How far can a suicide investigation go? If the suicide is the brilliant and beautiful seventeen-year-old cartoonist Unni Chacko, given to spooky explorations into human frailties and the nature of reality, then the investigation can take you on a metaphysical rollercoaster ride, carrying your verities slowly up the hump, then bringing them screaming down the other side. If the investigator is Ousep Chacko, a failed genius of Malayalam literature, a journalist and an alcoholic whose wife is not completely sane, then the same investigation can take you on a coruscating spin through a gendered world that destroys both men and women. A page-turner with a wide range of concerns structured around a suicide investigation, Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, has established him as a sui generis voice in Indian fiction.
The book begins three years after the suicide, when Ousep Chacko discovers a previously unseen comic his son finished the day he died. In the process of asking a question that he might have been better leaving alone—why did Unni do it?—Ousep meets and talks to several young men, ranging from those who have aced entrance exams to those who have failed them, with the most significant detours involving those who have, like Unni himself, decided to have nothing to do with them. As these young men slowly lay bare the world of Unni’s bizarre and unsettling theories about the nature of reality, the mind, human cruelty and nature itself, we are confronted by a politically unsettling view disguised as a story of teen angst gone out of control. The author puts those who are happy to live within ideology on notice with the idea that a belief that can be shared is a delusion because “the truth is not consistent, it changes from brain to brain”. In fact, the signal contribution of this work is that it flags mindless consensus as a danger to our species, and lives its beliefs by staying clear of political correctness.