By Anveshi Gupta
If the slightly macabre humor coupled with introspective thoughts and questions interest you, Manu Joseph’s book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People is definitely your cup of tea; it surely was mine. Since I had not read Joseph’s first novel, Serious Men before, I didn’t know what to expect. However, I am glad that I did not miss out on the happiness, illicit or otherwise, of reading this novel because it is certainly one of the better novels I have read recently by an Indian author. The novel grants a new perspective to many of the pre-conceived notions that people usually share and perpetuate. Normal and normative is what we face every day. Here, however, the readers take a plunge to understand the mind of Unni, the 17 year old boy who committed suicide and whose father, Ousep Chacko, moves forward with an unflinching dedication to fathom the cause of his talented cartoonist son’s death.
The reason is, obviously, divulged only at the end and barring a few minor instances when the pace is questionable, Joseph manages to grasp the interest of the readers until the end. Also, particularly interesting is the fact that the narrative does not follow a linear path, but goes back and forth in betraying little snippets of information that titillates and tantalizes the reader’s mind. And very quickly in the novel, you, as a reader, experience a certain kind of restlessness that engulfs you; a curiosity builds up to know what actually happened to Unni and what eventually happens to the Chacko family.
The novel can be read as the uni-dimensional attempt to unfurl the tragedy and solve the mystery that meets you right at the beginning. However, there is certainly more to the novel than this simple mystery. And herein lies the pleasure in reading this book. The primary focus of the novel might be the death of Unni, but Joseph gives ample space to his other characters as well. The story is constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed as every character has a story to tell about Unni which not only adds a different dimension to the information already known, but requires the reframing of our idea as to why Unni chose to die. The plot is like a puzzle where the readers have to actively participate to fit in the pieces. And even amidst the tragedy that unsettles, perturbs and topsy-turvies the trajectory of the Chacko family and in turn, the readers of the novel, there is not a single moment of over-sentimentality or dearth of humor in it. All in all, this is a good read from Manu Joseph whose first novel, Serious Men, won the Hindu Literary Prize in 2010.