“In this world, it is very hard to escape happiness.”
Manu Joseph is better known as the man behind Open Magazine, and shines as an investigative journalist with his contribution to the expose of Nira Radia tapes as well as being quite boldly critical of a number of different political entities in India at a time when most of the journalists had begun leaning either side. Meanwhile he has also written some outstanding fiction, with this one being his second. I have not read his debut novel Serious Men and am eager to give it a read, but I have already begun to believe that The Illicit Happiness of Other People maybe his better work – more so due to its semi-autobiographical nature.
This review could easily turn out to be an elaborate rant about the mediocrity of other Indian authors that I have come across so far, but I shall try my best to keep from doing that.
The World of Delusions
“If two people believe in the same idea of truth, it is a delusion.”
The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in a world full of misinformed people, leading less than meaningful lives as if under a spell that periodically winds their clockwork. Everyone has a set routine, troubled past and a hopeful future – neither of which is accessible. And amidst them all is the pseudo-protagonist Unni Chacko.
Born to a Journalist and an Economics graduate hailing from Kerala and settled in Chennai, Unni is an eccentric boy of sixteen. As the story unfolds one learns a lot more about Unni and his perspective on a variety of issues such as life, death, truth and happiness – some often getting a little too deep for an angst laden sixteen year old brain. All this is revealed through the legacy of comic strips he has left behind.
That’s because Unni Chacko dies before the beginning of the story.
The crux of this novel can be condensed down to the story of the Chacko family surviving over the aftermath of their lost son as his father tries his best to investigate into the cause of it – something that seems to be a mystery to everyone. The more he searches, the more he uncovers about his son’s secret life – about his eccentric fellow cartoonists Alpha and Beta, about the diabolical Psycho and the mysterious Corpse, the more evidence he has against what he has originally set out looking for.
However, it would appear to be a little too negligent to summarise the story thus, since Manu Joseph packs this tale full of witty humour, not just of one character, but that of an entire neighbourhood in what metamorphoses into a psychological thriller in its latter pages.
This starts off with glimpses of the side of Unni that his parents were never aware of, and his journey through the dark corners of the city, or its people and of his own mind, which lead him to spurt out profoundly philosophical revelations at his mother on random mornings. Adding to this are the subtle psychological complexes rising to the fore when he learns about his mother being sexually attacked by a bully in her faraway hometown once upon a time.
A Story of Little, but Profound Pleasures
Under the framework of an investigative story, Manu Joseph has appropriately utilized the avenues to bring weave a conundrum in which different people view, understand and remember the same person, only to show how it still is insufficient, let alone being of any consequence.
Set in a dingy locality of Chennai in the 90’s, the Chacko family lives in a neighbourhood full of farcical middle-class families with the husband’s working a 9-5 job, wives cooking and gossiping and their sons cramming their way to the glorious IIT Joint Entrance Examination.
“The Boy will not be a failure. Mythili knows. She has seen the generations before. The boy will make it. As his father has said, he does not have the option of failure. He will crack at least one entrance exam, and he will one day have a nice house in a suburb of San Francisco, or in a suburb of a suburb of San Francisco. He will find a cute Tamil Brahmin wife and make her produce two sweet children. He will drive a Toyota Corolla to work. And there, in the conference room of his office, he will tell his small team, with his hands stretched wide in a managerial way, ‘We must think out of the box.’”
This twisted and tainted story of Ousep Chacko investigating the death of his son parallels with many others, which include that of Mariamma Chacko, his wife, surviving the loss and living a passive life despite being the singular driving force for the entire family. Besides, there is Thoma, Unni’s twelve year old brother struggling to make it in school and daydreaming about a future that is less hard on him as he spends most of his days embarrassing himself for no reason and looking back at memories of his own brother, wondering if that is all there was to him.
But melancholic as it may sound, one will be pleasantly surprised to stumble across all the little instances of happiness and playful adventures in the daily life of a seemingly miserable family every now and then. This includes Mariamma working part-time as a spy visiting Protestant churches under cover to report their happenings, the childlike innocent love of Thoma for the tame next-door girl Mythili, who has turned distant and taciturn since the day Unni died, and the drunk antics of Ousep every night as he returns home dissatisfied with his findings about what transpired before he lost his son.
Packing a multi-layered story about emotions and survival in a big city with society-dictated meaning of life, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is wonderfully constructed without making any compromise on fronts of language in the process of turning the story more accessible to a larger audience. Now that’s something I have come to respect Manu Joseph for.
Besides, having born in a normal family (not very different from the one portrayed in the book, I presume), the author seems to have a clear idea about the brutality of life and how it goes far beyond romantic love or materialism. This clearly shows in his writing has he talks about a number of little beauties that surface without warning at any point in one’s day to day life filled with repetitive lexicons.
That said, the novel gets a little dry at times when the author seems to overdo this by beginning to micro-manage his characters only to guide their stories a little further ahead where another parallel with its stunning revelation takes over. While it may be a well-constructed arrangement of contrasting story lines, on the whole it becomes mildly taxing a read. However, the latter stages of the book more than compensate for its flat periods by wielding one major revelation after another, each of them heavily rooted in popular science and logical reason as Ousep and his family finally understand the reason they lost their dear son.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph is an outstanding piece of literature and I daresay a must read as it contains a variety of well-defined characters that almost anyone would empathize with at various points in time. Adding to it is the final twist that justifies all of the strange pieces of philosophy spoken and expressed by its pseudo-protagonist Unni Chacko.
I believe the time has come to stop giving any form of concession to Indian authors with regards to their mediocrity of story premises and language and for the same reason, this gem that Manu Joseph has come out with suffers a few cracks here and there. But on the whole, it does fare pretty well and deserves a good amount of lauding. It may well not be the best you’ve ever read, but you’ll find yourself reminiscing little things from the story every now and then when you go about your life.