The Illicit Happiness of Other People

I am lying in bed in the same posture that I have been in for the last two days. After I have finished reading ‘The Illicit Happiness of other People’, I close it and turn away from it. I am not angry or irritated, neither happy nor sad. I am feeling nothing. It’s like turning away from a lover in the dead of the night after making violent love. I play with a thread I have plucked out from the pillow cover. I am thinking many things. I am thinking about Unni. I am thinking if I can ever become like Unni. I am thinking if I know any girls like Unni. I am thinking of Mariamma who is more and more like all the Malabar women I have known and more and more a stranger that I am both afraid and protective of. And then I turn back to the book and start tracing it with my index finger.

A half hour later I am sitting here trying to figure out what it is that I want to say about the book. When I was reading it, I was writing already. I was telling myself – I will write about this sentence like this and this character like that. But mostly I was wondering how Manu Joseph wrote what he wrote.

I don’t usually start reading books soon as I get them. I wait until I feel settled and willing to surrender. When M gives me books, he tells me nothing. He doesn’t prepare me at all. He doesn’t say, ‘This book is going to change your life’, or even ‘I don’t know if you’ll like it’. He just leaves the book on my palm like it’s the most natural thing to do with books, and perhaps it is.

I giggle at the title when I first see it. I have come to know happiness as something that people work for, often very hard. And when I see the title on the cover of the book, I imagine a bespectacled man standing alone and looking at the rest of the world in great irritation. The rest of the world is a bunch of happy, bald men, showing their teeth and laughing.

***

The bespectacled man I imagine is Ousep Chacko, a journalist who is investigating his son, Unni Chacko’s mysterious suicide. Mariamma Chacko, Ousep’s wife is mourning the son’s death and is in a strange crux between her past and present. And like all the Malabar wives I know, she is plotting her husband’s murder. Unni was an artist, the genius kind but not troubled in the way geniuses are. He was a happy artist. That is the problem.

There is an unsettling, unspoken envy that Ousep carries for his talented dead son. Unni’s death is a reminder to Ousep of his own failure – not just as a father but also as a writer. Ousep was once a promising writer, the best that the Malabar Coast had produced in 20 years. But then he failed. As Ousep goes in search of his son’s past, hoping to find answers to his death, he sees for the first time the marvel that his son was. He sees that his son was a better artist than he will ever be.

I found myself siding with Ousep at these points.

And then I found myself siding with Thoma, Unni’s younger brother. Before leaving for school every morning, Thoma stands in front of the door, chanting, “Put fight Thoma. You can do this, Thoma.” This is what Unni taught him to do to feel stronger. Thoma must tell himself that every morning to be able to survive the day. Because last night, like every other night, Ousep got obnoxiously drunk and made a fool of himself in front of the whole apartment block. He called people names, screamed expletives, and returned home to force Thoma out of bed to write his obituary – The Obituary of a Failed Writer.

The lungi’s permanent position in that house is around the fan, where it must behave like a noose. Ousep dictates his obituary every night and Thoma must write it every night. They must put up with this every night and sometimes when it gets too absurd, they laugh. ‘They’ is Mariamma and Thoma. ‘They’ is never Ousep.

Mariamma leans on the bookshelf in the bedroom she has not shared with the man in years. He is still standing on the chair with the noose around his neck. She inspects the chair. It has grown weak over time but a chair never collapses like a table. That is the true nature of a good chair. At best, it becomes lame, it tilts. That won’t be enough to kill Ousep. She can go and snatch the chair right now from under his feet. It would be a perfect murder. She has considered it before but she is not very sure about the strength of the lungi or even the fan. Ousep is heavier than he looks.

Thoma begins to write Ousep’s obituary but sometimes, he has to remind himself of Unni’s death to stop from laughing. He isn’t laughing at Ousep or anything for that matter. He just is. This is perhaps one of the very few times in the book where Thoma laughs. It’s only after Ousep feels tired and hits the bed that Mariamma and Thoma go back to sleep.

***

Every morning, Mariamma wakes Ousep up with a shock of cold water. He wakes up screaming, shivering, and follows Mariamma out of his room — to catch her, hit her, yell at her, we don’t know why because he has never managed to catch her. Maybe even Ousep doesn’t know what he’d do if he caught her. On her way to hurrying out of the house, Mariamma signals for Thoma’s attention and points to her chappals which he then takes to the balcony and throws down for her to wear. After she catches hold of her chappals, she gives him a thumbs-up and goes.

The Chackos are everybody’s neighbours. They are the family that bad things happen to, ones we feel pity for and hope never to become like.

