My favorite novelist would have called it fate’s sense of fitness, but for a while, I did not know that I was working in the same building in which the only Indian writer who had impressed me works in. Mr. Manu Joseph. Mr. Joseph edits the Open Magazine.
If there is anything I regret about my life, it is that my detractors were not very smart. My capitalistic detractor never touched my masterpieces. But, the concept of private property was alien to my anti-capitalistic detractors. They played with them like monkeys playing with a garland. But, what differentiates Mr. Joseph from my other detractors is that it would be an understatement to say that Mr. Joseph is capable of learning.
I do not want to deny that I have had reasonably smart detractors—like Mr. Maheshwer Peri, the publisher of the career Magazine I worked with. He once had fourteen magazines. But, after he bankrupted the Outlook Magazine group, he was left with a fourth-rate magazine edited by some imbeciles ejected from JNU. He is precisely the kind of man people of so-called intelligence would call a “philistine”.
In the first edit meet in which he was present, I remember him saying: “Rahul Dravid is a very interesting person. He said in an interview that his idea of relaxation is reading books. People like us relax by listening to music, or watching TV.” After saying “Reading books!”, he looked sideways, thoughtfully. Miss Doll made some noise in agreement, and others soon joined. After the meeting ended, I told Miss Michelle, a colleague I had slept with: “This was the only edit-meet in which I was not bored to death.” She replied with a sigh, “Sathyam—It is quite true.” The editors kicked out of JNU were worse.
Though I first read Manu Joseph with some prejudice, it would soon be clear to me that he is different from other Indian journalists. He is not an idiot. Mr. Joseph’ IQ is very high. A young friend once told me, “Indian journalists pretend to be intellectuals, but unlike them, he is intelligent.” Some of his journalistic pieces were breath-taking. There is a strong element of condescension in my liking for him, and Mr. Joseph knows it better than anyone, though he wouldn’t allow himself to state it. Mr. Joseph deserves an important place in my intellectual autobiography, but I will save that story for another day.
The underlying theme of many of his writings is the fundamental battle between exceptional men and the ordinary. Mr. Joseph is too lazy to read, but he likes to believe that he will make up for it with his intelligence. But, that is not true. Though you can never hear him saying that he is the best, if you listen to him for a few minutes, you can hear him repeatedly hinting at it. I suspect that he lifted many valuable concepts from the great novelist philosopher Ayn Rand, but we will leave it at that.
Mr. Joseph is pained by many evils that plague our society. His moral sensibilities are hurt by a particular man who repeats what he had read, and rants about the writers he admire, the economists he follow and the ideology he believes in. He wonders why people call “our” talented men India’s best and not the world’s best. In the middle of an interview he goes off topic and rants that academics are lousy, and that when you are just theorizing, “vast information” can be very hard to access. He believes in doing the right thing, irrespective of the consequences. Unlike many fashionable non-conformists, Joseph believes that there is something called morality. Yet, for some inexplicable reason he often mumbles: “I did not steal bananas from the temple!”
I should not laugh at others faces, but I digress.
When my career Magazine office moved to a new building, I did not know that Mr. Joseph’ office was a stone’s throw away from that of mine. One evening, when I was searching for an ATM machine, my head turned many times when I saw the board of the Open Magazine. I thought: “Ah, The Magazine edited by Mr. Joseph!” I walked to the guard, and asked him, “Is this the office of ‘Open Magazine’? He said, “Yes”. I said, “Thanks” and left.
One day, when an earth quake happened, everyone ran out of the building. Everyone was out of their offices, and I thought that this is the time to see Mr. Joseph. I went to the back side of my office hoping that my colleagues would not notice. He was there. I said, “Manu Joseph? I am in your Facebook list”, and was stuck for a while. His eyebrows moved upwards, and there was a strange expression in his eyes. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “Shanu.”. I was surprised because my profile picture was very old. It was taken when I was in baby class. We have rarely interacted.
I said that I work for a career magazine of the Outlook Group, which was in the same building of that of his office. He said, in a surprised tone, “That is part of the Outlook Group? Oh, Maheshwer Peri’s magazine. I had worked with the Outlook Magazine for a long time.”Open’s publisher too had worked for the Outlook Magazine for a long time. Mr. Joseph hadn’t heard that his ex-boss had shifted his office to the same building in which he works. But, he had heard that one of his thousands of Facebook friends has landed there. Something is amiss. When I asked him why he did not reply to an old pitch of mine, he claimed that he did. When I said, “No. You hadn’t”, he asked me to send in the pitch once again.
