and Acharya the real hero of the novel. Was that your intention?

It’s interesting, because people tell me that. And I’m quite amused. Because to me, Ayyan is a very strong voice which is actually established to further tell the story of Acharya. One is the Acharya point of view - the world according to Acharya. But I think Acharya comes across best when Ayyan also describes him. A lot of people have interpreted the novel as one about the class struggle, and that is true to some extent, but I think that’s characterisation. The core of the novel is about the two men, and I think they would have been this way even without their Brahmin or Dalit standing.

You’ve spoken from different points of view in the novel. Was it challenging to get into the shoes of the characters and see that each had a different voice?

That’s the aspiration. I wanted to tell the story that way. When I started writing the novel, I didn’t really know what voice is. I thought ‘because I’m a journalist, I can do this too’, and ended up writing a giant book review of the book I wanted to write. But now, I see Acharya and Ayyan as the predominant voices of the novel. I just imagine the camera stuck in the minds of the characters, and I thought ‘let me observe the world through these characters’. And that is very difficult. You have to be very disciplined because when you’re writing, you want to say something, but you know this character is not going to say it. But I really enjoyed the part where Adi [Ayyan’s son] goes to the institute, and he says that everything is far from everything else, there are birds in the sky...I really enjoyed writing that simplified version.

Did you notice any difference in the way you were interacting with people, when you were seriously writing the novel?

That’s very interesting. Writers are usually mercenary about the things they want to know, in terms of collecting information. When I was writing, I used to speak to people in the hope that they would tell me something interesting. And at other times, I would just want to be left alone. I’d be very irritated if someone reached out to me. And I’m sure some people must have been very confused - suddenly, I was reaching out to them, and another moment, I was truly irritated that they were trying to talk to me. So it was all very exploitative. Sometimes, I’d try to ask them what they liked about their favourite books and try and understand how they read. When you’re in the middle of a book, you do things like that.

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You spoke of defending our right as lay people to laugh at these men who take themselves so seriously. But your sympathy
seems to lie with the scientists.

Yeah, it is actually. But you know, Acharya himself is the weapon that we the lay people have. So in the book, it’s done partly by Ayyan Mani also. He does laugh at these guys, the way we would if we fully understood that world. But Acharya does it at a far more sophisticated level. Nobody can challenge his knowledge when he begins to question some of the fundamentals of modern physics.

What’s your personal theory with respect to aliens?

Ah. See, it’s pretty similar to Acharya’s, in that I feel we have to understand everything in a way that we feel very intellectual, in a very human way. Take robots. When we first tried to make them, we tried to make them look like humans, and they didn’t work too well. But when you look at robots, the ones that work in car assembly lines, they don’t look like humans at all. So we just went wrong the first time. Similarly, our whole question itself, ‘are there aliens?’ could turn out to be a very human question. If there’s life on Earth, it’s very easy to wonder if there’s organic life on other planets. I’m not rubbishing that thought, but I feel we are looking only at one aspect of the question.

After your book came out, the focus has been on your sense of humour, but a lot of the book isn’t satire. Are you worried that a chunk of it is being lost on an audience?

I hope not! As you rightly identified, I feel portions of it are satirical, but largely it is not. Satire is never the attempt of the author. It is usually the reaction of the reader. And so in terms of humour, I knew that people might perceive it as a somewhat funny novel. But I do not believe that it is a comic novel. So when some reviewers say part of the novel is farcical, I find it a bit offensive because I tried to keep it as real as possible. It is a compliment if someone likes the humour. But the story by itself or the aspiration of the novel, in that sense, is not only to be funny. 

What about your second book? Is it a sequel?

No, not at all, not at all. In fact, it’s set in 1985 in Madras. See, in a very vain way, I’m very secretive about what I do, because it’s in the formative stage for now. So I won’t talk about it too much right now.

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