Saturday, March 05, 2016

#2016reading - 'The Illicit Happiness of Other People'

This book had me at the title.

How can happiness, the pursuit of which is the only true purpose of every person be of all things- illicit? 

Or forbidden? 

But maybe it all depends on what happiness is.

Based in Madras in the early 1990s, this is a dark and comic story about a dysfunctional Malayalee family living in Balaji Lane.

No one has any clue as to why the seventeen year old Unni Chacko jumped off the terrace.  And now, three years after his death, his father Ouseph chacko, receives a mysterious package in the post. Returned back to Unni as the addressee was 'Not Found'. A post Unni had mailed out the day he jumped. The contents sets Unni's father on an investigative journey to try  and understand why Unni did what he did. 

Ouseph Chacko is a failed writer by the day and drunkard by the night. A man who leaves in the morning freshly bathed and returns home drunk and shouting, waking the neighbours and forcing his family to write his obituary as he solemnly stands on a chair with a noose hanging from the ceiling fan.

Mariamma Chacko, the mother, filled with grief with her sensitive Unni gone, seems to be delusional, talking to the walls while meanwhile dodging debts and stretching the buck  to feed the family. 

Thoma Chacko, Unni's younger brother, drowning in his adolescence and low self esteem is also falling in love for the first time. 

The story is primarily about Unni. He is gone. But we learn about him as Ouseph's investigation progresses. We hear from his friends, his classmates, his teachers, his secret comic artist friends, a nun who has taken a vow of silence, a neuro-psychiatrist and a even a corpse. He was popular. He was different. He was a talented comic artist. And definitely not someone who would jump.

We learn that Unni was searching for meaning, for answers, for the truth that would set him free.  And his silent but strong cartoons were an expression of his state of mind. 

Through Unni's friends and acquaintances, we are forced to think about whether what is normal is really normal or just something decided by the majority. We learn that the truth could be a delusion and everything could be pointless. And that no matter what happens one cannot escape happiness. 
I loved everything about it. Manu Joseph gives characters a lot of depth. He goes to much detail about the philosophical questions and research that Unni did to understand why everything was the way it was. 

As I was reading, I kept wondering how an author could describe the mind of Unni or Mariamma so vividly. How could he create these profound comics for Unni? It was as though the comics were Joseph's own. How does one describe delusion in a person? Or lunacy? Unless you have experienced it first hand. And its true, I find out later in some interviews that Joseph has claimed this book to be a semi-autobiographical story. He knew a Mariamma and he knew an Unni and probably many of Unni's questions and ideas were his own.

This is a book I can read again. Not necessarily for the subject matter of philosophy which is a bit heavy, but purely for the brilliant narrative. And for that idiot Unni.


  1. It piqued my interest. Philosophy & psychology are my prime interests. Thanks, Seena, for sharing.

    1. Thankyou Ravish! In that case you will enjoy it :)

  2. Lovely review. Adding it to my reading list.

  3. thank you seema for sharing this. loved reading.


  4. The title is in english but the story is in Malayalam or English ? It's piqued my interest too. Thanks for sharing a good read.

  5. The title is in english but the story is in Malayalam or English ? It's piqued my interest too. Thanks for sharing a good read.

    1. Hi Jensy, its in English. You're welcome! Thanks for dropping in.. :)