Quest for the final answer
Reviewed by Balwinder Kaur

The Illicit Happiness Of Other People
By Manu Joseph. 
Fourth Estate. Pages 343. Rs 499.

unni Chacko, the 17-year-old cartoonist has done something less than comical with his life, he has ended it. The glaring lack of a suicide note implies the cause should be obvious but certainly isn't to his grieving family. While the Chacko household was far from idyllic, the late Unni seemed contradictorily happy. He was well-liked, good looking, intelligent and charming; a remarkable young man. Why did he do it? Is the question posed by Manu Joseph in The Illicit Happiness of Other People.

The low-income Madras suburb it's set in is mired in gloom, its narrow streets filled with small wind-up people with even narrower minds. In the ruins of the impoverished Chacko household, its three remaining members grapple with tragedy and despair. The head of the family Ousep is a failure and a drunk, his wife talks mostly to herself and the walls while their remaining son is neglected. Abuse, anger and despondence collide here every day jarringly and their neighbours avoid them, lest their misery be contagious.

Three years after the worst thing happened to their family, Ousep Chacko has restarted his quest for answers. The failed writer and terrible householder tries to unravel his son's life to solve the mystery of his death. He hounds the boy's reticent friends and pulls details out of them. His entire line of inquiry is based on the only clues he has; the 60-odd comics he son drew. These comics range from the ordinary to the cryptic; questioning and mocking the absurdity of life, improbability of enlightenment and the futility of the search.

Slowly emerges the tale of a detached young man and his experiments with life. Ranging from intellectual deconstruction to adrenaline-inducing stunts. His desperate desire to understand life, make sense of it and derive meaning from it. Ultimately how Unni tried to dismantle life to see how it worked. And exactly how his quest for answers ended in the permanent solution.

The novel is dark and critical focussing on despondency, desperation and apathy. The author addresses that which looms large yet must not be named: the stigma surrounding mental health problems and general lack of awareness. He personifies the perils of a society where worth is measured in grades; where hopes, dreams and trajectories are fixed. He humanises and names the victims of a society which smothers it's young and shuns its rejects.