Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
Manu Joseph, author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, succeeds in creating conflict and grabbing your attention with his opening line itself, when he says, ‘Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.’ Who could resist an opening line like that?
And so we get sucked into the very ordinary, shame- and poverty-ridden lives of the Chackos, journalist father Ousep, housewife mother Mariamma and younger son Thoma. Before long, we become aware that the family is incomplete, that the family will never be complete again. Because 17-year-old Unni, the pride of his father and the joy and confidante of his mother, when she isn’t talking to the walls, has fallen head first from the balcony of their third floor flat.
When the novel begins, we meet the Chackos three years after the death of Unni. Ousep has just received a package containing the last cartoon that his son made. The package re-ignites his search for answers to the mystery of why his son died.
While Mariamma resigns herself to life, or a pretence of it, Ousep is unable to do so. He cannot bring himself to go on with his life until he figures out the reason for his suicide. In order to do so, he relentlessly tracks down every friend and acquaintance of his son, to see what they knew of him and to piece his life together and figure out what prompted him to take this extreme step.
Slowly we come to know Unni through the eyes of his friends, neighbours, classmates, the members of a cartooning society, Mythili, a beautiful girl who was friends with both Unni and Thoma, a sadistic teacher, and most of all, through his comics. We come to know of a boy who should not have died, a brilliance that ought to have continued to illuminate.
For the major part, Unni seems like a great guy, as seen through the eyes of his classmates and the boys he used to hang around with. Halfway through the story, however, Balki, a genius and friend of Unni, reveals his memories of Unni and a distinctly darker picture of Unni emerges. A 15-year-old boy who wandered the streets late at night to see the underbelly of Madras, sometimes returning home only at dawn. A mere boy of 15. The age of innocence and of knowing. The age of coming to know.
It gives one an unsettled feeling, as layers emerge to reveal facets of Unni that might not seem so appealing in broad daylight and to people of a middle-class mindset. Do I belong to that mindset? Unni does and yet he doesn’t.
Unlike in novels and films, where witnesses being questioned always reveal valuable information that serves to lift the curtain on a secret, here the many people that Ousep interviews only remember random bits of information that are trivial in themselves and serve no purpose when considered as a whole.
As Ousep’s investigation goes on, it becomes clear that the Chackos are no longer a welcome part of the housing complex in which they reside. The father’s drunkenness, the mother’s insanity and the family’s poverty have done it. And then Unni’s suicide.
The story is set in 1990, a time in which Mikhail Gorbachev was elected the executive president of the Soviet Union. Words like perestroika, GATT take us straight back into the 1990s.
Joseph is a great observer and here he captures the nuances that make us smile expansively. The scooter drivers sitting at the edge of the front seat, for example.
His descriptions make us think of everyday things that we take for granted, stuff that does not merit any attention from our conscious minds. Ordinariness of life filled with pressure cooker whistles and school going children and husbands leaving for work every morning. Children memorizing their lessons. All staid and commonplace.
It is the turns of phrases that are the most interesting, that invite you to go back and read a sentence or a paragraph over and over again. ‘The past of an old man.’ ‘The good boy hairstyle.’ ‘How strong the legs of dumb parents, how strong.’
The milieu of the Malayali Catholic family is unmistakable. But Joseph never gives us a description of the three living Chackos. The only description we get is that of Unni.
The writing it was that I found most refreshing, shorn of all pretensions to literariness. And yet there were times, so many of them, when I read a sentence more than once.
The narrative does not follow a linear style. So we zigzag our way through the lives of Ousep and Mariamma and reach the past and go back and forth time and again. The backgrounds of the grieving parents help us to understand why they have become the kind of people they are.
For the most part, the novel is dark, understandably so considering that it is a bereaved father’s search for the reasons behind his son’s suicide. But when the sub-plot introduces Thoma, the story becomes truly comical, causing you to laugh out loud. This is a dark book with so many shades of lightness in it.
Joseph paints a vivid picture of the ordinariness of life, of the inevitable sameness of our behaviour, and how we treat death, others’ deaths, others’ sorrow as a spectacle.
Bearing the stamp of reality, it is hard to imagine this story as having a beginning, a middle or an end. Characters casually walk across these pages like unimportant side-actors who must speak their lines and disappear. And above it all, the voice of the omniscient narrator, as he watches over and recounts the life and times of the Chackos with an eye that is at once indulgent and satiric.
Eventually, Ousep does discover the reason why his son decided to kill himself. But the resolution of the mystery doesn’t come until the very end. A time, when we, like Ousep, are thoroughly exhausted by the dead ends that plague the investigation. We begin to feel for this alcoholic father and this crazy mother who resent the illicit happiness of other people.
The end leaves you more than a little unsettled. The resolution of the question that has haunted Ousep brings closure, but not of the soothing kind. It almost made me want to plod through the book again.
(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)