The meaning and purpose of life are themes that have enchanted thinkers from time immemorial. Philosophers and psychologists have given us umpteen theories on them. Novelists have entertained us with gripping stories about the same. Manu Joseph’s novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is another gripping novel on the theme of life’s meaning and purpose.
The real protagonist of the novel, 17 year-old Unni Chacko, is dead three years before the novel begins. He jumped to his death from the terrace of his three storey apartment. Why did he commit suicide when he was a brilliant student and exceptionally gifted cartoonist? His father, Ousep Chacko, wants to find it out and the novel is about that quest.
Ousep is an alcoholic. Once upon a time he was a promising writer. Now he is a mediocre journalist and a total failure as a husband and father to Mariamma and Thoma respectively. Mariamma would love to see him dead and even thinks of killing him. Ousep is intent on solving the mystery of his elder son’s death and he does succeed in the end.
The plot is as simple as that and yet quite complex as Ousep moves like a phantom among Unni’s friends and acquaintances picking up every thread that he can use to complete the warp and woof of the fabric he will weave in the end. Ousep’s quest makes the novel a suspense thriller and a philosophical thesis at the same time. There is plenty of humour too though it tends to hit us in the darkest chambers of our subconscious mind. For example: “My wife died three months ago,” says a character. “Have you heard this joke, Ousep? ‘My love, I feel terrible without you. It is like being with you.’”
The novel delves into the many ineluctable paradoxes of life and hurls at us certain axiomatic statements like “Truth is a successful delusion” and “In this world, it is very hard to escape happiness.”
Truth and delusion are explored in detail since that was one of Unni’s favourite quests. What is truth if the same reality is understood differently by different people? “A delusion is many times more powerful than a lie,” says Dr C. Y. Krishnamurthy Iyengar DM, FRCP (Glas), FRCP (Edin), FRCP (Lond), FAMS, FACP, FICP FIMSA, FAAN, Neurosurgeon, Neuropsychiatrist and Chairman Emeritus of The Schizophrenia Day Ward and Research Centre. “The distinction between a successful delusion and a lie is very difference between a successful saint and a fraud.” The doc goes on to declare that “All our gods, from the beginning of time, have been men with psychiatric conditions.”
The novel can shake orthodox religious beliefs when it shows how religious beliefs are delusions and how delusions are contagious. Did a delusion steal the young Unni’s life? Or was it an anguishing truth that did it? Wait till the end of the novel to know that. And then you begin to wonder which of the two – delusion and truth – is more desirable.
The novel grips the reader right from the beginning with its rare mix of suspense, philosophy and humour. The only problem is that towards the end it begins to sound like a thesis which the author is trying to establish. That is not a serious drawback, however. It is not easy to conclude an intricate and philosophical plot whose chief characters are a dead cartoonist, an alcoholic quester, and his “buffalo wife” and “idiot son”.