While it was in those bits that I sided with Ousep and Thoma. I sided with Mariamma all along. When the book begins, Mariamma is plotting Ousep’s murder. I wonder if Manu Joseph is also on Mariamma’s side.

OUSEP CHACKO, ACCORDING TO Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.

Nothing of the sort happens at the end of this story but I couldn’t help wondering if Manu Joseph wanted to kill Ousep just to see if it’d make Mariamma happy.

It is important to pick sides while one is reading this book. These sides aren’t set against anybody, it isn’t even a measure of who’s had the hardest time recovering from Unni’s death. This side is just an open space from which to lean from and watch these characters be weird and strange not only with each other, but also with themselves.

***

When Mariamma talks to the walls, she hitches her saree up to her knees, thighs exposed — and stands like a woman about to plough a field. She tells the walls her story, sometimes pausing to reprimand them, sometimes demanding answers. When she talks to the walls, she is addressing her past. She is addressing the man who molested her, her mother, and Unni’s sisters. These were people who troubled her. She addresses Ousep in third person to his face. But this only happens after he does his walk of shame every morning, after having made a scene the previous night.

THERE ARE THINGS MARIAMMA tells Ousep, looking him in the eye and addressing him in the third person, which have a stinging literary quality to them that reminds him of what they used to say in his village – all wives are writers. His favourite is her description of the way he walks in the morning despite the shame of the previous night. ‘As if he is going to collect a lifetime achievement award from the president.’

It’s easy to fall in love with Mariamma Chacko. It’s easier to hate Ousep. It’s difficult not to be surprised when we are told that Mariamma Chacko is an Economics postgraduate. The saree-hitching, wall-talking, son- loving, husband –hating mourner is an Economics postgraduate and it’s unfair that this information is thrown around without the least bit of warning. As if it’s just something that the writer forgot to add earlier, or worse, waited for the right moment so he could spring it upon us like some FYI Post Script. These are moments when I was convinced I don’t know this family. I don’t know many women who have a postgrad degree in economics. But then it’s not important. Because even the tube of Colgate toothpaste knows that her degree is useless in this house.

The life of Colgate is squeezed out of it until it is a flat strip of thin tortured metal. Then it is violated by toothbrushes and even index fingers for several days. The brushes are not thrown away until almost all the bristles disappear, and after the brushes do die in this autumnal way, the two postgraduates and their son use their fingers to clean their teeth until Mariamma somehow makes new brushes appear. Soaps are used until they go missing in the crevices of the body. Ousep has seen the strange sight of Mariamma staring at an empty oil bottle left standing inverted on a frying pan.

And then I was convinced that I know this family.

Mariamma became more believable for me after Mythili Subramanian enters the book. Mythili Subramanian is Unni and Thoma’s neighbor and close friend. Mariamma is very fond of Mythili and this I found oddly comforting. My own mother hated all my friends equally. There wasn’t a single friend that I brought home whom she trusted or liked. Mariamma’s fondness for Mythili was unclear to me. Does she see in Mythili a daughter she never had? Or does she see in herself a chance to be the kind of mother to this girl her own mother never was?

***

I will always remember Unni Chacko. For days after finishing the book, Unni didn’t let me feel depressed in peace. He obstructed my thoughts in a way he used to obstruct his mother from getting into one of her wall-talking, frenzied moods. I recognized this. Because every time he made his mother laugh, I smiled.

Over cocktails last evening, my cousin A and I talked about love. He said he is like most men he knows, ‘Only capable of being in love with the mother. No one else’

I have heard this before and I understand what it means but the only thing I could think of after A told me this was how different Unni is from the boys that I know. And yet how easily he succumbed to being like all the boys I know. But that hardly matters to me now.

Unni is a memory of a moment I cannot seem to let go of. Unni loved his mother and was capable of loving all other girls just as much. When he hugged Mythili forcefully, I felt a gush of longing. I pictured his strong, 17 year old, hungry arms around Mythili’s slender, unripe body and in that moment, I wanted to be held by Unni. I wanted to be made rash love to by Unni.

***

I find that there are very few words I can use to describe the moment I finished reading the book. I am going to try nevertheless. I felt empty, like I’d been dropped into a big pit that I didn’t want to get out of.

For days after that, I will think about Unni and owe him a kind of happiness I never knew I was capable of. He said, ‘One can never escape happiness.’ I have found it hard to be unhappy after reading this book. I don’t know what this means and I am too afraid to call this moment happiness. But it feels strange, this happiness, almost illicit.

***

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