The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Rs 499 pp 343
It’s been a while since you’ve read a book through in a single sitting. Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, the story of a damaged Malayali Catholic family living in a Madras housing colony dominated by Tamil Brahmins with orderly lives, “the cuckoos among the crows” was gripping enough for you to skip work. You spend the day closeted with the Chackos – the alcoholic father Ousep, the unhinged mother Mariamma and 12-year-old Thoma – figuring out what the family’s older son, 17-year-old Unni, a gifted cartoonist, did and why.
“I’ve explored the idea of being a man as a psychiatric condition,” Joseph says when you meet him at the office of Open magazine, of which he is the editor. The exploration led him to weave together the theme of the quest for meaning, the suffocation of Pre-liberalisation India, that hopeless time when an engineering degree and an escape to the US was the only acceptable dream for young men from a certain middle class milieu, and the everyday cruelties inflicted on Indian girls, to create this never-coming-of-age novel set in 1990. Despite the exploration of nihilism, of concepts in psychiatry and spiritualism, and the acute social commentary, the story, which Joseph reveals grew out of his own experience and that of people he knew intimately, never meanders.
“It’s largely biographical and somewhat autobiographical,” he says admitting he was initially “too shy to write it”. “But after Serious Men (his first book), I understood that you derive your most powerful stories from things you know very well. It was inevitable that I would tell this story,” he says reminiscing about his teens when he was part of a group of boys much like the trio in the book.
“We believed that everybody is actually sleeping and that we needed to wake them up,” Joseph says suggesting that some who ponder too hard about the ultimate pointlessness of existence never escape the mental minefields of adolescence. “One of my friends didn’t make it through. I learnt after I went to Mumbai that he jumped off the terrace. Everyone said he fell while trying to save a dog but I know he jumped because, years before, he had told me he would,” says the author who maintains that though his friend was an undiagnosed bipolar personality he was “the most sane person I’ve ever known”.
This is primarily a story well told through unforgettable characters and Joseph is right in referring to it as a “mystery novel”. Indeed, there is much psychological mystery and the involved reader finds herself as baffled at Unni’s actions as his father, the remarkable Ousep Chacko, banished journalist, failed writer and noisy drunk who has “gone too far the Malayalee way”.
Some of the best lines of the book are devoted to Ousep, through whom Joseph captures a whole generation of literary Malayalee men:
“In time, Ousep stops loving home, he becomes the other men, men who sink into the company of other men, the veteran husbands, men who drink late into the night with their friends, men with frail thighs who have never played football but talk about football, and at other times about the superiority of Marx over Keynes, and about the unattainable prose of the new Spanish writers”.
This is an astonishingly accurate paragraph and Ousep grows more real even as you recognise him as the representative of a type.
“I had to work very hard on Ousep. Actually everything was so hard. It was hard to write this novel and there were parts when I told myself never to attempt anything like this again,” Joseph says.
Readers craving authentic voices in Indian English fiction will hope he endures that hardship many more times.