For a book that hinges on the suicide of a teenager, The Illicit Happiness of Other People leaves you with a fuzzy feeling of well being.
Manu Joseph’s fictional world is filled with people who are anything but normal: a father who drinks himself senseless. A mother who talks to the wall. A son who committed suicide and another who is convinced he’s a loser. Friends and family are described as nutty at best and corpse at worst. But instead of depressing us by droning on about their lives, Joseph uses sharp, dry humour and tweaks their flaws to reflect on the society.
What a riot he has in the process. So Mariamma Chacko goes ‘crazy’ every now and then. But when she snaps out of her reverie, she offers you tongue-in-cheek comments on subjects ranging from socialism to nosey neighbours. Ousep Chacko may be a drunk and a disgrace, but that a brilliant man could turn into such a spectacle is itself a case in point to the selective breeding that our society resorts to now. Thoma Chacko, the loser, stands testimony to the skewed priorities of the educational system. And, Unni Chacko, the brilliant dead son, who literally haunts the reader, is the one who leads us to the core of the book.
It actually doesn’t take us long to realise that the thread that runs through the story – almost invisible initially – is sexual abuse. Joseph approaches it matter of factly. By beginning with things that we, the products of a society, take for granted. By describing women who had to arm themselves with ingenuity in crowded places to tackle the ‘enemy’. He talks about the cruelty adolescent boys are capable of. Slowly he thickens the plot. We arrive at Mariamma. And we arrive at nameless women who endure. We arrive at this brilliant character called Unni Chacko, who believes – until he dies that it is – that happiness is inescapable.
How easy it is to believe that! Especially when you realise that a family as dysfuncional as Chackos could laugh at anything – at themselves, at people around them. If Thoma and Ousep provide the moments unintentionally, Mariamma does it wearily, almost giving into the burden of being a woman, but not quite. But either way, we get to laugh a lot.
Manu Joseph agrees that he deliberately ‘invented’ the scenarios to argue his case that happiness is inescapable. Perhaps, he is right: dark and gloomy things are easy to write about. Perhaps one needs more clarity to bring happiness out of sadness.
The plot of The Illicit Happiness of Others is easy to deduce. We know who the ‘corpse’ is before Joseph gets around to him. We also know what could have compelled Unni to jump, one chapter before it is revealed to us. Yet, we hardly feel cheated. For Joseph is not recounting a whodunnit.
Joseph sets about peeling layers of human intentions, searching for something nameless and elusive. His philosophy is easy to digest – perhaps because he is not serving them with a rigid monotony. He cloaks them in humour and science [and yes, you get to learn a lot about neural behavioural science]. When his Ousep Chacko resolves to keep looking – for that something nameless and elusive – even after pieces fall into place, we could somehow root for him in all earnest.