Alpha, Beta, Psycho, Corpse
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Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: 4th Estate / HarperCollins India
Price: Rs 499 Hardback
Manu Joseph's first novel, Serious Men (2010), was about caste aspiration in the social churn of the metros, told in a prankish vein. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a braver venture. Casting aside the crutch of a popular issue, it ventures into the meaninglessness of everyday life to tell the story of a dysfunctional Chennai family which suffers an inexplicable loss.
The distraught family — being dysfunctional, its members are separately, hermetically, unempathetically distraught — can find no peace until they unravel the mystery, and the journey leads them down the tastefully crazy-paved path via madness to civilisation. This is a classic hero's quest for the biggest questions ever, concerning the nature of reality and the reality of nature.
The hero is Ousep Chacko, fallen angel of Malayalam letters and Joseph's most vibrant character yet. Once a rising literary star, here he features as the burned out chief reporter of a wire service. Strong, upright and clever in the daytime, he needs the support of other men at night. Men who will buy him a drink, perhaps buy him with a drink, who will deposit him drunk at the gates of his apartment block.
Every night, en route to his flat, he razzes his successful, conservative neighbours, the men who look through him, whose lives are marked by scooters, tiffin boxes and sacred threads descending slantwise between perceptible male breasts. Back home, his focus shifts to Mariamma, with whom he had contracted a marriage made in heaven, who now spends her days trying to keep the household running on the never-never, her nights in stoic anticipation of his drunken outrages. And finally, every night, he ritually re-enacts his suicide by hanging, press-ganging his younger son into playing audience and accomplice in this endlessly reprised tragedy.
"Don't hate me, son," says Ousep. "There are people in this world who set out to make an omelette but end up with scrambled eggs. I am just one of them." It is the fate of this deeply flawed man to unravel the mystery that has destroyed his family. The quest begins with cartoon strips with speechless speech bubbles that his older son Unni has left behind. They lead him to two more cartoonists pseudonymed Alpha and Beta, to their psychoanalyst, whom they call "Psycho", naturally. Who, unnaturally enough, leads to a living corpse.
Manu Joseph has used the artifice of fiction to speculate about several philosophical issues. Unni's empty speech bubbles recall Wittgenstein's suggestion that human language cannot adequately describe human reality. The motif of insanity brings to mind the fears shared by a vast swath of humanity — including Marcus Aurelius, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Hermann Hesse, Akira Kurosawa, RD Laing, John Lennon, Dilbert and Charles Manson — who wondered if sanity is only a relativistic, majoritarian norm. As Manson noted, the issue is more vibrant than ever before: "Years ago, it meant something to be crazy. Now, everyone's crazy."
For a writer of extraordinary sensory acuity, Joseph is careless about details. A chief reporter of MGR's Madras who's drunk his family into penury is an anachronism. One who smokes two cigarettes at a time "because three would be too many" is pointlessly weird. And while journalists tend to be very rooted in the cities they report from, Ousep's Madras is as empty as a freshly punched solar plexus. The only real location in this enormously vital city is Balaji Lane, Kodambakkam, where the Chackos live.