Mr. Joseph is also a novelist. He said cheerfully that his second novel is over. When he said, “Because my novel is over, things will go on very fast from now onwards.”, I stood there wondering: “Oh, so things were going at a snail’s pace till now. I am truly grateful to hear this.” I saw him moving his hand from top to bottom and saying with a smug smile, “It is done. It is all over.” But, I knew that he was not being lame.
Later, many others would tell me: “I do not know why they still have not shut that damn thing down. No one buys that Magazine.” I suddenly made the connection with what Mr. Joseph had said, with a hint of pride in his eyes. He is a full time novelist and a part time editor. I have never kept track of Newspaper and Magazine sales. I had never read the Open Magazine before. The sad truth is that the ‘Open Magazine’ does not sell. No one buys Mr. Joseph’s darling magazine. Our Joseph is very defensive about it. The first question he asked me was “Do you read my Magazine?” I remember a video in which Mr. Joseph was telling one lady like a petulant child: “A lot many people read my Magazine”. Madhu Trehan looked at him, amused, as if she was wondering: “Dude, you got to be kidding!” When Miss Trehan consoled him saying that some day the frauds in Delhi will be found out, Mr.Joseph said with tears in his eyes: “That is good if that is true. In Delhi, you have to talk. That is nice.”
I sent in the pitch. He took five days to approve the pitch. His tone was unbearably polite. In the real world, he could recall my name without prompting, but on email, he purposefully misspelled my name twice, as ‘Shani’. This was where Mr. Joseph messed up. His intention was to prove that he does not really know me. But, if he had not misspelled my name twice, I would not have known that it was intentional. Our Joseph thinks that he is very clever, but that is a delusion. I promised to file the story in two weeks.
A week before, I was having a bitter clash with an editor, Mr. Brilliant who inserted a misleading blurb into an article of mine. Mr. Brilliant used a statement from an UN report I had criticized as the blurb. When I took them to task in front of everyone, the proof reader argued that the blurb was put in quotes, and that there was no such intention. I rejected the changes, and sent an email marking the mistakes he made in that month’s issue to everyone in the Magazine, including the publisher. I treated Mr. Brilliant like I would treat an AIDS patient in front of the girls in the office.
When I reported this to the editor-in-chief, Mr. Marx, he said that he will ensure that I will get a final copy of the articles. Mr. Marx happens to be a friend of the Open Magazine’s publisher. I do not know how it is framed, but when I see him, I am reminded of an old song: “Is the man on the golden throne a dog or a fool?” He said, “It is Journalistic ethics.” in a pretentious tone, expressing shock over what had happened.
In the two weeks in which I was working on the story, my Magazine gave me much of the writing for their Anniversary issue. I did much of the writing for their sister publication too. I barely slept in those days. Miss Touch-Me-Not is a clever cookie I had worked with in the magazine. In between, Miss “Touch Me Not” came and said that I am given much of the work for the Anniversary issue because my writing skills are excellent. “It is obvious”, she said pretending strength of conviction. One day I noticed that someone had broken into my office computer in the night.
When Miss “Touch Me Not” asked me: “What is your next article on?” I said with a smile, “Fraud and Folly. It is about my experiences with fraud and folly. The wonderful thing about Delhi is that one day you come across an embezzler, and the next day you get to know that you were dating a harlot. It is incredibly amusing. It is all writing material.”She replied, “I know what you mean.” I said, “You are a clever cookie. You know everything.” She said, “I know things that are obvious to everyone.” Being someone who is not good at watching one’s words, she once blurted out that that there is “too much corruption” in B-School surveys. When I asked her to elucidate, she cleverly evaded that question.
The day I finished my essay, Miss “Touch Me Not” came in and said that Mr. Joseph is standing in front of the office. I went downstairs and said that I have finished the essay. He asked: “When will you send it?” He was also keen to know at what time I will send it. I said that I will send it to him in three hours or so. The next day, when I looked at the production schedule, none of my articles were there. I shouted at them and walked out. I had lost my keys when I reached my apartment. There was no energy left inside me for anything. There was a deep pain in my chest. Later, I would gather that Manu Joseph was a playing with my editors.
The next day, Miss Touch Me Not’s status read: “Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana.”I would not hear from Mr. Joseph for thirteen days. The day after I had finished off my workplace responsibilities, I got a reply from Joseph: “There is not much that can be said about why a piece does not fit into a magazine. Your prose is brisk, honest and very clean, but it is also very academic and somewhat dense in places.” When I asked him whether it will be accepted if I thoroughly rework the piece, he said that he will be happy to read the final draft if I can forego naming people.
