Book: The Illicit Happiness Of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: Fourth Estate
In the 18th century, nostalgia meant acute homesickness and the word in its old-fashioned sense seems apt for Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. It’s set in pre-1991 Madras, when India wasn’t shining and Chennai was the name of a 17th-century town rather than a modern metropolis. Joseph says in his acknowledgements, “It is where I spent the first 20 years of my life. I am grateful it was not a paradise.” Curiously, though, his protagonist Ousep Chacko’s unflinching conviction that there is more to his eldest son’s unmentionable act than meets the eye is reminiscent of these lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“...What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield.
And what is else not to be overcome?”
These lines are spoken by Satan’s chief cheerleader, Beelzebub, when Satan’s legion is wallowing in hellfire after being thrown out of heaven. Come to think of it, Joseph’s description of Ousep sleeping after a drunken night is vaguely reminiscent of Satan in hell (Milton says the divine arch enemy looks like a whale). Also, like Satan, Ousep was once mighty, bringing light through his writing, until arrogance led to his descent to the plane of an impoverished, alcoholic journalist.
However, while Ousep is the lead of The Illicit Happiness, his fall is only a sub-plot. There’s another fall that lies at the heart of this superb novel and it is, as far as the Chackos are concerned, more cataclysmic than Satan’s.
Ousep is a journalist by day and neighbourhood menace by night. His wife, Mariamma, has a postgraduate degree in economics, nurses fantasies about killing her husband, and regularly talks to the walls. They have two sons —Unni and Thoma. Unni, the elder, is the one whom everyone loves. It seems there is nothing he can’t handle, from his classmates to his mother’s delusions, his father’s drunken antics to his brother’s anxieties. A gifted cartoonist, he’s the one person in the novel who isn’t burdened by the mania for academic excellence. Unni is the last person anyone expects would go the Humpty Dumpty way, but one day, inexplicably, he does. For the next three years, Unni becomes Ousep’s study and the father’s project of unconquerable Will is to figure out why Unni did that Terrible Thing.
Set in 1990, in a lane that has four residential buildings named A, B, C and D, starring a family that is peculiar despite efforts to be normal, The Illicit Happiness is a witty, unforgiving but deeply affectionate look at life in pre-liberalised India. There is none of the acidic contempt or curious politics that crippled Joseph’s first novel, Serious Men. The Illicit Happiness is fun, despite all the unhappiness that riddles the novel, and Joseph avoids the curse of the second novel with panache. His characters are peculiar, but not precious. Their stories are told with an empathy that is intelligent enough to note absurdities without reducing anyone or anything to a caricature. The author has no sympathy for the blinkers that old India clapped on itself, but even as his scathing critique stings painfully, Joseph’s sense of humour makes it impossible for a reader to not grin while reading the novel. For example, how can you not nod in agreement to this:
“What is this world, exactly? Thoma wonders. A man slaps a girl’s arse, she walks on as if nothing has happened. Then the man gets hit by a coconut thrown by a weird woman, and he walks away without even turning back.”
The charm of The Illicit Happiness lies in the fabulous Chacko family and the love that makes them an improbable team against the pathetic, desperate world they inhabit. Mariamma joins Em of Em and the Big Hoom in the league of endearingly lunatic mothers. Ousep’s drunken fits are eerily reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s description of his father Anis in Joseph Anton. For this reader, the most endearing Chacko is the continually-perplexed Thoma. But chances are, you’ll find your own favourite Chacko and they’ll make you want to return to Balaji Lane again and again.