The Illicit Happiness of Other People | Manu Joseph
By all accounts, Cotard’s Syndrome is a rare condition. Its central symptom, according to a 1979 definition, is a “nihilistic delusion which, in its complete form, leads the patient to deny his own existence and that of the external world”. Colloquially and, rather mercilessly, its patients are called the walking dead.
Unni Chacko was not one of them; in fact, an acclaimed neuropsychiatrist says he described himself as the “anti-corpse”. So why did Unni Chacko, six weeks short of his 18th birthday, do what he did, “such a terrifying word in any language”? Manu Joseph structures The Illicit Happiness of Other People like a whodunit—or, more correctly, a whydunit—in which a father sets out to unravel that most mysterious of creatures, his adolescent son and, by extension, his existential crisis.
The father-son relationship was one of the spokes of Joseph’s debut novel, Serious Men (2010); in Illicit, it is the hub in the inexorable wheel of life that rolls through Madras in 1990. Neither place nor time is incidental: Illicit is weighed down by the oppressive hopelessness of existence in pre-liberalization India, when the only ambition for brainy middle-class boys everywhere—but possibly especially in southern India—lay in cracking an engineering entrance exam and winging their way westwards to a green card.
This is the rigidly circumscribed milieu Joseph caricatures bleakly and brilliantly. Overheard teenage conversations revolve around the value of Tan-two times, 89-percenters are condemned to “another obsolete arts and science college”, boys try to impress girls by talking about GATT and perestroika, men “sink into the company of other men... men with frail thighs who have never played football but talk about football, and at other times about the superiority of Marx over Keynes and about the unattainable prose of the new Spanish writers”.
As significant is Joseph’s depiction of the inherent misogyny of this society: Nobody talks about gender discrimination because it is a fact of life, like breathing or alcohol dependence. Casual sexual harassment is a recurring theme in the novel and, in fact, plays a role in its resolution, but that is not the author’s only target for biting satire: The entire don’t-ask-don’t-tell Indian attitude to sex, he suggests, contributes to the confusions of adolescence, the perversions of adulthood and the frustrations of old age.
This is the world that Unni Chacko is introduced to as he grows up, a world several degrees more warped than his dysfunctional family, “the cuckoos among the crows” on the eminently respectable Balaji Lane. He is an ordinary student, ferociously fond of his mother, alternately tolerant and loving towards his kid brother; but like all young people, he has a secret life independent of his family. He also has a talent, or two: Unni is a cartoonist who hates filling in the speech bubbles. And he sees things that no one else does.
At one level, Illicit is the terribly sad story of a family coping with a tragedy that has no apparent rationale. Each of the three most affected are islands in their individual sorrow as they try to wear a mask of normalcy for the others. Thoma, who was 9 when his brother “Unni did what he did” three years ago, goes to school, Unni’s mother Mariamma goes about her domestic chores and talks to herself, as she always has, and his father Ousep goes to work as a poorly paid chief reporter in a news agency.
"First Words: Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story."
It is a melancholy leavened only by the ridiculousness of everyday life: So Thoma, 12, finds himself developing an unbearable crush on an older girl and Mariamma celebrates with cashew nuts when local housewives end their unspoken ostracization of the Chacko household for a balcony view of a bereaved family across the street.
If mother and brother can take some solace in their personal memories of Unni, Ousep is denied that comfort. A complex yet all too familiarly flawed father figure, Ousep tries to find an outlet for his unarticulated pain by posthumously understanding his son and thereby figuring out why Unni did what he did. The key to this, Ousep is convinced, lies in the 60-odd cartoons Unni has left behind. They are graphic novels really, for Unni, like his father, is a storyteller. Yet after poring over every inch of them for three years, Ousep still finds the philosophies unsophisticated, the stories incomprehensible, the questions unanswered. His dark, desperate and even destructive search for closure is Illicit’s finest achievement.
Some journalists spend their lives aspiring to be writers; some writers lead a double life as journalists. As a columnist, Joseph has courted controversy with his takes on urban Indian life, politics and economics but, going by first Serious Men and now the even more accomplished Illicit, it is as a novelist that he will be remembered. The observational, analytical and storytelling skills necessary in any good journalist combine here with a mature restraint and empathic respect for his source material that promotes Illicit from a savagely cynical one-tone book to a remarkably layered, dark, funny yet ultimately hopeful novel.
Excellently plotted and driven for the most part by period- and person-appropriate dialogue (the only stumbling block for me was the use of the term “motormouth”; surely that is out of place in Madras in 1990?), Illicit holds up a mirror to our damaged society. The reflection isn’t pretty but it is to Joseph’s credit that we can’t look away.
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