Saturday, 8 September 2012
Book Review: “The Illicit Happiness of Other People” by Manu Joseph
Manu Joseph’s second novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People, treads a path very different from his first one, Serious Men, which had a Dalit protagonist battle a Brahmin boss, both of them employed at a research establishment in Mumbai. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in 1980s Chennai and involves the Chacko family, Keralite immigrants to the southern metropolis.
Unlike Serious Men which revolves around class/caste differences, The Illicit Happiness of Other People merely sets out to tell a story and does it very well. Very early in the book, we are told that on the 16th of May 1987, Unni Chacko, son of Ouseph and Mariamma Chacko, committed suicide. He was seventeen. His father Ouseph Chacko sets out to find why Unni jumped to this death and the novel starts three years after Unni’s death and moves backwards. Ouseph meets people whom Unni had known or met. A journalist working for the news agency UNI, an atheist and a drunkard, Ouseph’s main success lies in not behaving or even resembling his middle-class neighbours who he thinks are either bank clerks or have much in common with bank clerks. His wife Mariamma on the other hand is very religious and god-fearing. She also talks to herself. Unlike Ouseph and Mariamma’s chacracters which are very realistic, as is that of second son Thoma, Unni is a caricature. Unni is very good-looking and his thoughts and actions are not that of a higher-secondary school-going teenager. To top it all, he is a talented cartoonist. It is impossible to not like Unni.
Very early on in his life, Unni realises that he is different. Or rather, he starts believing that he is different. From then on, in addition to making cartoons which are acclaimed by many, Unni starts exploring his own mind. A precocious boy who learns to exercise his power over others, Unni carefully picks Somen Pillai and Sai Shankaran as his friends. Somen believes he is a corpse and Sai is in awe of Unni and Somen and lets them both experiment on him. The three teens have awesome adventures with Unni and Somen having all the fun, usually with Sai’s hair standing on end.
Unni is close to his mother Mariamma and is not exactly chummy with his father Ouseph. Yet when Unni dies, it is Ouseph who goes in search of the truth. Unni calls himself an atheist Hindu and yet he gets a Catholic burial at the Fatima Church. This despite the Church considering suicide to be a sin. As Ouseph searches for Unnni’s past, we get nuggests from Ouseph and Marriamma’s earlier lives as well. Ouseph used to be a popular journalist in Kerala, but was forced to migrate to Chennai after he broke the story of how a powerful archbishop in Kerala was also a paedophile. When Mariamma was twelve, she was molested by a local lad, Philippose. Philippose wasn’t the local goon. Rather he was the nice young man who read the Bible during the Sunday service, sang in the choir, organised boat races and was liked by all. One day Mariamma confides in Unni the trauma she underwent when she was young. Very soon Unni is on his way to Kerala to meet Philippose and confront him. Does Unni manage to meet Philippose? I’d rather not give that away.
Unni is a stud. Surrounded by classmates who are busy cramming for the IIT JEE and other exams, Unni immerses himself in his cartoons. The pretty girl next door Mythili Balasubramanium has fallen for Unni. Unni reminded me of this article written by Joseph many years ago about the designer Anand Jon. There are a few similarities in Joseph’s description of Anand Jon and his portrayal of Unni Chacko. Please read the novel and the article to find out more.
Towards the end, Ouseph Chacko has a long and very interesting discussion with Dr. Iyengar, a Neurosurgeon and Neuropsychiatrist, who runs the Schizophrenia Ward at a non-descript mental hospital. Dr. Iyengar has had dealings with Unni in the past and hence Ouseph’s interest in Dr. Iyengar. In the Acknowledgements section, Joseph tells us that he met with neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists as part of his research of this book and so I assume that interesting details of conditions such as Schizophrenia and the Cotard Delusion are factually correct. Through the words of Dr. Iyengar, Joseph tells us that Godmen are not conmen. Rather, Godmen actually believe what they say. When a Godman clains to be God or to have a connection to God, he actually believes it himself. Without such self-belief, a Godman would not be able to convince others of his powers. Please read Joseph’s interview of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for more of his views on Godmen.
There is a constant conflict between Joseph the story-teller and Joseph the satirist. At times Joseph the satirist gets carried away and one starts wondering where the story has disappeared to when Joseph the story-teller makes his appearance. In any event, Joseph’s trademark satire is reasonably entertaining and Joseph the story-teller holds the reader's attention till the end.
Joseph discloses in the Acknowledgements section that he spent the first twenty years of his life in Chennai. Wikipedia tells us that Joseph was born in 1974, and so it looks as if Joseph lived in Chennai during the period the story is set. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Joseph manages convey the feel of 1980s Chennai, with its street demonstrations and hunger strikes in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, to the reader.
Why did Unni Chacko commit suicide on 16 May 1987? Please read The Illicit Happiness of Other People to find out. It is a very good read, definitely as good as the excellent and highly acclaimed Serious Men.
Disclaimer: I am not related to the author though (i) we share the same last name, (ii) both of us were born in Kerala in the same year, (iii) I too spent all my school years in Tamil Nadu and (iv) my younger brother Manoj Joseph is called ‘Manu’ at home.