The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Seventeen-year-old cartoonist Unni Chacko has jumped off a building. Nobody is able to explain why he did it. The only clues he has left behind are the cartoons and comics he has drawn, which his alcoholic father is trying to decipher. Extracts from Manu Joseph’s new novel
The Illicit Happiness of Other People | Manu Joseph | HarperCollins | Rs 499 | Release in India: 31 August
EXTRACT
The Illicit Happiness of Other People | Manu Joseph | HarperCollins | Rs 499 | Release in India: 31 August

IN THESE circumstances, as he listens to the beatings in the next classroom, Thoma Chacko feels a liquid gloom in his groin. He considers how hard it is to be a bright person. He imagines the sheer length of human life, the many years ahead of him. He is twelve, he has a long way to go. Will Thoma make it? Unni had always tried to reassure him, he even said maths was about to get a lot easier. He said the home minister, who is responsible for happy homes, would soon pass a law changing the value of pi from 3.14159 to just 3, making it easier for all Indian children to calculate the area of a circle. That was what Unni said. But then it was probably a lie, like the many other things he used to say.

Every day, Thoma tries to improve his mind, but he does not possess the Power of Concentration, he is a Wool-gatherer. He stares at the open textbook for hours and is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted for ever. His nails scratch the page to straighten its tired limbs. It affects him, the great arrogance of the Equilateral Triangle, the failed aspiration of the octagon to be a circle, the eternal suffocation of the denominator that has to bear the weight of the unjust numerator, the loneliness of Pluto. And the smallness of Mercury, always a mere dot next to a yellow sun. In this world, there is no respect for Mercury.

Every day, Thoma tries to memorise Interesting Facts but his head is porous. There are only two impressive facts he knows. For some reason they have stuck in his head—the full form of KGB, which is Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, and Pele’s real name, which is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Every day, Thoma hopes a miracle will occur and Mythili Balasubramanium will ask him, “Thoma, what does KGB stand for? And I wonder if Pele is his real name.” But miracles do not happen in Thoma’s life, even though he is Christian.

The thought of his bleak future brings the apparition of a woman to his mind. She has black decaying teeth. It is his future wife, a fate foretold to all the boys who are not very clever. But when he becomes a man he wants a pretty wife. She would have long braided hair, she would be in a red cotton sari, and a tight blue blouse, and she would be somewhat scared of him. On the days of sorrow she would put her nervous head on his shoulder and cry, inaudibly, and just for a few moments, not long. He would never beat her, he would speak to her with respect, he would treat her well, he would never penetrate her.

But would she find Thoma handsome? Is Thoma handsome? Like Unni? It would be really wonderful if there was a canvas tent where a boy could go in unnoticed, probably wearing a mask. Inside, a panel of men and women would ask him to remove his mask. They would inspect him carefully and pass the verdict—handsome, or not handsome. Thoma wishes there was a way he could solve his doubt for ever.

There is a calm, methodical beating in the next room. An occasional thud, like the sound of a dictionary falling on the floor, followed by a brief silence, as if for appreciation. Then another bang, the unmistakable sound of a hand landing on the bent back of a boy who has failed in science or maths, or both.

It is improbable that Thoma will be thrashed today because he has not failed in any subject in the monthly tests. Somehow, he usually manages to pass, barely pass, but there is always a chance that something can go wrong. They always pick on something he has written in the tests. Mistakes that he does not fully comprehend. For example, his answer to the question: ‘If the base of the triangle is 3.87 cm and its height is 5.13 cm, can you find its area?’

‘Of course I can,’ Thoma had written.

A slap for that, he does not know why. Then there was the laughably easy question, ‘Which living thing makes its own food?’

Gloria Miss had caned his palms several times. “Not Mariamma Chacko, you idiot, not Mariamma Chacko. Which living thing, which living thing? Is your mother a thing?”

The correct answer was plants, she said. Which is absurd. Science is hard because it cannot be fully understood, it can only be accepted, like catechism. Maybe he should become a writer. But writing is hard, too. As a writer, Thoma must write like this: ‘He faced the western winds’. But how would Thoma know if a wind were a western wind? It terrifies him, that even writers must know a set of facts, that even writers must have information. Thoma does have information, but it always turns out to be wrong information as opposed to right information, which is useful.

‘What is the opposite gender of ram?’

It is amazing that every single person in the class had got the answer right, as if everybody had copied from a single source.

‘Ewe’. That was the answer. ‘Ewe’? How do people in Madras know such facts? Thoma’s answer was ‘Sita’. He received several slaps for that.

