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Manu Joseph

Biography

Manu Joseph (°1974) is a journalist and editor of “Open” magazine. He has been the features editor of The Times of India and has written for The Independent and Wired. Joseph was born in Kottayam, Kerala and grew up in Chennai where he graduated in literature from Loyola College. He is the author of Serious Men and The Illicit Happiness of Other People two darkly comic takes on domestic life and society in southern India. Joseph currently lives in Delhi.

From November 18th until December 2nd 2013, Manu Joseph was writer-in-residence at Passa Porta. The international house of literature invited him for a literary stay in the heart of Brussels.

http://www.manujoseph.com/

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Authors' text

A Continental Divide Seen From India

NEW DELHI - Where is the gloom? That is a question asked by Indians who have passed through Europe in recent months, including this reporter. Where are the newly impoverished white people meandering pensively through a bleak economy? Europe, at least in the eyes of an Indian visitor, is filled with joyous people who look expensive. They are in fine winter clothes and shopping for more, in crowds that are crowds even by Indian standards, and spilling out of pubs into illuminated cobblestone streets, laughing, singing, dancing and kissing in the middle of sentences. All this not just in the tourist districts, or merely in this holiday season. If this is gloom, Indians will vote for gloom.

For decades, long before the inane "happiness index" was invented by intellectuals who wanted to rebuke consumerism's inadequacies, Indians convinced themselves that they had a cultural monopoly on joy and that the affluent West, at its very core, was tragic and lost - a myth that was often reaffirmed by the sight of melancholic whites in light clothes wandering around India searching for something, truth and meaning, perhaps. This fable was transmitted through all the main lines of Indian culture, including the imparted wisdom of parents, religious gurus and films. Yet what Indians see in Europe, in plain sight, is a form of street joy that is unattainable to Indian society as of yet.

The Indian poet and novelist Jeet Thayil found present-day Paris joyous. Its scenes of "excess" reminded him, he told me, "of New York City in the '70s." The Indian diplomat and writer Vikas Swarup, on whose novel the film "Slumdog Millionaire" was based, described Europe's joy as a "dull pleasantness" - dull because Europe's way of life is laced with the fear of economic uncertainty.

Beneath the surface charms of Europe's great cities, its people say, there is fear. Idesbald Goddeeris, an associate professor of history at the University of Leuven in Belgium, told me that Europeans "are beginning to accept that their lives are going to be poorer than they had imagined." The young speak of a phenomenon that is very familiar to the Indian middle class: Their parents are pitching in with financial assistance. "No way I can even get a loan to buy a flat without my parents' help," said Anne Janssen, who works for a literary foundation called Passa Porta in Brussels.

Europe, no doubt, is passing through hard times. But the standards of Indians, especially in economic matters, are too different for them to be moved by this.

What they are deeply affected by, rather, are the living reminders of Europe's great antiquity - the almost relentless force of extraordinary architectural beauty, not only in the hundreds of monuments but in the thousands of lesser buildings that line the streets. India might be ancient, but its visible, tangible antiquity has been largely, if not completely, erased. Most of what has survived and what is dominant reflects the bravado of its conquerors.

No surprise, then, that one of Europe's largest arts festivals - the biennial Europalia, which is underway in Belgium and has India as its theme - has very little to say about Indian architecture before the 16th-century Mughals.

At one of the festival's exhibitions in Brussels, a guide explained an aspect of India to a large group of interested Belgians, casting a nervous glance on an Indian passing by as if she feared that any moment he was going to scream, "You're completely wrong!" The exhibition was, among other things, a history of Europe's efforts to understand and absorb India.

The Continent continues to grapple with this difficult task. In Utrecht, in the Netherlands, a Dutch band that claimed to be inspired by "Bollywood music" played several Dutch songs. I waited for the Bollywood part, which never arrived. Later, I went backstage to challenge the band, but its members insisted that what they had played was a type of Hindi film music. Can it be that a whole musical genre is a matter of cultural opinion?

 

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Passa Porta
18.11.13 > 2.12.13

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