|THE ILLICIT HAPPINESS OF OTHER PEOPLE|
FOURTH ESTATE | PAGES: 352 | RS. 499
|"According to usage and conventions which are at last being
questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a
woman is different in kind from that of a man," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."
Manu Joseph's fiction, like the Great Tradition of Western art, is full of men looking at women—and perhaps inevitably, women watching themselves being looked at. In his first book, Serious Men, the X-ray gaze of Ayyan Mani reduces pretty much every woman to her bra straps and panty lines— the girls with "tired high-caste faces" who jog past him on Marine Drive, the "modern young mothers" he "feasted on" at his son Adi's school gates, the cruelly drawn "Feature Writer" about whom Ayyan is certain "that her double chin would feel cold if he touched it". But when Ayyan looks at Oparna Goshmaulik, he doesn't only see her; he sees her as she is seen by the scientists of the otherwise all-male Institute of Theory and Research. When he zeroes in on the ponytailed girl on Marine Drive whose "haughty face it would be a pleasure to tame", he is almost immediately brought to a stop by a man who is standing still to look at her. If Ayyan is a discomfiting protagonist through whose eyes to see the world, he is wholly intended as such. Joseph has made an addition to Berger's already devastating schema: men who watch other men looking at women.
The theme appears early on in Joseph's new book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People: the protagonist Ousep Chacko is at a bus stop when he sees a man pat a woman's buttocks. She thinks it is her little daughter (whose game has put the idea in the man's head). She does nothing. The man continues to pat her. "Ousep stares at the scene without opinion, without outrage. A man's hand on a woman's arse and the woman, yawning now, watching the world go by."
But the primal absurdity that Ousep attributes to that scene is replaced, as the book progresses, by a sharper, sadder, much more self-conscious look at ideas about sex, via a gaze that is sometimes Ousep's but more often his son Unni's. In fact, given the recurring nature of the theme in this book, Illicit might almost be read as a secret – or perhaps a public secret – history of our deeply dysfunctional relationship with sex.
The particular forms of misogyny and harassment that Joseph seeks out for his biting satire are those of Madras in the 1980s: a world in which a 12-year-old boy knows he can only fall in love with respectable girls, though he is not sure why, while his 17-year-old brother is convinced—seemingly not entirely without basis—that every schoolboy he knows has committed a sexual crime. It is a world Joseph clearly knows well, and one he captures with dry-eyed wit and yet often affecting clarity.
The important women in Illicit—the marvelously memorable Mariamma, Unni's mother who either talks to Unni or to herself, and the more opaque beautiful teenager Mythili—are a great deal more sympathetic than any of the unidimensional women in Serious Men—the arrogant, hysterical Oparna, the grave, distant Lavanya, even the gullible, too-trusting Oja. The only complaint I have is that Joseph cannot resist putting his own thoughts into the minds of his characters—hearing the 16-year-old Mythili hold forth bitingly on an imagined future husband who "will crack at least one entrance exam and one day have a nice house in a suburb of San Francisco" is fun, but scarcely believable.
Like Serious Men, Illicit is superbly plotted. It unfolds as a father's investigation into his 17-year-old son's inexplicable suicide, "such a terrifying word in any language". Having discovered the last cartoons the boy left behind, and denied the comfort of having known him well when he was alive, the alcoholic Ousep becomes obsessed with the mystery of Unni's death, getting gradually sucked deeper and deeper into the dark world of a precocious 17-year-old. But though this is a book that is filled with precocious, supercilious, misanthropic young men ("It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity."), it also recognises, however dimly, the inevitable human need for other people.
And although it is often difficult to separate the cynical voices of these men—Ayyan in Serious Men, Unni and Ousep and so many of Unni's friends in Illicit—from the voice of the author, at least sometimes that unstinting cynicism is turned upon himself. "It is a misfortune to be in the presence of a writer, even a failed writer, to be seen by him, be his passing study and remain in his corrupt memory," goes a line in Illicit. It would indeed be a scary fate to be stowed away in Manu Joseph's "corrupt memory". Still, one cannot but hope that this is not the last book to have emerged from it.
|Published in the Sunday Guardian.|