Authors: Manu Joseph
WHEN HE WALKS INTO his home, he startles his wife, who is leaning on the sofa, with her hands on her hips. She is still emerging from a thought and takes a moment to understand that Ousep has come home, silently, without being preceded by laments.
‘Why are you not drunk?’ she says.
‘I forgot. I don’t know how,’ he says.
‘Are you not well?’
‘I am tired. Where is Thoma?’
‘He is sleeping in his room,’ she says.
Ousep is about to go into his room but he lingers in the hall because she has been looking at him as if he is new. He returns her stare, trying to understand what is wrong with her. She now takes long breaths that she clearly cannot help, her eyes still on him, hands still on her hips.
‘What?’ he says.
She pants, a shudder runs through her body, but she says, ‘It’s nothing.’ Ousep puts his arm on her shoulder. It is a powerful shoulder that has forgotten how to accept affection. It feels like stone, so he withdraws his hand.
Ousep goes to his room, changes, turns off the lights and goes to sleep. He is tired but it will be just a nap, he knows. And it is just that, a dreamless, thoughtless, shallow nap. As he had expected she wakes him up. He hears her voice say, ‘I’ve something to tell you.’
When he rises, he can barely make out her figure leaving his room. All around him there is darkness, and the world outside is still. He is surprised by the deep, perfect calm of the night. What an assault he must be every night when he disturbs this solid quiet. He wears a shirt whose sleeves he has stitched himself, and he walks into the hall. It is as if he is stepping out to receive the news of another death.
The hall is lit by the kitchen light. She is sitting on the sofa, which is shrouded in the same old unchanging bedsheet. She is at one end. He sits carefully at the other end, trying to remember where the large hole in the foam is, into which their landlord had once sunk. They sit this way, staring ahead, like a couple about to be photographed, and waiting for their joyful sons to join them in the middle. She looks strong, even peaceful. ‘Thoma told Mythili everything about Philipose,’ she says. ‘That’s what the boy did today. Then Mythili said something to him. I have been thinking about it all evening. Mythili said, “Philipose should have killed himself, not Unni.” That’s what she said. That’s what Mythili said.’
Ousep is too stunned to speak, he just sits there without a word. He feels the same heaviness in his chest that he had felt in Iyengar’s car; it is as if he is in the fierce embrace of a powerful boy. He tries to imagine the chain of events that might have unfolded the day Unni died.
Mariamma turns to him, expecting a response, she is not sure whether he understood her. So he tells her, in a calm, steady voice, ‘You were right. Unni presumed you would know, he thought everybody would come to know. But the girl chose to keep it to herself.’
‘Yes,’ Mariamma says, ‘she chose to keep it to herself. She was just a child then. But one of these days she is going to tell me. That’s what I feel, she is ready to tell me. I’ll wait.’
‘The day our boy died,’ Ousep says, ‘he was in Somen’s house. He sat in a room with a naked woman. The idea was not to touch her. That was the game, a philosophical game. So, for thirty minutes, a seventeen-year-old boy sits with a naked woman. Then the boy comes home. He comes home in a state, doesn’t he?’
And, even though she has not asked, he tells her the story of her son, at least what he thinks he knows.
MYTHILI SITS IN THE darkness, on her narrow bed, her legs folded under her. She has been trying to make a decision for months. But now she is stronger, and she knows that to be good is to be brave. And Mariamma deserves a bit of decency from this world, especially from the people she loves. Mythili has come very close to telling her. Thrice she has crossed the short corridor in the middle of the night as her parents slept. But every time she stood outside that door, she would lose her nerve and return. But at noon tomorrow she will walk down the ten-foot-long corridor, ring the doorbell and speak to Mariamma. For the first time since Unni died, Mythili will enter their house and will tell the most lovable woman in the world why her son died.
Three years ago, Mythili’s mother hands the girl a new silk dress to try on. It is real silk, a sky-blue top and a full skirt with silver elephants embroidered on the hem. Mythili stands on the rear balcony wearing the top and skirt. She has let her thick long hair loose. When Mariamma appears, Mythili stands on a high stool to show her the full length of the dress. ‘You look like a beautiful lady,’ Mariamma says, and sings a brief song in Malayalam. Mythili tells herself that she probably does look beautiful today. She wants Unni to see her this way. But she wants their meeting to be accidental, so she does not call out to him from her balcony as she normally does. She waits for a long time on both the balconies but there is no sight of him. Her mother, as expected, keeps asking her to change because these
clothes are new and they are meant for festivals. But then Mother leaves for the temple. She won’t be back for over two hours.
