Book Review: The Teenager and the Art of Delusion

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 16, 2012 06:16 hrs

Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Author: Manu Joseph

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs. 499

Pages: 341

There’s a certain Madras that only a real Madrasi, brought up in the swirl of its agglutinative language, seawaters, Margazhi season, heaving chests, trembling lips, twitching eyebrows, 50-foot tall 'cut-out's of film stars that fans would deface with alcohol abhishekams, politically-motivated relay fasts, cringe-inducing abuse, and culture of invasive “eve-teasing”, knows.

It isn't the Madras of beaches and tree-lined streets, which rests somewhere between the rolling syllables of Brahm-Tam and the ambiguous calls of newspaper distributors, old-paper collectors, knife-sharpeners, vegetable-sellers and glorified rag-pickers who traded plastic ware for discards. It isn't the Madras of dhaavani -- clad virgins and rice kolams and glass bangles and shy flirtations and high giggles and all that exotic nonsense.

The Madras that Manu Joseph creates in his new book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is the Madras that mattered to us before we began to recast it in the nostalgic mould of a name that has been wiped off the map.

Just as ‘Bombay’ means The Gateway of India, Taj Hotel and Worli Seaface only to people who haven’t grown up in it, ‘Madras’ means the Marina Beach only to people who haven’t grown up here. To us Madrasis, it’s one of the many things we take for granted.

And Manu Joseph’s second book allows us to take the city for granted to the extent that I can’t recall whether there was any scene involving the beach at all. Because this is the Madras that was incidental to our lives – yes, people were moving from Ambassadors to Marutis and gasping that the gears were in the wrong place all over the country, but at the time, no one had access to the rest of the country.

Illicit is set in 1990, when teenagers didn't mumble, “Gonna Bessy” before stumbling out to their expensive bikes and shooting off to Elliott's Beach in Besant Nagar. It is set in a Madras where the cliches were the reality. It was a city where there was a subtle contest between kids who lived in “apartments” and kids who lived in “independent houses”, each disguising an inferiority complex in supercilious pity. It was a city full of intelligent people with promising futures in America, where they would earn dollars, and visit before Fall, with Hershey’s for nieces and nephews who had the wrong English accent.

The context of the novel is key to understanding its concerns. While the main strand in Illicit is a quest which could happen anywhere, the characters who stand out are “the others”, sidelined because they don’t conform to the accepted gauge of intelligence, or success.

In Serious Men, Manu Joseph spoke of “the others”, too – the men who spend decades in research centres, hoping for that one big discovery that could win them the Nobel Prize (or at least, immortality in physics textbooks), knowing they would never be as famous as the people they’d grown up reading about. Because, honestly, how many science Nobel Prize winners can we name from the last twenty years?

Here, he deals with what he calls “the untold story”. It’s a story of failures – boys who failed such a crucial examination that the verb rose in status to adjective and then noun. They could never be good enough because they’d failed the JEE – Joint Entrance Examination – which would get them a coveted place in IIT.

It’s easy to see them as caricatures; but if one has observed the pressures of “IIT preparations”, knowing one won’t bother with them, as the main character Unni Chacko – and perhaps the author himself – has, one views them rather more sympathetically. Which is why a passage like this strikes a chord in the reader:

Sai stands in his spineless way, young but antiquated, studious but not clever, a thick steel watch on his wrist, his oiled black hair combed in the good-boy hairstyle. He looks like the past of an old man. He failed all the engineering entrance exams that he had taken, and scored just eighty-nine percent in the twelfth-standard board exams. So he endures the ignominy of studying physics in just another obsolete arts and science college where Jesuit brothers and blind people go to study English literature.

While the author does indulge himself in one-liners, he makes them stick in the reader’s head with the freshness of his simile. There’s a sort of careless everyday humour that appears intrinsic to his writing – it smirks at us from the flags of mountain-climbers, and from the grocery bags of annoyed wives. And they make us laugh not because they’re hilarious, but because they’re true. It’s true that most mothers survey their daughters with pornographic eyes, searching for sexuality hidden in innocent gestures, in a country where loose hair is equated with loose character.

I’ve felt earlier that Manu Joseph can weave images from words, and this is never seen as vividly as when he describes the work of a cartoonist. We’re able to visualise the cartoon strip, and they seem funnier for our participation in their creation.

