Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What makes you sane? (Book review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People)

Isn’t that a fascinating name for a book? What kind of happiness would be illicit? Another book I have been reading is called Too Much Happiness – it is a collection of short stories by the famous Canadian writer, Alice Munro. Can there be such a thing as ‘too much’ happiness? Is happiness ever enough? It could be overwhelming, yes. But never too much I think :) I want more happiness! Give me more!

Coming back to Illicit Happines. . .It is a novel written by Manu Joseph. This is his second novel; the first one called Serious Men, was a huge success and got him some awards. I have not read it yet. But today I will be talking about The Illicit Happiness of Other People. This is one of those rare books that I finished reading in a jiffy; usually I take a good week or ten days to finish a book – but this one was like eating an ice-cream, gulping down once spoonful after another, savoring every sensation.

This novel is based in late 80’s, early 90’s in Madras. It is a story of a 17 year old boy, Unni Chacko, who commits suicide. He seemed like a ‘happy’ person but he kills himself by jumping from the terrace. And nobody knows why. His father starts a journey, 3 years later, to find out about his son and understand what could have led him to do what he did. There was no suicide note; only clue left behind is in the comics and cartoons drawn by Unni. He was a cartoonist – a surrealistic cartoonist I must add. It is the story of Chacko family – a drunkard father, a schizophrenic mother, a son who killed himself, and another who lives under the shadow of his dead brother. It is a tragic story that talks a lot of philosophy and psychology, but you can’t just miss the humour in it. Manu tells the story so beautifully, with the right amount of mystery, intrigue and dollops of funny one-liners – mostly funny, candid observations of how things are. I don’t remember the last time I laughed while reading a book. Unni is one fascinating character, and so is his brother, Thoma. Both the kids have very interesting ways of looking at the world. Unni’s perspective is well, philosophical..metaphysical, witty, but Thoma is plain adorable – the stupid little kid.

The book goes on to talk about what sane and insane really mean. The delusions of the world, the folly of two. If everyone in the world believes in what is not really true, does it become true? What constitutes madness and how is it different from being enlightened?

It made me think about what freedom really means. The true form of freedom where nothing holds you back, you say what’s on your mind and do what your heart desires. . . will be considered insanity in the real world. The truth about insanity is that it is the truth, and the world does not want to see and accept the truth in all its clarity. The world moulds you in such a way that you stop looking at the truth and consider that ‘normal’. 


  1. This seems really really interesting. The cover itself is an eye catcher. Review was great. Start giving stars to the books no?

    1. :)

      There are two more cover designs for this book I think. The one that I bought had this cover, which gives it a very archaic 80's look I thought.

      Yea, I should start giving stars :) But I think it is a failed effort coz I can never give anything 5 stars. So the books I love would get 4 stars and the ones I don't like as much would get 3 stars. Any book worse than that (less than 3 stars) I wouldn't have completed reading. hahaha. yea so that's the explanation :P

      P.S: I do give stars on goodreads :)

  2. Does the book actually have illustrations and cartoons? Quite an interesting story he picked up. I am a bit scared of philosophical books, because I always feel like they are brain washing me! But this one sounds too interesting not to read..

    1. No, it doesn't have the illustrations and cartoons unfortunately. But it is a wonderful read. Yes it is a bit philosophical but not on the nose. It is not like a discourse on life and how it needs to be lived :P More than anything, it is funny in parts - you must read :)

  3. Ooh sounds great. I loved Serious Men.

    I have the same problem you mentioned about stars. I think I need to rerate all my books on Goodreads.

    1. Yes, you must read Illicit... too :)

      About rating books, I think a lot depends on the circumstances in which I have read the book for me to like, love or hate it. Something which I read in college and loved, I may not quite find that interesting now.. Doesn't that happen with everyone? I think it is also true about reading different books by the same author. If I had read Serious Men before Illicit...perhaps I would have liked Serious Men more...

  4. Alice Munro : When she won the Nobel prize last year, I got hold of a few of her articles from "New Yorker", and passed them on (without reading them) to colleagues at work who needed a bit of a lift.

    This one in particular was a big mistake
    alice munro, dear life - a childhood visitation, 2011-sep-19

    After Robin Williams last act last week, one is reminded of the stark reality that many people do find value and meaning in suicide. Like it or not, this is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice; it is just so tragic that people's choices can appear so limited to them.

    Book lists - You know the psychically rewarding activity of verbalizing what you have to be happy for? My young nephew (8) challenged me to this on a skype call Sunday morning - and I really did not feel in the mood before this conversation as things were weighing really heavily on my mind at the time. I could not let him down so I found the least painful thing I could think about, though it was trivial to me it inspired him, and rubbed back off on me. Constructing your top 16 book list is a fantastically therapeutic activity - I have being going over books that I have stayed up to the small hours reading : rating and sorting them. I will get them together and post here shortly.

  5. My top 16 books - these had the greatest effect on me at the time I read them.

    I have picked up items 1, 2, 11 years after first reading them, and they still run shivers up and down my spine. The rest will too in years to come, they are all finds in the last 4 years.

    Highly Immersive (the un-put-downable criterion)
    1. Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol
    2. Isaac Asimov, I Robot
    3. Jeffrey Satinover, Truth behind the Bible Code
    4. Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World
    5. Leo Tolstoy, Katia
    6. Patricia St. John, The Victor
    7. Sholem Asch, Mary
    8. Trevanian, Shibumi
    9. Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

    Very memorable (from a much longer list, but these spring to mind at present)
    10. Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul
    11. Edwin Abbott, Flatland
    12. Henry W. Fowler, Modern English Usage
    13. Matthew Byrne, When Heaven Looked Upward
    14. Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!
    15. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman
    16. Victor Frankl, An Introduction to Logotherapy and Existential Analysis

    1. Wow! That's a great list. I am sad that I have only read one of all the books you have listed here :( Christmas Carol and I loved it :)

      I am going to catch up! Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  6. It is my pleasure to share.

    Let me know which you cannot get hold of, I think that only 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 12, 14,15, 16 can actually be ordered any more at regular bookshops. Many are also unusual fare.

    I have shareable electronic versions of the following if you need help sourcing them: 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 14, 15, 16

    I also have paper originals of the following, so can send excerpts if needed : 2, 3, 6, 7, 12, 13.

    That only leaves 10 as odd man out - I have only got chapter I of this book, and am struggling to find a paper or electronic copy. But what Curt said in Chapter I is profoundly significant (already more relevant to me than Caroline Myss's "Anatomy of the Spirit", which is not to say that the Myss book is not very good, just not quite in the top 16 though).


I love hand-written notes :)