The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

Published: 2013
Printed Pages: 352 (Paperback)

“In this world, it is very hard to escape happiness,”
– Unni Chacko.

A satire that is philosophical, poignant, funny, and dark in equal measure. The evocative descriptions and the humor associated with them make this book a winner. The story starts with the description of dysfunctional Malayali Catholic family living in Balaji Lane of Madras during the late 80s, where every man leaves for work on his scooter carrying a tiffin carriage and every teenager dreams of getting into an IIT.

But not Unni Chacko, the handsome, confident, jovial and mature 17-year-old aspiring cartoonist who, while believing in the inevitability of happiness, jumps off the terrace of his house one evening and dies. 

What follows is Ousep Chacko, his father, a (has been) journalist who has turned into a menacing drunkard, probing the reasons for his son’s extreme act after he stumbles on a few of Unni’s indecipherable cartoons. Ousep starts finding more about the mystery that is Unni, and secrets about his own family in this journey.

The characters breathe life into the story. The endearing Thoma Chacko, Unni’s little brother, and shadow, who hopes that one day the Home ministry will change the value of Pi to 3 to make it easier for maths students to calculate the area of a circle. Mythili Balasubramaniam, the lively young girl staying in the house opposite to the Chackos, who is infatuated with Unni. And then, there is the fascinating Mariamma, Unni’s mother and Ousep’s wife. Armed with a postgraduate degree and a delusional streak of talking to walls, the splitting image of her standing in the balcony and waving goodbye to Ousep everyday stays with you. Ousep Chacko’s desperation to find what killed his son leads to him stumbling on the bigger and deeper philosophical questions of life. The tale becomes darker as you go on and ends on a brilliant note.

Manu Joseph aces with the plot and storytelling. He deals with the nature of truth, delusions, and reality from the lens of a teenaged Unni but doesn’t get boring or preachy. He shows everything from the middle-class hypocrisies plaguing the society to a boy with Cotard’s syndrome in a nuanced fashion. Being a seasoned journalist, the investigative touch to the story is done in style. The detailed descriptions are unorthodox and wonderful in places. I’ll leave you with a few lines involving Thoma, who is not the brightest of minds while doing his homework-

“He stares at the open textbook for hours and is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted for ever. His nails scratch the page to straighten its tired limbs. It affects him, the great arrogance of the Equilateral Triangle, the failed aspiration of the octagon to be a circle, the eternal suffocation of the denominator that has to bear the weight of the unjust numerator, the loneliness of Pluto. And the smallness of Mercury, always a mere dot next to a yellow sun. In this world, there is no respect for Mercury.”

This is a fresh breath into Indian writing in English,
especially with stories involving teenage protagonists.
Manu Joseph does a great job with this one.

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