As a child of parents who toiled at two-to-three jobs at a time, I marveled at what others had and was seemingly inaccessible to me. This apparent happiness of other people felt illicit and beyond my reach. It ranged from big and small material items (mansions by Lake Michigan and Schwinn bicycles upgraded every few years) to big and small experiences (multi-generational family reunions to Sunday brunches at The IHOP).
The IHOP: in my youth, it was The International House of Pancakes; in this review, it is Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People.
The first page of Joseph’s engrossing novel immediately establishes who is inside the community of happiness and who is outside: the insiders are the orthodox Hindus of Madras (Chennai); the outsiders are a Malayalee Catholic family—Ousep and Mariamma Chacko and their two sons, Unni and Thoma. The Chackos are “The Underdog Family” of the first chapter’s title. Ousep “does not ask for coffee, but [Mariamma] brings it anyway, landing the glass on the wooden desk with minor violence to remind him of last night’s disgrace.” The disgrace is Ousep’s nightly drunken attempts at drowning a deep familial sorrow. In the mornings, a more sober Ousep faces the challenges of the day alone. “He can see the other men, the good husbands and the good fathers, their black shoes polished, serious shirts already damp in the humid air … The men never greet Ousep.
They turn away, or become interested in the ground, or wipe their spectacles. But among their own, they have great affection. They are a fellowship, and they can communicate by just clearing the phlegm in their throats.”
In the pages that follow, the reader discerns that something has happened to Unni; a mystery surrounding his disappearance is the source of the family’s tragically hard-earned sadness.
As The IHOP’s well-paced narrative introduces multi-layered characters in this literary version of the board game Clue, its author subversively inverts the meaning of happiness.
Manu Joseph turns upside-down “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as a “Folie à deux” or “Folly of Two.” While never specifically invoking the writers of the American Declaration of Independence, Joseph gradually, but insistently, claims through Unni’s abbreviated life that the world as we experience it is a delusion. “A mad person transfers his delusion to another person, and both of them begin to see the same delusion. And they mutually corroborate what they see as true. That is the Folly of Two.”
But an influential delusion (example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”) doesn’t end with the second person. Slave-holding Thomas Jefferson passed along his delusion to fellow slave-holder John Hancock, who then put pen to paper with his famous signature and pulled in other signatories. Over the years, most Americans and an increasing part of the world have come to believe that it is their fundamental right to happily live through the never-ending cycle of work-buy-play, work-buy-play. Over two centuries, the Folly of Two has become the folie à plusieurs, or madness of many. Many of us strive to be in the fellowship of the so-called good husbands and wives, the good fathers and mothers, with their “black shoes polished” and their “serious shirts already damp in the humid air” of capitalism, socialism, Hinduism, Catholicism, or some other co-opting ism.
Unni was one who swam against the tide. Through precocious experiences leading to his premature death at the age of 17, Unni saw through the delusions. By the first 30 pages of The IHOP, the reader knows that Unni is dead, having fallen (jumped?) from the terrace of his family’s apartment. But neither the reader nor Unni’s family knows the truth: Why this fall (this jump?)? The rest of the novel takes us along for Ousep’s search for a kind of truth, an understanding of his son; Ousep’s search becomes our own exploration into the larger issues that Joseph plumbs: “The war between good and evil has ended. And it has ended with the complete triumph of evil and a total, irrevocable extermination of good. Evil is cunning, it quickly splits itself into two—into apparent good and evil, so that mankind is under the delusion that the great conflict is still ranging and it will not go in search of the truth.”
Though not an easy read at the beach, The IHOP does invite the reader to challenge his/her long-held beliefs. One can approach this pursuit of a story through the graphic novel cartoons that give life to Unni’s philosophy, or through Ousep’s journalistic surface story, or through Mariamma’s back story, or through Thoma’s by-stander story. Joseph’s tapestry is made rich by the interweaving of all these and other perspectives.
What Ousep sought after Unni’s death, Mariamma experienced during her son’s life: a dialogue beginning with the question, “People want to be happy, don’t they?” Followed by, “They are desperate to be happy, aren’t they? And concluding with, “But look how many things have to go right in a person’s life for that.”
The darkness of The IHOP is leavened with social satire and humorous asides that encourage the reader to smile, albeit smile a sad, wry smile. Mariamma is the source of much murderous mirth, as she dreams of Ousep’s death: “She is obviously not a murderer. She is just a housewife with exaggerated notions about herself. She does write occasional book reviews … but still she is not a bad person.”
In an accepting way—never mean-spirited—Joseph completes the Chacko family with Thoma, Unni’s dim younger brother who, in relation to Unni, is like the planet Mercury: “always a mere dot next to a yellow sun.” Thoma’s academic struggles are played for cheap, but gentle, laughs: To the science exam question, “What is the opposite gender of ram?” Thoma replies, “Sita,” which although theologically correct, only results in slaps from the teacher whose rubric demands “ewe” as the correct answer.
Like most of humanity, Thoma soldiers on. Perhaps like the mathematically inclined who are today’s chosen ones “the boy will make it … He will crack at least one entrance exam, and he will one day have a nice house in a suburb of San Francisco, or in a suburb of a suburb of San Francisco. He will find a cute Tamil Brahmin wife and make her produce two sweet children. He will drive a Toyota Corolla to work. And there, in the conference room of his office, he will tell his small team… “We must think out of the box.”
An antipathy to the techno-elites persists through The IHOP. While the root cause of this aversion to those who have arrived is not clear, the novel makes it clear that to do well at one’s studies, attend an IIT, work in the Silicon Valley (and perhaps have an occasional family brunch at The International House of Pancakes) is a crime of sorts. Joseph rails against this illicit happiness of ordinary folks. Borrowing from the annals of neuropsychiatry and perhaps the Hindu concept of maya, he boldly proclaims that “the world is a charade created by a combination of senses.”
While the insights of The IHOP are not new, the story-telling behind them is novel and worthy of a careful reading. For this middle-aged reader, happiness is actually quite extraordinary and something to be celebrated. Maybe Manu Joseph has misinterpreted Leo Tolstoy in his interpretation of happiness. Tolstoy (who famously wrote in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) treated happiness as aspirational, while Joseph treats it as a confidence trick foist upon us a kind of opiate of the masses.
But perhaps there is a more youthful reader (whose parents are toiling at two-to-three jobs) who finds herself trapped in the language of the moment, the language of Big Data, Cloud Computing, and Social Media. And perhaps this reader might turn reviewer and open her review of The IHOP thusly: “I live in a time of The IPAD (Illicit Pursuit of Alluring Devices) and The IPHONE (Illicit Pursuit of Happiness, Oddly Never-Ending). It’s time to switch off and stop marveling at what others have. These realities are socially constructed, and I’d rather that I find my own happiness, my own truth.”
For RCO’s Kakosa, Balkrishna Oza, who, in his avuncular way, brings the meaning of happiness to his family, friends, and students despite the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.