It’s easy to forget that one of the most crucial issues in the novel is gender relations – mainly because Illicit seems too interesting to be about them. But as the generation of fathers-who-didn’t-know-their-children’s-sections gives way to the diaper-changing-daddies, one character posits the theory that men have disgustingly perverse fantasies about women.

These are best portrayed through the “eve-teasing” that always was, and still is, rampant in a city labelled “conservative” and “safe”, by a press that equates Delhi with India, and Bombay with Bollywood. Having described the taunting of women on buses by “flying squads of college boys”, and how their victims usually avenge themselves on a “harmless fruit” like Sai, the author adds:

There is an untitled comic by Unni about one of these squads, which shows how they do what they do, and how much they enjoy it. The comic ends in the distant future of the five boys of the gang. All of them are respectable men who go home every evening to a loving traditional wife and two adoring children.

One of Manu Joseph’s strengths as a storyteller is his ability to subtly intersperse his narrative with his characters’ worldviews, so that hidden triggers channel us towards certain ideas. Maybe it started with the line “All bras were white”, but I found myself thinking of a time when bras had cones, not cups, and cost thirty rupees. The Matriarch of Bras was a desi brand called Dolcevita, which cost eighty rupees and merited a mispronounced, but fake-accented, offer of “Daalsuhvitta” by snooty salesgirls who would demonstrate the advantages of an adjustable strap by making it short enough to fit a midget and long enough to hang on a 90-year-old feminist who’d burnt her bras decades ago. It was a time when access to branded clothing was limited to “Export Surplus” sales, where we’d leap at sweatshop produce with lovely cuts and mismatched stitches.

And from there, I began to think of a strange kind of urban poverty that all educated, middle-class people grappled with. It was a time when people didn’t invest in a foreign degree, two cars, and a flat before having the customary two children. People had ramps to wheel their Bajaj scooters into verandas, so they wouldn’t be stolen in the night. Every upper middle-class family had a scooter. Every rich family had a car. If you had more than one car, everyone knew you were cheating on your taxes, and would eventually land up in jail. People went by buses or autos or rickshaws when the one family vehicle was in use. When parents got sentimental, they promised their children they would go on one plane ride within five years.

It’s a situation that the generation that is in its twenties and thirties now – and even their parents, most of whom moved on to MNCs or underwent “salary correction” in a privatised market – have forgotten. But those were the circumstances that dictated the challenges, failures and societal roles of families, where the slightest misfortune could dock one down substantially in the points table.

It is the voice of this time, and these families of parents and teenagers, that Illicit listens to.

It would do the novel a disservice to try and summarise its concerns, but since it deals mainly with perspective, maybe I could trace what it may do to one. Despite its undercurrent of cinematic melodrama, the novel has a deceptively detached narrative voice. A seemingly mundane line about nurses speaking to Ousep Chacko in Malayalam, for instance, rings in the authenticity of everyday Madras, making the characters more real. Without our being conscious of it, they evolve into people we genuinely care about.

You may well up at the regret of a man who didn’t pick up his toddler when it smiled at him with outstretched arms. You may feel pangs for the older brother who reassured you the Home Minister was changing the value of ‘pi’ to 3, instead of ‘3.142857, bar’. You may cry for the enigmatic boy next door whom you believed could read your mind, because he was just so good-looking. You may yearn for the adolescent brilliance that faded when you realised there were things you didn’t know.

And you may wonder how much of what we see we can believe. How much does language distort vision? How is something given validation? Is Truth the exclusive privilege of The One? Or is it the perception of the mass? Are people who claim to have superior powers crazy, blessed, or gods? How much talent is someone allowed to have, before it consumes him? Are you better off dying before you’re discovered, or living to realise you faded before you fulfilled your potential? How many rejections does it take to go from genius writer to raving drunk? And what does it cost to be bad at math, especially if you call it “maths”?

Finally, you wonder how such quirky writing can be so thought-provoking.

More by the same author:

Who has the right to write about India?

Roll of Honour: Riots, fear & sodomy in 1984

Why India is the worst country for women

Rahul or Robert: Who blunders the most?

Need of the hour: Viagra for women

The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at