Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Manu Joseph's Illicit Happiness

If books could be judged by their covers, then Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People would be funny, cheerful, and eminently edible - in a mango ice-cream kind of way. Well, except for the corpse hanging from the top, of course.

The book largely does live up to the promises its cover makes. It's the story of a dysfunctional Malayali Christian family living in Madras of the 1990s. The father is a failed writer, a journalist, a drunkard. The mother talks to the walls and tries to find dignity in poverty. The younger son is bad at maths, and has to tell himself to 'put fight' every day, just to find the courage to step out of the house. And the elder son, Unni, the bright one, the cartoonist, the glue that held the family together, committed suicide at the age of seventeen.

The book takes up the tale three years after the suicide, when the father, Chacko, suddenly decides to investigate why his son killed himself. He speaks to Unni's friends one by one, he pores over the cartoons that Unni left behind, he goes over each of Unni's actions that day. The mother, Mariamma, wants to know only one thing - why did her beloved Unni not leave a suicide note, to tell her why he was leaving her?

Chacko's search leads him into the shadowy world of philosophy. Unni's conviction that the fight between good and evil has already been won by evil, that the world is an illusion to make people think that the fight is still on, that he is one of the few 'mutated beings' that Nature has created, who can see through the web. (Keanu Reeves, anybody?)

Most teenagers have such illusions at some time or the other. But they leave them behind with their acne and their confidence issues and their awkwardness, when they step into adulthood. Why did Unni not survive, then? Unni, who was bright enough not to fall for the engineering frenzy, who could lead the rest of his class into mischief if he wanted to, who read psychiatric books with names nobody could understand.

Joseph uses the story to explore dysfunctionality, the struggle to fit into society's norms and expectations. Each of the characters has something that doesn't let them fit into the Tam-Brahm wannabe-engineer-children good-husband good-housewife building they live in. He also explores the theme of men's sexual violence on women - pats and prods on the street, an attack by a familiar neighbour, an attempted rape by the side of a village stream.

Yes, there is philosophy, of the teenagerish, 'why-do-I-exist' kind. There is also humour, of the wry kind. But there is also a slight tendency to judge, to lay down the anti-engineering preaching with a heavy hand.

The book meanders a bit in the middle, but finds itself a rapid denouement later on - many apparently diverse strings coming together and meshing with each other quickly to show us the real pattern. It leaves us with a sense of waste, and more than a tinge of sorrow - a natural feeling about any suicide, I suppose.

This second novel from Joseph is definitely a step up from the previous one, Serious Men, both in terms of language and its characters. Serious Men had cardboard cutout characters - the flattest (no reverse pun intended!) of whom was Oparna, who could have been so much more. But in TIHOOP,  Joseph has managed to create better rounded characters. Thoma is funny, Mariamma is heart-wrenching, Chacko is pathetic. Unni remains shadowy, which is natural, given that we only hear about him from other people. 
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Rahul SMS said...

As Manu Joseph attested 'THE ILLICIT HAPPINESS OF OTHER PEOPLE' gives the reader a melancholy of pointlessness. his creation of character, ambience, conversation all are jst brilliant. we could see it right from his very first novel 'Serious Men'. Humorous way telling the story keep readers amused. I wonder how he managed to do that!

Im his new novel too characters are much similar to the dayto day life. Illustration of 1980's Madras, people living there, their hopes, dreams all are superb. " Madras in 1980's where all husbands are managers, women are housewives, and all bras are white"...what a cool way of expression.

I felt Mr.Ousep Chacko has some sort of similarity with his former character Ayyan mani in Serious Men. the silent Unni Chacko, KGB-PELE addicted Thomas chacko, Mariyammo, Somen Pillai, Mythili all characters are remains in my heart.

The illicit happiness of other people, indeed a 'brainstorming' one. Revelation of human mind, its complex and its subtle movement, psychological illusion, delusion, folly of the two,three,etc....takes readers into another world. Though humour takes the cource, i felt the novel a tragedy. For me THE ILLICIT HAPPINESS OF OTHER PEOPLE jst manage to gt the pass mark, not upto SERIOUS MEN.