The anger and angst of the poor is an important theme in fiction. Author Manu Joseph’s 2010 novel Serious Men, however, casts a more nuanced spin on the subject as it sets out to tell the story of a Dalit man who lies about his 10-year-old son being a math genius. Ten years after it first released, the novel has been adapted to a film, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, that releases today on Netflix. Joseph revisits the time he wrote Serious Men and how it’s aged over the years.
Why was the idea of an underprivileged man’s anger towards a rich man appealing to you?
Stories of famous men who claim to have arrived in Bombay with “ten rupees in my pocket” always amuse me. They are such a sham. Money is not what you have in your pocket; money is often what your family has in the bank and your social network which is worth crores. Now, I find the “ten-rupees-in-my-pocket” farce amusing, but when I was younger it would make me angry. Maybe because I really was poor and even Medha Patkar would have called me poor. What happened was when I was growing up in Madras, my family slipped from middle-class to poor, and I had to be entirely financially independent from the age of 19. So, I have no romanticism of poverty. The grouse of the poor against the rich, especially the posh, is the most underrated force in society and the only political influence there ever is. It is something that the always-rich, how much ever be their pretence of “empathy”, do not understand.
The voice of the central character in Serious Men emerges from this grouse, which has its own comedy to it, a bit like the comic inner tone of most Indian women about their husbands. If you capture only the grouse, then it is bitter. And bitter is dull. One needs to capture the grouse with all its fibre; then, what is bitter is also hilarious.
You maintain that the character of the head of the institute, a Brahmin, remains closer to you…
I like the idea of a scientist-philosopher as much as I distrust a non-scientific philosopher. I think science is philosophy for happy people. That is why I created the scientist in Serious Men, who is a man who questions the biggest nonsense of the scientific age – the big bang theory. There is a lot of nonsense in science too and I find scientists who challenge their own sacred laws a lot of fun. Ever since the book was released, half a dozen filmmakers have considered it for cinema but none of them knew how to bring that scientist to life.
You’ve often said that you envisioned this story as a film first. Why?
I never set out to write a story. I write a novel because there is an idea that I wish to tell you about, and show you some characters. In fact, I don’t even know what a story is except that a story is not an event; a story is an interesting event. Everything about a story is unnatural – take the end, what is an end? Take the way a narrator tells the story – who, in real life, speaks like that – you don’t walk down a corridor thinking, “I am flanked by jaundice-yellow walls and the doors to so many miserable lives.” But I need a story because I need you. So, I write a story to win the right to state things that I fear you may not be interested in. A story is the way I reach out to you to ask for your time. And the structure of the screenplay is good to build a story, to keep you in control, and humble, which is useful, and to ensure that you are not all over the place or full of yourself.
Ten years down the line, how has the novel aged?
This is a very fascinating question. When Serious Men was being filmed in BDD chawls in central Mumbai, where the novel is set, I was a bit embarrassed. The chawls, which were once vertical slums, have changed. They are still miserable but most rooms have air-conditioners and many tenants have cars. So, most of my descriptions about the chawls are already a matter of only historical record. Also, there is a part in the novel where a woman in the chawl experiments and decides to wear a skirt, and there are so many eyes and glares on her, she quickly goes back home and changes into salwar-kurta. This happened in the chawl where I used to live. But now the girls are all in shorts, and a skirt is no big deal. The setting of Serious Men is not a slum anymore; it has become the new middle class.
As a writer, what has this period of social isolation taught you?
That I like people more than I ever accepted to myself; that I like the fact that they are the background hum of life. That is the fate of every Indian, I think – we are so used to a whole crowd of human life at most times, we are distraught without them even if they are just backdrop. I can spend an enormous amount of time by myself, but I need to see and hear people going about their lives, without bothering me much.