“Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story”, begins Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (buy this book). Ousep, Mariamma and their son Thoma live in a limbo since the unexplained demise of their eldest son, 17-year-old Unni, three years ago. Ousep, a journalist and writer whose genius has stalled, is on a mission to decipher his son’s anarchist comic strips and solve the puzzle of his death. Ever-practical Mariamma, who runs the Chacko household mostly on faith and very little income, is in the habit of talking to the walls of her house and plotting to kill her husband. But she also knows that “Ousep Chacko is not a man who can be killed by oil. He does not eat much.” Meanwhile, Thoma, all of 12 years, “is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted forever”. In his fantasies, his beautiful neighbour, Mythili Subramaniam, asks him the two questions he knows the answers to: What does KGB stand for and what’s Pele’s real name?
Of Unni’s cartoon strips, “Enlightenment” is my favourite. In it, a saint meditating for ages, begins to glow in enlightenment until he wakes up and screams, “Shit, i am cartoon!”. The book is full of charming observations. Thoma Chacko learning to grow out of his deceased brother’s shadow is my favourite plot in the book. As the years go by, it’s dawning on Thoma that Unni was a prankster who had him believe things like, “Maths was about to get a lot easier…the home minister, who is responsible for happy homes, would soon pass a law changing the value of pi from 3.14159 to just 3, making it easier for all Indian children to calculate the area of a circle”. I can see my brother fooling me thus, if only he had such an imagination! His coming of age is a bitter-sweet moment that Thoma negotiates with courage and clarity, all by himself.
My main criticism of Manu Joseph’s debut, Serious Men, was its lack of admirable women characters. By contrast, this story does justice to its women characters. Mariamma Chacko is strong, decisive, vulnerable and wild in equal parts. The author’s craft shines through in the well-told relationship between Ousep and Mariamma. They take one another seriously but cannot stand each other mainly because of years of cohabiting. Joseph captures the delicate rope walk of their relationship with superlative finesse.
In most parts, this novel delves into the workings of the human mind rather beautifully. But at some point the details of mental illness become tiring. My theory is that 2012, when this book was published, was the year of books on mental illness of a family member. Another brilliant creation that supports my theory is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto.
I highly recommend this book for a sense of what it was like growing up in the early nineties and some hilarious accounts on how our unstable lead regular lives.