I had first read The Illicit Happiness of Other People in 2015. Even then, I remember enjoying the book and giving it a 5-star rating on Goodreads. About a week ago, I picked up the yellow hardbound again, dusted it off and slipped into the world of the Chacko family. I don’t usually revisit books I’ve read in the past because life is too short and there are way too many literary works to discover. So what prompted me to pick this book again? It was a fleeting realisation that I am at a better stage in my life to comprehend the nuances that Manu Joseph has put forth in his book. Back then I had so many questions that were left unanswered. I remember feeling disturbed and overwhelmed. I was unsure if the book was a satire, a fiction or just an imagination of the author’s mind.
As I read The Illicit Happiness of Other People the second time, I can’t help but wonder what went on in Manu Joseph’s mind when he decided to write this story. His portrayal of the Chacko family is too real for them just to be fictional characters. Did he intentionally make their mediocrity so accessible that they could be anyone’s neighbours or acquaintances? Or did he come across them one day as he strolled through the inner streets of Chennai and decided to pen down what he saw? By presenting his story in a third person format, Joseph has provided a 360 degree view into the world of Unni Chacko and his family, this way the impact of grief is manifold.
The year is 1990 and the Chacko family who are originally from Kerala are now settled in Madras (present day Chennai). Their lower middle class world is turned upside down when their seventeen-year old son, Unni, jumps from the terrace. Unable to find answers, the three remaining family members pick up what was left of their lives and continue on. Depression is the luxury of the rich and to sit around and mope is not an option for the poor. Mariamma must carry on trading household items for the essentials at the local grocer and Thoma must struggle to get decent grades in school while trying hard to get his neighbour, Mythili, to notice him. As for Ousep, the head of the family will continue to drown his day in a bottle of rum before creating a ruckus in the colony every night. This family tradition goes on for 3 years until one day Ousep gets in his possession a comic book that Unni completed the day he died. With a new vigour, Ousep commences his interrogation regarding Unni’s untimely and mysterious death. “Why did Unni do what he did?” is a question that takes up pretty much the first half of the book.
Why did he do it? Why does anyone fall off a building or overdose on pills? What makes someone, who seems perfectly fine in the morning, decide that breathing is not as much rewarding as the after-life? Turns out there can be so many things. The brain is such a complicated organ with a vast network of interconnected neurons that it only takes one mismatched connection to throw the balance off the normal. But then, what is normal? Is it not just a term to define the state of mind of the majority of people? In the early years when psychology as a discipline was taking shape, scientists would conduct cognitive tests on ‘normal people’ and compare those with someone with a cognitive defect. That is how the range of ‘normal’ cognitive functions were established. These are just some of the thoughts that I am left with after reading The Illicit Happiness of Other People a second time.
Needless to say this book is disturbing. The genre is dark comedy, but for someone who is easily triggered, my suggestion would be to avoid this novel. The slight humour is not worth the complex emotions that might follow. But if you are looking for an intelligent and engrossing read that will make you question your beliefs and challenge your outlook towards mental health, I would highly recommend this book. Setting aside the melancholy air, Joseph has beautifully crafted the story with drama, suspense and mystery. He has shown a spotlight on human imperfections like finding happiness in other’s sorrows or distancing oneself from other’s grief in the fear that bad luck doesn’t get transferred to them. The fact that Manu Joseph has won no literary acclaim for The Illicit Happiness of Other People only goes to show that we are still at a very nascent stage when it comes to addressing mental health.