In the next 14 days, I thoroughly reworked the piece. By the time I ended the piece, I had an infection which lasted five months. In the next twelve days, I wrote a twenty-four page essay on my office experiences which was shared on Facebook 400 times in less than three days: “A Confederacy of Dunces”. By then, I have been writing for fifty days straight without any break. My body weight dropped radically, and my eyes became blurred. I wondered whether someone in the office had poisoned me.
The next day, Miss Touch Me Not had a status: “Why do people want to make fun of others and add to their misery”. Later, she had a status: “Liars are the biggest losers ever”. She hoped that the fact that I tell some white lies would make her look better in comparison. I told her that I understand that she has a family to feed. Yes, there are compromises to make. And then I saw her whining on her Facebook wall about people who are “not nice”. These people have no self-knowledge.
Mr. Maheshwer Peri too had an update I “liked”: “I might fight with my siblings, but if you ever lay your hand on them, you will be facing me.” I wrote back: “I hope that this boy did not hurt you in any obvious manner.”
When I wondered what Mr. Maheshwer Peri’s role could be in all this, I remembered an old update of mine:
“When organizations delay my salary, I do not hesitate to tell them: I know that you are having financial difficulties, but if you are so hard up, who don’t you send in your wife for a night’s comfort?”
Later, I would notice that Mr. Maheshwer Peri’s wife Lakshmi Peri had eaten much of my Tax money. Ah, one day I should write a novel on the perils confronting middle-aged women under the pressure of poverty! When I questioned the editor, he started threatening my present job, and sent me a small amount of money. There is an epithet we often hurl at women who live by selling themselves, and it is a four-letter-word, but I am a gentleman, and a gentlemen never insults anyone unintentionally.
When I once saw Miss Touch Me Not near the temple in front of my apartment, she gave me a pained look. She was walking around like a lost puppy. She was driven out, presumably, for talking too much about Maheshwer Peri’s financial difficulties. The same day, her status read: “The older I grow the more I listen to people who don’t talk much.” I remembered the old saying: “Live by the sword, die by the sword”.
When I went for an interview later, I saw Miss “Touch Me Not” walking out of a room with an expression of shock on her face. “You have come here for an interview?” she asked me. She was working there. I was interviewed by a dim woman who asked me with a clever smile: “Did Miss Touch Me Not refer you? Why did you leave your last job? Oh, you had answered that question before. Ideological reasons.” When I sat there thinking “I can see you as if you are naked.” she said that they liked my writing sample, and that I will get a confirmation call the next day. I never heard from them again.
The day I forwarded my office rant to everyone in my mailing list, Mr. Joseph understood that this will go beyond his control. He wrote back: “I like this draft. An editor with the Open Magazine will soon be in touch with the play back.” I had given my story intended to smash my prime detractor a perfect ending by hurling a hidden insult at a think-tank guy for whom I had worked for two days: Mr. Govindraj Ethiraj.
I had written: “It is hardly surprising that well-connected “intellectuals” flock to Delhi, where it is far easier to snatch their fair share of the government pie. There is, of course, a reason why the word “Washington ability” entered our vocabulary. After leaving my job, one day, I got a call from a senior journalist who had a short stint with the Planning Commission. He was planning to start a think-tank in Delhi.” I do not read newspapers or Magazines, and when I got a job offer from him, I looked him up on Wikipedia.
More than a month after I filed the story, I got an email. But, it was not from an Open Magazine editor. It was from Mr. Govindraj Ethiraj himself. Mr. Govindraj asked naively: “I was just going through my old emails and conversations. How are you doing, and what are you up to these days?” I thought: “Now, here is someone who loves me! It appears that he still reads my blog.” I decided to press on: “I am doing great, though I am gainfully unemployed, after a battle with my malicious detractors.” He was delighted to hear the news, “Oh! Would you like to write / do some research assignment work for us?” I wrote back, “I am truly grateful to hear from you. I would have been happy to write at this phase, but our ideas evolve over the course of time. Even though I am still not (in principle) against writing for non-profits in general, I have some reservations and self-interested reasons to not do so in this case.”
I soon got his reply, “We are a not for profit. We are revenue focused, and not an NGO! I am curious to hear about your reservations. Is it based on some experiences?” I replied, “I had an experience with corruption, after which I left the job. It was at that phase you mailed me. Corruption shouldn’t be surprising, and I had known this aspect always. My views on the efficacy of the non-profit sector changed a bit after that, though in an important sense. I know economists who are against education, but work for universities, and economists who are against the non-profit industry, but have strong think tank affiliations. I think they have legitimate arguments for it too. It helps them, and it doesn’t leave anyone worse off. But, I have criticized some things to the extent that I have lost the right to do a lot many things.”
