Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, henceforth TIHOOP in this review, often left me smiling and chuckling, and more than quite often, pensive.
TIHOOP, in its second read (immediately after the first, an endeavour I rarely undertake), remained riveting and enriched, lost none of its magical and abiding charms, and as it is with almost every second read, you get a tighter grip on some things which escaped you before. And, like always, as it is with every good book, you find yourself saying to the author, hey, I see what you did there.
Meet the Chackos: Ousep Chacko, a once-upon-a-time writer who everyone thought would write the ‘great novel’, but who instead “decayed in his state of gentle happiness”. He is a failed man and a failed father; a journalist by day and an expletive-spewing dragon who smacks of liquor at night. A man who never fixes things, so much so that chancing upon a screwdriver in his room is a source of mystery.
Mariamma Chacko, a once-besotted woman, who once loved her husband, who called him her ‘happiness’ and tried to exorcise an unrelenting ghost of her past, and who, now, considers matricide. Mariamma Chacko, she of the strong shoulders who has forgotten how it’s like to be held in affection, who calls herself Rock, who nurses her grouses, almost as a rite, and talks to her yellow walls.
And, Unni Chacko. The precocious 17-year-old cartoonist loved by everyone, the almost always winner of Father versus Son, the special one who could charm smiles out of his mother even during the latter’s finger-wagging-haranguing-at-walls trance. Sweet, handsome Unni Chacko: an idiot to a girl, a mystery to many. An “abnormal” child who strayed too far, who harboured thoughts “dark and disturbing”. And by having failed to survive, by having killed himself, a death he must have thought to be unsubtle enough to not warrant a note of explanation, Unni Chacko now dons the role of the failed exception, who now adds fuel to that one constant strain in the narratives that circle his death:
“The tragic defeat of the unusual, and so the triumph of the normal”.
And did I forget Thoma Chacko?
Weak in maths, and in the knees for the girl next door, the youngest Chacko holds the notion that seeing a girl’s underwear would rob her off future marriage prospects. He seeks strength and confidence to emerge from the shadow that his ‘special’ brother has cast on him, one which lurks around still, even strongly post his death. He is the eye of the storm that is the Chackos – a Malayalee Catholic family in 1990s Madras who no one is jealous of.
They are the “cuckoos among the crows”. Its family man doesn’t own a scooter unlike the rest of the “good fathers” ( “a scooter in Madras is a man’s promise that he will not return home drunk in the evening”) and makes a ruckus every night; the wife is probably nuts because she talks to her walls and doesn’t come to her balcony to see her husband walk to office unlike the “good wives”; they don’t have two children anymore “to emphasize their normalcy”, because the son, probably also nuts, took his life, and the youngest plays number 11 in the batting order.
The other people, when they want to feel better, they look at the Chackos’ door.
The state of gentle happiness, the one that Ousep wallowed in and which allowed him not to write his masterpiece, never again makes an appearance in the Chacko family. Where Jesus hung on the wall, now there is Unni, palefully enlarged. His death, like almost every suicide, is a mystery. It colours everything that went before, leaving his father to puzzle over the pieces of a spent life, everything which now appears - or seems to appear - fraught with new meanings or clues.
The mystery of Unni’s death is the only mystery that matters to Mariamma anymore. And Ousep, in what is not just an attempt to know his son better but one which also holds another import, chiefly that of reconciliation with Mariamma, has made it his life’s mission. The clues, he believes, are in Unni’s works: his many comics, most of them reflecting a fecund young mind buzzing with questions. And Ousep meets his friends, peers, and acquaintances. He collects their narratives, their refractions of his young boy, each of a different colour and wavelength, each dappling his weary old face.
Maybe he was really special as they said, maybe he knew and saw something that very few ever manage to know and see. Maybe he was a boy who invented different realties because there was too much Maths to do in the real world. A boy weak in MPC – maths, physics, chemistry – who liked drawing cartoons, cartoons which were not really funny as he thought them to be.
There are small moments in TIHOOP which are absolutely delightful. And, Thoma Chacko whose actions and thoughts almost always induced a delightful strange sensation of the stuff I once semi-thought but never really emancipated on page, is hands down this reader’s favourite. An example:
But would she find Thoma handsome? Is Thoma handsome? Like Unni? It would be really wonderful if there was a canvas tent where a boy could go in unnoticed, probably wearing a mask. Inside, a panel of men and women would ask him to remove his mask. They would inspect him carefully and pass the verdict – handsome, or not handsome. Thoma wishes there was a way he could solve his doubt for ever.
I could relate to most of the events inside the walls of the Chacko household. I could connect and understand the characters and their motives, but I should say that though this book ticks off possibly almost all the boxes in the Characters-who-speak-to-the-Reader with panache, it being an absolute whopper can as well be attributed to its deftness in defying genre boundaries and showing no supine to be pigeonholed.
It’s of course, no prizes in guessing, a family drama. It’s, to don a cliché, a mirror held up against its time, namely the Madras of 1990 (“I am grateful it was not a paradise”, writes Joseph in Acknowledgements), a satirical eye at a society fiendishly in love with JEE and entrance exams, where children are “groomed from childhood to believe that intelligence is purely a mathematical ability”. It’s a delicious whydunnit and reads like a superb thriller, hiding its secrets well, sometimes in plain sight, building its suspense with every new character, dropping its climax which burgeons into a huge mushroom cloud in the reader’s chest, its deafening and heartrending roar muted until the last sentence is read and the book set aside.
And finally, TIHOOP is a male book; one that almost feels vicariously guilty of it. One that tries to shy away from wallowing in its gender and turns its biting eyes on the male world it inhabits, focusing on the manifestations of its disruptive one-sided power mechanisms, and lampooning and condemning not just the “pornographic eyes of men”.
*Ananthu MC is an editorial intern at Open Road Review.