The Illicit Happiness of Other People, in all its luxurious complexity, is a book that defies labels or genre.
‘In this world you cannot escape happiness’, says 17-year old Unni Chacko, a rebel-of-sorts in stifling surroundings, up against the limited, quotidian world around him.
With a flair for befriending eccentric outcasts while cutting a swathe through the lives of the people he touches, spouting philosophy that at times sounds bizarre, if not implausible, coming from a teenager, Unni goes through life pursuing truth, beauty and the theory of everything in his own self-effacing way.
This boy of prodigious talent and an extraordinary world view would come home one evening after a haircut, play some cricket and leap to his death from the third floor terrace of his housing unit.
And that is how the almost skeletal plot takes form.
At the heart of it is a dysfunctional malayali catholic family – ‘the cuckoos among the crows’ as Joseph calls them. An alcoholic father’s quest to find an honourable motive to explain his son’s final act. One minute Ousep is terrifying, in his drunkenness and the very next, docile as a lamb, woken up by a bucket of water emptied over his head by his wife who believes her husband is the kind of guy who ‘has to be killed at the end of a story’. Unabashedly honest about his fall from grace as a writer, a husband and a father, he is out to join the dots of the other inexplicable ‘fall’ that has ripped his family apart. Your heart goes out to his wretchedness.
The deeply disturbed Mariamma, lamenting the loss of her eldest, talking to walls and dreaming of ways that her husband would die on her, doesn’t just simply leap off the pages but delivers a gut punch in her rare interludes of startling clarity.
I love her in the scene where she chases out a stocky creditor who comes home and arm twists (literally) Ousep into coughing up the money he is owed. Brandishing a broom, with absolutely nothing but the sheer force of her personality, Mariamma manages to drive out the creditor. A grim scene where Joseph’s humour shines through, eliciting a grin from even the most empathetic reader.
Thoma Chacko is by far the least peculiar member in the Ousep Family. He misses the counsel of his elder brother as he stumbles through life, torn between the eccentricities of his parents and his raging hormones. His devotion to Mythili, the attractive girl next door (who has a pivotal role in the concluding pages of the book) bordering on the lines of idiocy is irritatingly endearing.
Joseph paints a picture of life in Madras in the late 80’s that is very relatable. Where every middle-class boy’s aspiration is to crack the JEE and escape to America. Not because they want to but because they’re expected to. Of fathers who cane their sons for scoring 90% in their finals and mothers who chide daughters for not tying up their hair or wearing a slip under their tops. The shift in the tone and moods of the novel is much akin to Mariamma’s moods – sudden and strikingly original as they explore various aspects of mental illnesses – delusions, schizophrenia, a case of the extremely rare Cotard’s delusion and the principle of the ‘Folly of Two’.
Joseph has you all wound up for the big reveal in the final pages, but chances are that you would end up high and dry. For it is an answer that leaves you strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps that is a good thing. It would probably make you want to pay a visit to the Chackos in Balaji lane yet again.
Buy the book here.