Manu Joseph’s new novel is often clever and biting. But are the parts greater than the whole, asks Sunil Mehra
IT’S THE one-liners that delight! Sample these: A scooter in Madras is a man’s promise that he will not return home drunk in the evening/A North Indian girl in jeans so tight you can see daylight between her legs/Men are managers. Mothers are housewives. And all bras are white.
Or that mocking observation the wife makes about the drunken husband who’s gathering his tattered dignity about him as he goes about his business in the morning, seemingly oblivious but actually deeply ashamed by his inebriated idiocies the night before. “Walking about,” says Mariamma about husband Ousep, “as if he’s going to collect a Lifetime Achievement award from the President”!!!
It is a keenly observed book. Joseph knows his milieu: Tamil Christians in small-town-smaller-mind-Madras. And lays it bare. The pre-pubescent sexual shenanigans of the residents of Block A/B/C/D in some dreary, nameless, soul-destroying DDA/Soviet-style government employees’ colony; the recruitment of an indigent Catholic parishioner to spy on the Protestant herd by a priest capitalising on her pressing need for daily survival rations; the mother ferociously guarding her pre-teen daughter’s precarious virginity; the teenagers’ dread of breaching unarticulated sexual boundaries and imagining the terrible calamities that would follow as a consequence — as when Thoma accidentally glimpses what lies between Padmini’s uncrossed thighs(!) and wonders guiltily, “Will she ever be able to get married now?” There’s the masterly mapping of the outer reach of the average Tamil boys’ ambition, his fate, his pre-destiny: “the day they were born and were diagnosed with having a penis, their fate was decided — to one day take the Joint Entrance Exam.” And they all live “on a street where every boy knows that his future rests on a single test with multiple choice questions, it is appropriate that the four identical buildings here are named A, B, C and D”.
So far so good.
Things start going terribly wrong when Joseph’s Murakami-esque overture degenerates into Mahesh Bhatt-meets-Manohar Kahaniyan-meets-Ramsay Brothers order of farce, replete with a psychology-made-easy primer that characterises the whimper of a denouement. Very reminiscent of cringeworthy Bollywood pop psycho narratives that go “…Hema ko schizophrenia hai. Iske andar kai log rehte hain or yeh har pal alag insaan ban jaati hai. Jaise hum kapade badalte hain woh apniidentity badalti hai…” No, Joseph doesn’t quite do that. But it’s close! All that talk of Cotard’s Delusion and Folie A Deux seems like limp explanation for a plot that over-promises but under-delivers.
The book opens with a promise of complexity, nuance, insight, even mystery. Stories within stories keep popping up like yet more matryoshkas. But you peel layer upon layer of onion to discover a void, which is a bit of a let-down. Homosexual paedophile story leads to attempted rape story leads to innocent-molestation-upon-an-afternoon-story… Unni Chacko the absent protagonist, finding the reason for whose suicide is the burden of Joseph’s story, comes across as a mixed bag: part avenging angel, part controlled rage, part protector sage, part Oakwood, part dark Darcy, part prankster, part sadist, part puerile, part liminal creature of light and shade. And budding cartoonist with cult following, to boot. A character with magnificent potential who’s made short shrift of, with something as pedestrian and medical textbook derivative as FAD or COTARD. That’s it? That’s all?
JOSEPH STRAINS visibly to connect the dots in an effort to explain the Unni enigma. Unni, the 17-year-old boy running Gandhiesque Experiments with Truth: lying naked alongside the housemaid but NOT touching; then Unni sitting with a very un-Gandhi-like hard-on that he invites everyone in class to touch… Ousep’s visit to Iyengar, the neuropsychiatrist, provides Joseph occasion for some banal perspectivising/cross connecting Unni’s behaviour with the recent newspaper headline-grabbing episode about the two sisters found starving and neardead in a NOIDA suburb. FAD syndrome? Was that Unni? How does it all add up? To what?
Joseph would have us believe Unni died of exhilaration? Of having known happiness? Or because he lived in a bubble? Of delusion? Be as it may, it all doesn’t quite hang together. The answer when it does come after a 341-page chase is an all too simplistic one: devised in the course of some afternoons spent with a neuropsychiatrist by a novelist in search of a plot line with a neat QED ending.
It is a knowing book rich with detail, that lays bare the innards of the small-town Tamil Christian lower middle class
So is The Illicit Happiness of Other People a waste of time? Not quite. It is a knowing book rich with detail, that lays bare the innards of the small town Tamil Christian lower middle class with its confining notions of success/ failure/morality/sexuality. That keeps you engaged, involved, interested. And itching to know more.
The weakness lies in the plot. For, in the final analysis it’s a map looking for a country. A story looking for a satisfactory ending. A story that holds so much promise. Till it doesn’t.
Mehra is a Delhi-based author, journalist and filmmaker