The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Manu Joseph offers up a south Indian Holden Caulfield in this book

He’s already done “clever”. 

In his first book Manu Joseph yahooed his way into the closed world of Mumbai’s scientific establishment and knocked the pants off the Serious Men (and one woman) inhabiting its sacred corridors, with a glee that was as riveting as his slum-side views of the Other Mumbai. That he won instant recognition with rave reviews and awards might have sobered a more cautious writer.

Instead, what Joseph has done is to try “brilliant”. He’s reinvented himself as a south Indian Holden Caulfield, who is seeking the ultimate questions in the Tam-Brahm milieu of Madras, as Chennai was still known in the late twentieth century, when this book is set. His putative hero is a 17-year-old boy Unni Chacko, a brilliant cartoonist whose brain is hardwired into the battlefield of memory as experienced by his parents and classmates.

The parents are from Kerala. Ousep, the father, is a wonderfully comic creation of the Malayali male, flapping his knees rhythmically while trying to understand what propelled Unni into a Byzantine tryst with fate. Equally, Joseph’s portrait of the evangelical Mariamma is a tender tribute to the Jewish Mom, Kerala Chapter. She nurtures a secret, too dire to reveal, from her girlhood growing up in the rubber tree-filled estates of Kottayam. Despite the somewhat contrived nod in the direction of the Hitchcock thriller Psycho in the latter part of the story, Mariamma herself is an exuberant creation. There’s a marvelous scene where she faces down a Pathan, who has come to demand his dues, with a broomstick.

This is the portrait of a small family in the throes of a tsunami of failure, caused by the catastrophic events that have befallen them on account of Unni’s actions (revealing more about the plot may detract from the shock of discovery when first reading the novel). In trying to comprehend cause posteffect, Ousep (and Joseph) leads the reader into a paper chase that goes from the trite – a homosexual teacher who is publically trashed for his transgressions – to the downright paranormal. The book delves into metaphysical territory that someone like George Bernard Shaw may have touched upon in Man and Superman. Or what someone like M Night Shymalan might have captured in his cinematic explorations of the “sixth sense” and other psychic states. One clue to all these psychological themes that Manu Joseph offers in his afterword is his indebtedness to Dr Ennapadam S Krishnamoorthy and his theories on the “God Particle”. Along with VS Ramachandran’s epochal work on the primordial areas of the brain, which he wrote about in Phantoms of the Mind, these sorts of subjects have often been of interest to people in Chennai. In writing Unni’s case history, Joseph seems to ask, how close is the god particle to the demonic one?

That Joseph is able to touch upon such weighty matters while wrapping them in up the garb of a family saga is what makes him a clever writer. As for brilliance, we shall still have to wait another day. 

Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People Fourth Estate, R499

By Geeta Doctor on September 12 2012

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