Mr. Ethiraj was persistent, “My belief is that “not for profit” should not be confused with “not for revenue”. Organizations like ours have a revenue model. We pay market based salaries for our economists. I do not believe that you can survive without a revenue model! Let me know what you would like to write on.”
It appears that he is desperate to have this eccentric college dropout as his economist. I did not to reply to this email. I thought, “Mr. Ethiraj, my masterpiece deserves a perfect ending.”
When I asked Mr. Joseph why no one had got in touch with me in five weeks, he said that he was surprised. I knew that he will never forget about the draft. The next day, an Elizabeth Kuruvilla with Open Magazine got in touch with me, in a hostile tone. She is their books editor. I suspect that the Open Magazine is a bit strapped for cash.
She said that “She has to admit that the only problem she found with my draft was that I was issuing an attack on all think-tanks based on my experiences with one.” She also asked whether I can name the people. I wondered why there is a complete lack of co-ordination, and a complete lack of personal responsibility in their actions.
A month later, she wrote back saying that she has finally decided to play safe, and not to name people. On phone, she sounded embarrassed, and had no valid explanation. She was clearly hiding something. I wondered why she asked me to name people, only to change the decision later. Later, I would understand that it was simply to frustrate me. The reason I like these women is that they have moral scruples when they take orders and take kicks in their shins. The night I reached Delhi, I saw the Magazine published, with a misleading blurb. She had wrongly replaced an expression of mine.
I had to spank her. I wrote in: “I just noticed that in the published version, the phrase “wiggle room” was replaced with “wriggle room”. (“When the masses hate a great idea, politicians do not have enough of a wiggle room.”) I meant that politicians cannot make many changes along policy margins. The phrase “wriggle room” though similar, has a broader meaning. It implies that politicians can otherwise defy their voters. This is not true. When it is used, writers often mean “wiggle room”. I think a correction can be made in the web version.”
The humiliated Joseph forwarded it to her, marking their managing editor, Rajesh Jha. It is not a coincidence that Mr. Joseph used this dude to screw me later. Mr. Joseph understands the code of our little people better than anyone.
A year back, I had noticed that my blog article on a writer has too many visitors from Twitter. The guy who plugged me was Mr. Dilip Cherian who said that it was great prose. His Wikipedia page says that he runs one of the largest PR firms in South Asia. Seven months later, when I added him on Facebook, he said that he does not remember me, but soon asked me whether I would like to write for his organization. I expressed interest wondering why he is so keen.
A week later, he wrote in: “Writing for the organization is a little nebulous still in my mind. It also crossed my mind to ask if “ghost writing” is a facility that you would consider. Usually on a brief. Sometimes for use in my name. Sometimes client names. I would like to know your rates.” I replied: “I have not given much thought to the ethical aspects of ghost writing, but I think it is not something I would consider. I had some apprehensions, though I did not have a clear idea of what it would be about. I apologize for the inconvenience, if any.” I did not hear from him after that.
When I asked Mr. Joseph whether I can write an essay on the development model of Kerala, he soon asked me to go ahead. When he received the draft, he suddenly forwarded it to his managing editor, Rajesh Jha, because he was “traveling” to promote his novel. A week later, his minion replied saying that my essay will go in the next issue and that they need a news bit because it is a newsweekly. I wondered whether the editors at the Open Magazine have suddenly become fast and efficient workers—Conscientious people. I connected the essay to a news bit, keeping it very short.
Two weeks later, his minion wrote back saying that a news bit on the controversial WSJ interview with Modi would be more relevant, and that he needs the final draft that evening. The news bit was on the development indicators of Gujarat, and Modi’s arguments in defense of his state’s development model.
The next day around noon, Mr. Ananthanarayanan Sandeep, the group editor of the media house run by Mr. Maheshwer Peri’s arch rival asked me on chat: “How is your English?” as if he had no idea. He asked me whether I would be interested in working with them, adding “With, of course, a promise that you will never ever write anything about the organization or any individual in it, either using real names or pseudonyms. You will have to ensure that stories are released with perfect English. The stories that you could get might be completely low class (They won’t be, but I am just putting the picture in front of you), and you will have to make sure that the English is perfect in each line. Later on, if you get interested, you could jump into reporting too. That is one reason you could perchance freelance during the first two months or so. We have our salary issues too; they get delayed (sometimes considerably).”
