In Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous (Myriad, £8.99) a building collapses in Mumbai. In the debris is a man who is mumbling something in delirium. He can only be saved by the ferociously quick-witted Miss Iyer, who spends most of her time punctuating the vanities of the great and good in video pranks but is small and lithe enough to reach him, bringing back information that triggers a terrorist hunt. Joseph shows himself to be a real-life Miss Iyer in this funny, unconventional thriller.
How did the idea for the novel form in your mind?
Many things happen before a novel is formed. I had this thing in my head that I could not get rid of. It was something I carried from about 18 years ago when I was 25 and covered a major earthquake for a magazine. The vision was of a man in the debris of a building mumbling something. I did see such a man and I have always wondered what was the man mumbling when this huge slab of concrete was on his chest. Was he saying something about a girl, or was he apologising for something? I have always wondered, what if he was giving away a secret? A lot of other things, too, were going on in my head.
I was increasingly beginning to wonder if “the good guys” were really good. I knew they said all the right things during panel discussions and in TV studios and in their op-eds but I thought, why did they always lose? In India if you are the guardian of the “weak” and you keep losing the battles between so-called evil and presumed good, it is extremely dangerous. Losing can be a matter of life and death. When you start questioning why the good guys lose, and if you do not have an ideology of your own, especially the cute “I’m a noble writer” bullshit, you begin to find very, very complex answers.
So I set out to write a chase thriller in the background of the under-appreciated question – why are “the good” in a third-world country such duds when so much is dependent on them?
You’ve resisted the label “satirist” in the past. Is that because you want readers to have more engagement with your characters?
I feel most labels are convenient but don’t make complete sense. Also, I dread the expectation of humour in my audience, any audience, especially children in my colony but generally adults too. That is so doomed, you know, for people to expect you to say something funny – usually then you don’t appear funny. I have always found Obama and Coetzee funnier than most stand-up comedians – because humour is in the element of surprise. You don’t say “I am going to be funny” and be very successful in that. Also, more important, as a writer I wish to capture reality, even in my novels – and “satire” has a sense of exaggeration which I do not like. Writing India needs no exaggeration. It is totally weird the way it is. In fact it is hard for novelists or even stand-up comedians to compete with Indian reality.
There’s a prankster at the heart of the novel and everyone’s in her sights. If both the left and right of politics are responsible for India’s problems, is there hope from elsewhere?
There is hope only in economic progress. People will always have problems, they will find problems. The job of society is to ensure that the problems are frivolous. That is the success of a nation – if you can make problems frivolous. The day an Indian cop rushes out to save a cat from a tree and not to take a burnt little girl to hospital – that is the day I want.
Right now all the ideologues are dangerous – both the patriotic guys, the new lovers of Hinduism and the noble sophisticates who are imitating some dead European intellectual. All of them are in it for petty reasons that are impeding great economic progress. We first need to prosper, which may not be always very aesthetic, but we need that phase; the rest will follow.
The reader can see Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in one of the characters and part of the plot possibly echoes the killing of terrorist suspect Ishrat Jahan by security forces. What does the novel allow you to do that reporting can’t?
Reporting is limited to facts – a novel can go into truth. Facts need to be substantiated, truth usually can never be. A substantiation is a lot like argument – it is a reverse engineering of instinct, which is what truth usually is. That is why a novel can be very complex even though it tells a simple story. It goes to places journalism is not allowed to go.
You write that there are “faces only an Indian can make”. What makes those faces unique?
Situations. This whole nation is a video game – that’s what makes those faces. If you are walking in the middle of the road and are stunned by an approaching vehicle – that’s a face you can make only here. That surprise on the face at the most logical outcome of our actions, that’s so Indian.
“Most of reading is probably a mere selfie,” muses one of your characters. What is it that makes the best fiction universal?
The universality of our vanity – we keep searching for ourselves in stories or maybe we don’t search but we find ourselves anyway. That’s so important to literature, so corrupt but important.
Coming up with rules for a recent writing competition, you said talking animals should not be allowed. What have you got against magic realism?
One of my favourite writers is Gabriel Garcia Márquez – but I really don’t believe that he practised what is called magic realism. He was raised by villagers, by old women, and when you recount historic memory without the condescension of interpretation it will be, like the science of an advanced future civilisation, indistinguishable from magic. When Macondo, the fictitious village at the heart of the novel, is struck by a deadly insomnia plague, it causes the inhabitants to lose their memory. In 1975, a few years after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, neurologists formally recognised a form of dementia – semantic dementia – remarkably similar to the disorder in this apparent magic realism. Without such layers I find magic realism a bit lazy. Also, there is a problem – if a monkey can talk or a hippopotamus can fly, what is left for the story to say? What can be more important than a talking monkey or a flying hippo?