This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
What could persuade a seventeen-year-old boy with an extraordinary personality and unusual levels of intelligence and self-possession to take his own life – especially when he is convinced that happiness is his unavoidable destiny? Unni Chacko believed that happiness is inescapable, that human beings have a genetic predisposition to being happy. But one morning, he returned from a haircut and jumped off a balcony. And his family’s world snagged.
Set in Madras of the nineties (a Madras that this reviewer grew up in), The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph, which begins three years after Unni’s death, when he should have been twenty, chronicles the desperate search for answers that leads a father into the underbelly of his son’s private life. Along the way, Ousep Chacko encounters an intrepid group of cartoonists, a neuroscientist, a silent nun, a corpse, and a whole host of other idiosyncratic characters who sound as though they may have stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie but are, in Joseph’s hands, perfectly reasonable everyday individuals.
Ousep is a failed writer, a perpetual drunkard, and an endless asker of questions. His dysfunctional family seems to have no place in the quiet faux-perfection of Balaji Lane – they are “the cuckoos among the crows.” His wife Mariamma is the marvellous Bertha Mason of the story – brilliant, delightful, wicked, tragic, and endlessly plotting the demise of her husband. Mariamma is so markedly intelligent and so sharp sometimes that the other characters seem ever poised to cut themselves on her wit. But her sorrows have come to unhinge her and she spends her days talking to walls.
Their younger son, Thoma Chacko, just querulously stepping into adolescence, is frightened of just about everything – his alcoholic father, his ardent mother, his beautiful neighbour, his unknowable future. It is in Thoma’s wide-eyed remembrances that Unni is best delineated and, in fact, most missed. Thoma’s small world lodges the stormy malcontent of middle-class drudgery and under-achievement, impaled into luminous narratives that at once form the saddest and funniest parts of this discerning book.
Just as probing as Joseph’s first book, Serious Men, although not as frequently funny, Illicit Happiness is a hard look at the pursuit of happiness. Ousep’s interrogations rupture the timid propriety of a social structure that longs to forget its anomalies. But as Ousep’s persistence soon uncovers, Unni was never the sort that could be swept under the rug. The people who knew Unni remember him in different ways that don’t always unite. Some recall his brooding quiet; some his flamboyant personality. But in everyone’s memory, Unni is a beautiful boy who affected them; and almost anyone who came upon him seems to have been utterly smitten with him in their own, peculiar, often inexplicable ways.
When the novel begins, a bizarre twist has convinced Ousep that the mystery of Unni’s life and, therefore, his death can only be unravelled by deciphering the comics that Unni illustrated, several of which are generously described in the pages of the book. In fact, so intriguing and clever do they seem that one wishes sketches and comic strips had been included in the book. But these are petty quibbles that take absolutely nothing away from Joseph’s wry and multi-layered tale.
Madras is as much a character in the book as anyone else, redolently waxed into the details with blithe humour. This is no nostalgia of the romantic. Joseph exposes the many hypocrisies of Madras on the same canvas as its beauties. His writing is unsentimentally exquisite; the prose is languid and unhurried, didactically relying on loose precepts and sweeping philosophies. Few writers can write stereotypes and mouldy generalisations with so fine a grasp or so sharp an eye as Joseph, and, therefore, few can be forgiven for them as easily as he can: “As things are, it does not take much to be a spectacle on this narrow tarred lane. It waits all day to be startled by the faintest hint of strangeness passing through. Such as a stray working woman in the revolutionary sleeveless blouse, who has the same aura here as a divorcee. A man with a ponytail. A north Indian girl in jeans so tight you can see daylight between her legs. It is as if such apparitions are a sign that the future, which has arrived in other places, is now prospecting the city. Here now is the final stand of an age, the last time one can profile a street in Madras and be correct. Men are managers, mothers are housewives. And all bras are white.”
It is hard to say just what sort of book Illicit Happiness is. In parts, it is a psychological thriller, and in parts it is dark comedy; then again, in parts it has the cavernous poignancy that has come to characterise the very best dramatic fiction of our times. It probes moral and philosophical quandaries with stupendous depth, and then quickly pivots into searing satire. At every point, it is thought-provoking and gently remonstrative. The book comes as a reminder when we need it most that despite the many transformations of the world there is still something very wrong with the way we bring up our sons.