The Illicit Happiness of Other People is melancholy, humorous and philosophical, all at the same time. When I first read the book a few weeks ago, I found the first few chapters a drag. I was, perhaps, wondering why I am being presented with bits and pieces of a decently smart, but an intellectually megalomaniacal teen’s philosophy, which, in its entirety, would most likely be borrowed wisdom that sounds profound, but means nothing. I held on because the writing was good and the dig at the typical middle-class Madrasi’s life* humorous. I am glad I did. I read the initial chapters again recently to see if there were other reasons for finding them such a drag. Surprisingly, I no longer found them so, perhaps because by the time the novel ends, the author ties up many of the threads he introduces in these chapters. So I was discovering a purpose in them now.
The philosophy of Unni Chacko, the dead teenager around whom the plot revolves, won’t help you find the ultimate truth, but it will make you smile, or think or wonder if there is any difference between wisdom and mental illness and what really defines normal vs. delusional.
Ruminate over the following, if you like.
It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity.
Truth usually shows humanity in a poor light.
And here is the delusion explained.
The fundamental quality of a delusion is that it is contagious. The very purpose of every delusion is to transmit itself to other brains. This is how a delusion survives. On the other hand, truth can never be transmitted, truth can never travel from one brain to another. Movement is a quality of delusion alone.
In case you are wondering why?
Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system in unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.
And sainthood deflated.
The distinction between a delusion and a lie is the very difference between a successful saint and a fraud.
And if you thought language was the best thing that happened to humankind.
Language was created by nature to guard its secrets, not to reveal them. We are trapped in language. Even thought has become language.
The reference to a wife plotting to kill her blissfully unaware anarchist husband (overstated) in the book description, a cartoon for the cover and the publisher calling it a ‘darkly comic’ story gives an impression of a very different kind of book. You might go in expecting a satire. But that’s not the case. There a dry, dark humor in the book, but it is very different from satire. The overall tone, in fact, in rather pessimistic despite the humor and wit. It is possible to get depressed with the wise pessimism. But you will survive it. Do read the book.
Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.
Seventeen-year-old Unni Chacko has done something terrible. The only clue to his action lies in a comic strip he has drawn, which has fallen into the hands of his father Ousep, an anarchist. Ousep begins investigating the extraordinary life of his son, blissfully unaware that his long-suffering wife is plotting to kill him. Set in Madras in 1990, this is a darkly comic story involving the relentless pursuit of a failed writer who has found purpose, an adolescent cartoonist’s dangerous interpretation of truth, the plots of a brilliant housewife, and the pure love of a twelve-year-old boy for a beautiful girl.
Other Books by the Author
Manu Joseph’s first book Serious Men was widely praised and won multiple awards. I have not read it, but by all indications, it is a satire worth reading.
- It could have been a dig at the typical middle-class life pretty much anywhere in India, except perhaps Karnataka, where the JEE craze was not there, at least until a decade ago.