I said, “This sounds good. How is the remuneration like?” He replied, “There is no guarantee that you’ll get your salary on time. Will you get it? Of course. But it could be delayed-sometimes by almost a month. As a freelancer too your payments would be given after a month has gone. But of course, you will have freer time in your hands. You might be required to clear copies only two days of the week or so. Look, I am painting the worse picture so you do not have too many expectations when you join. Of course, the people you will work with are pretty nice and you will have a good experience interacting with them.”
I thought: “So, he knows how desperate I am. He also knows my thumbscrew.”, and pressed on, “I typically do not have issues with salary being delayed a bit as long as I can afford it. Because this is an editing job, I do not feel any ethical dilemma either. You have to see that I have worked with people completely lacking in common decency, and that my clashes had nothing to do with the pay cheque. I brought it up only when I was fed up with them.” He replied, “I know it. But, I have an ethical dilemma. I feel that you could be a liability to organizations despite your competence because of a combination of your writing skills and verbosity in documenting the characters at workplace. Your descriptions were stunning. Yet, any prospective employer would be cautious. Seriously, in good faith, do not do that here.”
He knows me too well. This would deprive me of my biggest source of amusement, but I do not mind that. I replied marking the conversation, adding one more mail to my horror file, “I still maintain that I am grateful to hear that competence matters to you. I know that I am obliged to honor my contracts, and that I am not obliged to write about the organizations I deal with. But, I think if somewhere down the line, I am ethically obliged to carry a story on your organization, having such a contract might severely restrict my independence. I am not into investigative journalism. I am not bent on exposing anyone, but, I think that I should give my best, and that I should consider such possibilities before asking a person to take me in good faith.” He wrote back saying: “You can apply to us when you decide not to write about us at all.”
I wondered: “Why is he so keen?” His replies came at a breath-taking pace. He was copy pasting the messages from somewhere. He had everything set in his mind. When I mentioned the unethical job offers I am getting, and wondered about it, he ended the conversation abruptly, saying that he will wait for my reply.
The moment I had finished writing this email, Mr. Joseph’s minion had written back saying that my essay is about to go to press”. Our minion had cut my favorite passages. I called him up and asked, “Why did you cut those passages? Is it possible that I can rewrite it retaining the word count. I can do it very fast.” He said: “It is just to draw in the readers. This is not a journal, but a newsweekly.”
I said, “Can you publish it retaining those passages. I can take a cut. You do not have to pay me for this.” He asked: “Why are you so emotionally attached to those passages?” I said, “I want it to begin in a particular manner. Do all articles have to be connected to a news bit? I am not sure that is the case.” I felt that he could not answer that question honestly. He said, “Think for two minutes. This will go to press this evening.” I said, “Fine”, and send in the draft. Something is better than nothing. I had lost interest in the whole thing.
Mr. Joseph wanted to keep his hands clean, and outsourced all the dirty jobs to his spineless subordinates.
I could soon connect everything that happened in the last six months. Mr. Joseph had leaked my draft. Every job offer I received had something in common: They all knew me and Mr. Joseph, but they all pretended not to. They were all taking a risk by offering me a job, but it did not deter them. There was a trap in every offer.
I sent an email asking Joseph to make changes, saying: “Any reader would say that the passages that were cut were the best passages. When my first essay’s draft was in progress (which took so long) the dude I had mentioned at the end of the essay got in touch with me offering me a job. By now, it is the third such job offer I am getting, and this is unprecedented in my life.”
I knew that if my assumption is right, Mr. Joseph would try to appease me, but still would not do what he was obliged to: To explain, or ask further. They soon made changes on the web, and for the first time, Mr.Joseph asked for further pitches. When Mr. Joseph started appeasing me, his minion ran away. I understood everything. I knew that I would not hear from him again. After I humiliated his subordinates, the Open Magazine was willing to pay me.
What happened was entirely predictable: When Mr. Joseph’s bosses ordered, he crawled, and when he ordered, his subordinates crawled. This is a good way to sum up a modern day office.
When I went for the launch of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People, Mr. Joseph came near me as if it was not intended, and said, pointing at a younger, but plain woman. “Shanu, this is Anu.” When I asked naively: “Oh, she writes for your Magazine?”, he looked at the floor, and said hiding the delight men who cannot have deserved their wives often have: “Shanu, it is very expensive for me to hire her for my Magazine. She is my wife.”
I did not laugh at his face. I felt sorry for her.
In one of those days, I heard him say in an interview, “I was always a very responsible person, you know.I have always aspired to be strong, and was always somewhat strong.”