It is late morning now. Mythili stands on her front balcony and calls out Unni’s name in the many accents of the elders of the block. But he is not at home. It appears that nobody is at home. She waits on the balcony to see whether Unni will appear in the lane below, walking in his languid, arrogant way. She wonders whether he is inside his home, shut in his room and working on a comic, deaf to everything that is happening around him. So she decides to go to his house. She walks down the corridor and opens the door as she has done all her life. There is nobody in the hall. The door to Mr Ousep Chacko’s room is open and she can see that there is no one there. The boys’ bedroom door is shut. There she finds Thoma sleeping in the bed, but there is no sign of Unni. She decides to wait in the hall and surprise him. She will pretend that she just happened to be in these clothes, by pure chance. She takes a bunch of old issues of
from the shelf in the hall, and sits with them on the floor between the sofa and the two chairs. She lies on her stomach and starts reading the magazines. She is drowsy but she tries to keep her eyes open. If Unni sees her sleeping he will draw a moustache on her again, and that would be very inelegant. But in the gentle, steady breeze, her eyes slowly relent and shut, and she lets herself sleep.
When she feels the hand running through her hair and down her spine and legs, and all over her body, she is not sure whether it is a dream. She cannot deny she has had such dreams before, but then she knows it is not a dream. She gets up with a start and sees Unni staring at her. He holds her in his powerful arms and kisses her. She is so frightened she screams and tries to extricate herself from his grip, and in her struggle, her top tears
at the shoulder. That is when Unni leaves her, something in him snaps. She looks at him just for a moment before she runs away. That would be the last time she would see him alive. What she sees in that minuscule moment is Unni standing without meeting her eye, looking at the space behind her with a gentle smile. She has thought of his expression many times and tried to find its meaning. But she does not understand the face.
She runs to her home, into the bathroom. She sits on the floor and cries, she is shivering. She decides to have a bath. She wonders what she should tell her mother about the torn top. She invents many excuses in the bath. That is when she hears the sounds of men, she hears the word ‘Unni’ several times, and she is too terrified even to guess what may have happened. What an idiot, Unni, what an idiot.
In a few hours, Mythili will tell Unni’s mother everything about that day. But what she really wants to tell her, if she is not too shy to do that, is that she is sorry she abandoned her. The day Unni died, Mariamma lost a son and a daughter. Mythili is sorry she chose the comfort of hiding, she is sorry it turned out that way, but now the daughter has returned, and she will always watch over her till the end of her time. That is what she will say. She has the strength to say it now.
OUSEP HAS LONG FINISHED the story of Unni Chacko, and his wife has listened in silence but without any questions. Something about her tells him that she has finally made peace with Unni, she may even believe that his death has been resolved. But Ousep plans his day ahead.
He will wake up early and make a list of people he will meet – all kinds of people, new people. What did Unni see? What did Unni know, what could make a boy so contemptuous of happiness, of his own extraordinary happiness, and of human life, which he considered so trivial that he needed merely one honourable reason to shed it? Ousep will go in search of the answers, he will not stop. A search without an end. What is so terrifying about a search without an end?
Ousep, finally, in the search for meaning. Resolute, even though he does see Unni Chacko in another place, arching his body and laughing.
THE NOVEL LED ME to several people in Madras, or Chennai as it is now called. It is where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I am grateful it was not a paradise.
Among the people I met were neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists. Some of them were amused to learn that even novelists had to gather facts, but they gave me their days. Dr Krishnamoorthy Srinivas, an unforgettable patriarch with eight pens and a tiny torchlight in his shirt pocket, Dr Ennapadam Krishnamoorthy and Dr A.V. Srinivasan have contributed to the novel more than they will ever guess.
I am fortunate to have the unrelenting confidence of the finest editors in the world. Karthika V.K. of HarperCollins India, who was the first person in the publishing world to decide my fiction was fit to print. Roland Philipps of John Murrays. Amy Cherry of Norton. Iris Tupholme of HarperCollins Canada. Joost Nijsen of Podium. The novel is a beneficiary of their remarkable eye, and the care of their team, especially Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri of HarperCollins India and Joanne Gledhill of John Murrays.
But my primary editor is a person I am besotted with – Anuradha, who was the first person to read the novel, and who began her analysis, as usual, with the words, ‘Now don’t growl …’
Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann literary agency has saved me in more ways than I have let her know.
For some reason, my mother, Kunjamma, and sister, Aswathy, the extraordinary women who raised me, found it hilarious every time I asked them to recount, once again, our family stories. But they always found the time for me. As did my father, Joseph Madapally, a storyteller himself.
But most of all, I thank my daughter Kavya for delaying the novel.
acclaimed first novel, Serious Men, won the PEN Open Book Award and The Hindu Best Fiction Award. It was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Joseph lives in Delhi, where he is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and editor of Open magazine. Visit him online at www.manujoseph.com or on Facebook.
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The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Copyright © 2012 by Manu Joseph
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EPub Edition © NOVEMBER 2012 ISBN: 978-1-443-41639-9
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by John Murray (Publishers), an Hachette UK company. First published in India in 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers India Ltd.
FIRST CANADIAN EDITION
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