A few hours after I have finished reading ‘The Illicit happiness of other people,’ here I am, trying to pen down what I think. I know the book has changed something in me. I could definitely feel the trigger, now it is just a matter of finding out where the impact truly lies. My mind is still partially a part of the melancholy that lies in the Chacko house in the muddy Balaji Lane in the heart of Madras. In the real world, I am still trying to figure out what I want to write. I start wondering if it is even important to pen down what I think? I don’t know. Maybe.
I was introduced to an excerpt of this book about a month ago at an event that I attended. As I was hearing the woman on the stage read out the excerpt, I knew that I was going to end up reading this book, it was just a matter of when. Honestly speaking, how long can you resist a book that is titled ‘The Illicit Happiness of Others’ and that opens with this unforgettable line-
“Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of every story.”
Even with the little knowledge that I had about the book, there was something about it that reminded me of ‘The God of Small Things.’ I could not place my finger on what exactly it was, but I would know soon enough. The most obvious connection that one can make of course is the name of the character. Or maybe the fact that both books talk about a Malayalee Christian family. But, none of these answers felt right. There was some hidden feature that instantly reminded me of the former book. It took me quite a while to realise that this aspect was far from hidden. It was the simple honesty that lies in every word of the book. Having established this similarity, let me say that the two books are very different in terms of the story, the characters and the writing style. The only similarity lies in its raw portrayal of a setting.
The Honesty of the book, like I said intrigued me. Fiction, I have told myself a thousand times is my escape from the sometimes crude reality. It is meant to distract myself. But even in fiction, why do I thrive for an honest depiction? Honesty and truth are harsh most of the times, we all know that. Yet,why am I lying on the bed and reading a book about the mirthless life of the Chacko family rather than being enamoured by a Harry Potter? As you might have guessed, I myself don’t have the answers to these questions.
Maybe we read such books because their candour spiritually cleans us. For me, this book felt like stumbling upon something small and sparkling in a wreckage. By the end of it we know the horrors that have come to the characters, but why do we still chose to hold on to the vision of happiness? The answer is very simple. Sorrow is highly overrated. In a world where the wise men tell us that sorrow is a part and parcel of life, the truth is something else. In the words of Unni Chacko,
“ In this world, it is very hard to escape happiness”
We are never as sad as we think we are. Happiness is not a pursuit, but a state of being. That was the trigger, that is what I learnt. There is more than one tragedy at the heart of this story, but it still gives you a bit of joy. That is the inevitability of happiness, the persistence of happiness, the inescapable fate of happiness.
It is genuinely tough to be unhappy after reading this book. It is the kind of book that makes you believe that you know the family. It is the kind of book where you have to pick sides. It is very easy to love Mariamma Chacko, an economics postgraduate whose degree is as useless as decaffeinated coffee in the Chacko house. At times it is easier to hate Ousep Chacko, who is a journalist by day and a drunk menace for the neighbourhood at night. Sometimes you have an uncontrollable sympathy for Thoma Chacko, a teenager who is afraid of nearly everything. Unni Chacko on the other hand is the one who is tough to describe. As I am trying to describe him, I start agreeing with the displeasure he has for language.
“Language was created by nature to guard its secrets, not reveal them. We are trapped in language. Even thought has become language. That is what nature wants. It has given us language because it has hidden the truth somewhere else.”
-Unni Chacko, The Illicit Happiness of Other People.
In this dark gloomy setting, Manu Joseph with his witty writing manages to create a space filled with dark humour and sprinkled aphoristic wisdom like-
” A Scooter in Madras is a man’s promise that he won’t return home drunk.”
“The most foolish description of the young is that they are rebellious, the truth is that they are a fellowship of cowards.”
With such powerful witty statements, lot of humour, tragedy and honesty, the book leaves you with a strange kind of happiness. A happiness that almost feels, should I say Illicit?