The Telegraph
Friday , November 16 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Illicit Happiness of Other People
By Manu Joseph,
Fourth Estate, Rs 499

This is a darkly comic novel that will break grounds and make one forget the problems at hand. The reputation of Manu Joseph as a writer, whose debut novel was Serious Men, will be kept intact by this book. The novel is about a small family in the Madras of the 1990s. The family consists of Ousep Chacko, his wife, Mariamma and their sons, Unni and Thoma. Mariamma hates Ousep and secretly wishes him dead. The school boy, Thoma, bears his family members’ diatribe without any grudge. The novel begins with descriptions of Unni’s cartoons that are so important to him, to his father and, ultimately, to the readers. Unni, a bright young boy, is dead when the story begins. Three years after his death, his father has set out to know all about him from his friends and others who had known him, in order to know the secret of his death. Ousep wants to know “why he did what he did”, which refers to his suicide. No character uses the word, ‘suicide’.

If Unni draws cartoons in order to make sense of the confused and complex world around him, Ousep, a journalist and failed novelist, tries to create meaning out of his meaningless existence without Unni. His thoughts one evening, when he returns home drunk, are about “searching for meaning, searching for an answer”.

Certain questions come to mind after one finishes reading the story and one gropes for answers. What is the novel trying to talk about? Is it only about a small family in Madras that has lost a son and where the father is searching for an answer about the untimely death? Or is it about the confusion of the characters while they try like mad men to transfer their delusions to others? Or is it about Unni and the other boys trying to search for truth beyond the apparent reality of life? No single answer can be arrived at. However, the novel is certainly not only about other people’s “illicit happiness”. It is about much more. “The worst thing that can happen to a person,” says Unni to Thoma in the middle of the novel, “is a tragedy that is also funny.” Maybe it is a tragedy that borders on the comic — or vice versa — and an image of our complex existence.

All the characters in the novel are ordinary people, engaged in their humdrum lives, struggling with their aspirations and frustrations. The novel is written in simple, unadorned and understated prose. It explores the extraordinariness of the ordinary things in life. There is also something that is not normal about the characters, though they are all loveable to say the least. “Be normal,” Thoma once tells his mother, “be absolutely normal.” The whole family is somehow strange and, thus, not much liked by the neighbours. Mariamma must be a lonely mother, having lost her first child. But neither of the parents mourns or cries at Unni’s funeral. Mariamma talks to herself in the kitchen, shaking a finger at the ceiling. Ousep returns home at night — drunk and abusing his neighbours. He smokes two cigarettes together. He hides Unni’s comic sketches inside the back of a radio so that they escape Mariamma’s attention. Unni sees strange things and, even as a teenager, is in search of the truth about life. He commits suicide at an age when other boys in the novel dream of careers and establishing themselves abroad. Thoma Chacko is always being humiliated, be it at home, school or the barber’s shop. The novel explores the normality of the abnormal behaviour of its characters.

There is something dark about the novel that reminds one of the dark comedies in English Literature. While the Chacko family looks at the body of Unni, Mariamma shakes a finger and all of them wait for the boy to get up and walk. This is not exactly a normal response to the situation. There are other similar scenes in the novel, including the one in which some boys start throwing stones at a stray dog till it whines and cries. Or the scene in which Unni talks to Mythili about the innumerable syllables that the French do not pronounce and his idea of the neuropsychiatric phenomenon of the mad man transferring his delusion to another. Thoma feels sorrow move in his throat like a ball, and yet finds it enjoyable. These are mystical experiences for the characters who are trying to find meaning. However, all is not dark; this is a narrative that speaks of the happiness of others’ lives. Unni’s hypothesis about happiness is expressed in the later part of the book. Happiness is inevitable; it is “an inescapable fate, not a pursuit.” There are some hilarious events — humorous and even witty — that one will remember long after reading the last page. The novelist may be suggesting that happiness lies somewhere between the ups and downs of life.

What one gets in the novel is a slow caricature of men and women, girls and boys, who could be found anywhere in India. Joseph sketches them with zest, adding an element of exaggeration to each. Unni draws cartoons, and Joseph (Ousep does sound like Joseph) portrays his characters as caricatures in different vignettes so that some meaning, which may or may not have any bearing on the storyline, can emerge out of the portraits. It is not the story that matters; that could be finished in a few pages. Instead, the descriptions of the smallest things that take place in a person’s life are of interest — the incidents that one sees but does not observe. The passing of a smile or the movement of a finger, which can mean so much, are elements with which the novelist builds his bridges to reach out to the readers.

Joseph is a good observer of life — especially the manners of people — and can write about them with ease. The novel is a peek at social life from a different angle altogether. It is a satire on human life and manners that one will enjoy as one turns the pages, a book that will be remembered by anyone who reads it.