HM Dorai steams in, rearranging the air somehow. The stillness and the silence of the room collapse and in their place there is now a new stillness and a new silence. He looks as if he does not have much time and he knows what he must do. He has mad eyes, his gleaming black hair appears to tumble off his head as comic tides. And he has no arse. He places his thick cane and other things on the table and reads out eight names from a piece of paper. The boys rise and go to the door. They stand there, looking serious. He has chosen only those who failed in both science and maths. He looks at the boys and rolls up his sleeves. “Attention,” he says. “And the special guests of the evening are...” He calls out a name. The boy marches, swinging his arms, lifting his legs high, chanting, “Left, right, left.” He is crying now and his ‘left, right, left’ sounds like a song. He stops in front of HM Dorai and bends his back. Dorai circles his hand on the boy’s back, and lands a hard blow. The boy stomps his leg, salutes, shouts “Thank you”, and walks back to his seat. Dorai calls out the next name. When he is finished with all the eight special guests, there is the Silence of Anticipation. He should go away now but Thoma knows something is wrong. Dorai’s eyes had rested on him for a brief moment, and when they wandered away they had taken his image with them. That is not good.

Dorai takes his things from the table, and looks straight into Thoma’s eyes. He snaps his fingers and says, “Come with me.” He stands outside the class and waits. Thoma goes to him. Dorai puts his face very close to Thoma’s.

“Thoma,” he says, “your father called me yesterday. Do you know why?”

“I do not know, sir.”

“He is asking questions about Unni. I told him I’ve nothing more to say, your father is asking a lot of people about Unni. Why?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Why is he asking questions about Unni, why now?”

“I don’t know.”

“People tell me that he has found something about Unni. Do you know?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Are you sure?”

“I have no information,” Thoma says.

+++

PEOPLE HAVE a lot of things to say about Unni Chacko, they show his world as a surprisingly large place, but nobody can explain his final act. Ousep wonders whether anyone truly knows why his son died, if a day will ever come when he finally solves Unni.

That a mystery must have a resolution is obviously not a requirement of nature. It is, in fact, another deceit of writers. A plot device, like the idea of a beginning, a middle and an end. In the real world, are mysteries usually solved? What are the chances? Was there ever a person in this world who went in search of an answer and actually found it?

These are the facts, they are not disputed. About three years ago, on 16 May 1987, Unni Chacko left home in the morning after working all night on a comic. He was gone for nearly four hours. Nobody knows where he had gone. At noon he got a haircut. When he returned to Block A, he played cricket with the boys. He bowled, he did not like to bat. Then he decided to go home. He took the stairs. It is not clear what happened next. He must have reached home, which is on the third floor, the highest floor, but nobody saw him on the stairs or going into his house. His mother was not at home, she had gone to attend a prayer meeting. His younger brother, Thoma, was at home, but fast asleep in his room. In all probability, Unni reached home. The house is never latched or locked in the day, so he could have entered without ringing the doorbell. About twenty minutes after Unni took the stairs, he was seen on the terrace. According to six eyewitnesses Unni stood on the railing, composed and in control. He stopped for a moment, crossed his hands behind his back and plunged down. He fell on the concrete walkway that runs beside the playground. He died instantly, people say. He did not leave a note. In six weeks he would have turned eighteen.

Ousep did not know it then, but Unni told a lot of people that he was a Hindu, an atheist Hindu, whatever that means, but he went the Christian way. The funeral mass was in Fatima Church. That was the first time Ousep had entered a church in over two decades. The coffin moved down the aisle towards the altar on the arms of strangers. Ousep walked behind them, hugging the shoulder of the boy’s mother, both slowly passing through rows of empty pews. How strong, the legs of dumb parents, how strong. The strangers placed the coffin in front of the altar and left. The lights went on, the fans that hung from the ceiling on long white stems came to life. The silence was so deep that he could hear the hum of the tube lights. Mariamma sat on the floor beside the coffin. She took her son’s lifeless hand in hers and rubbed it slowly. Ousep stood beside her, with his hands on his hips, wondering what he must do. What does a father do at the final mass of his son?

A short, stout man in a white cassock walked to the coffin and stood with his hands joined at his crotch. After a few moments he said, “You must be Ousep Chacko.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never seen you before.”

“I never come here,” Ousep said.

“Eventually, they all come. Isn’t that true, Ousep? The high and the low, they all come. Your wife is a good woman. She is a pious woman.”

“She is.”

“She is like a child.”

“That’s true.”

“I want to tell you something, Ousep,” the man said softly, taking Ousep a few feet away from the coffin. “We are in the temple of truth but we are also men of the world, we are practical men. I am hearing things about how the boy died, you know people talk. I don’t want to know how he died. It does not matter. As long as he is truly dead I will bury him. But what we say is that it was an accident. We will say that today and we will say it every day.”

“As you wish.”

“The boy, he was a good boy deep inside. But he was not normal.”

Ousep looked carefully at the priest. A fifty-year-old virgin, a fully grown man in a white gown who believed that he was an elf who connected God to man, this clown thought Unni was strange.

“Ousep,” the priest said, “some boys wander far. There is nothing we can do about it. They wander too far.”

There was a flicker of triumph in his narrow eyes. It was a triumph Ousep would see often, in the days to come, in the eyes of other men.

The priest left and in a few minutes appeared at the altar. He told the empty church, “We are here today to remember Unni Chacko, son of Ousep Chacko and Mariamma Chacko. A child of only seventeen. Such a pure child that God has taken him to heaven. Unni was a very talented and bright boy. He was a good person, and everybody loved him.”

That was it. The story of Unni Chacko’s life as told by an imbecile to an empty hall.