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Authors: Manu Joseph

Tags: #Contemporary

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BOOK: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
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Thoma gathers the courage to say, ‘I am having cashew nuts.’ She does not react, it is as if she has not heard him. He is about to repeat what he had said when she turns and leaves. He stands there, shamed. A familiar gloom fills him. As Unni used to say, ‘Thoma, you are feeling low right now, as low as a dachshund’s balls.’

Thoma goes down to play and he is soon a part of a cricket match that often forgets he exists. A boy from another colony is setting the field and he, very rudely, tells Thoma where he must stand. Tony is a Sri Lankan refugee. How can a refugee tell Thoma where he must stand in his own country? But Thoma keeps his mouth shut, the refugee is much older and stronger. Thoma is more infuriated when Tony lifts his head and looks up. That is what all grown-up boys here do once every thirty seconds, all the boys on the playground, on the
boundary wall, on the lane outside – they keep looking up to see if Mythili is watching. Her balcony has long become a shrine that pulls boys and men from faraway places. They come to strut up and down the lane for her. Even the Roadside Romeos come, with their hair wet, in their best clothes, all of them wearing dark glasses. They come on foot, cycles and motorbikes. The times she appears on the balcony, it is as if a circus bell has rung and the clowns below must now begin to perform. They start doing stunts on their bikes, the slum boys do Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, all this as if it is not a performance but their Fundamental Nature. The boys of the colony, too, become brisk and happy in her presence, they run fast, bowl as furiously as they can, insult each other, harm small boys, talk aloud about intelligent matters – words like ‘perestroika’ and ‘GATT’ fill the air. They do this with swift glances upwards to check whether she is still there. But Mythili usually stands in an unseeing way, or she just vanishes. Mostly she never appears.

Thoma is unable to concentrate on the game, his mind wanders. Eight girls of his age are sitting on the wall and chatting. Padmini, in a rare careless moment, spreads her legs and he can see her red underwear. She sits that way talking, and he is hypnotized by the sight. He is unable to look away even though he knows he is committing a crime. Now that he has seen her this way, will she ever get married?

When the sun sets, the children vanish, except Thoma, who wanders around the playground. The twilight fear comes to him and he hopes that the night will pass without incident, which it never does.

He decides to delay going home by walking up and down the three stairwells and listening to the other homes. He likes to know what happens in the other homes. Once, he heard a
man scream at his son for scoring ninety-five per cent in maths. ‘Where is the five per cent, where is it, where has the five per cent gone?’ Then, something happened that made the boy cry in total fright. The man’s voice said, ‘Here, these are your clothes. Take this money. Leave the house at once and go search for the five per cent. Come back only when you find it.’ The boy begged his father to let him stay. Thoma sat on their doormat and laughed, holding his stomach. Some days he heard the cries of friends whose fathers chased them with a heated spoon because the boys had not scored well enough in the tests. This was rare, though. Usually the boys only got belted. In the middle of one such lashing, a man said, ‘The only system that matters to an Indian?’

‘The decimal system,’ the boy answered.

One hard lash, and a boyish grunt.

‘The only system that matters to an Indian?’

‘The decimal system.’

But, most of the time, there were happy voices, families sitting together and talking and singing and laughing in the fragrance of their unattainable meals.

Thoma cannot ignore it any more, the fear grows in his stomach. Another night that he must endure. He goes home thinking of what Unni used to say, mimicking their sports coach: ‘Fight, Thoma, put fight.’ He used to say that when Thoma was trying to study maths at dawn, or when he walked to the stumps to bat at number eleven, or when he was learning how to ride a cycle. It is now Thoma’s anthem. Fight, Thoma, put fight. He likes it because it says what he must do but does not mention the outcome at all.

He has to first make a confession to his mother, and he chooses the time when she is doing the dishes in the kitchen. He stands near the stove and numbs her mind by mumbling
many things, including the National Pledge and the first two stanzas of ‘Lochinvar’, and finally he arrives at a prayer, which is a form of silence to her: ‘Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, I saw Padmini’s undies. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

Mother does not turn from the plates, but as far as Thoma is concerned he has confessed.

In an hour Thoma is pretending to be asleep in the bedroom that he and Unni used to share. His father will come any time now. Thoma remembers a Tamil proverb that had once startled him with its simple truth – ‘You can wake up a man who is asleep, but not the one who is pretending to be asleep’. And that is what Thoma tries to do every night when his father comes to wake him up. But he never manages to pretend long enough. He always rises, but today he decides to lie there with his eyes shut, come what may. If he is pulled, dragged or kicked, it won’t matter. Thoma will lie like a dead dog.

Unexpectedly, he has fallen asleep. He is woken by the distant wail of his father’s gifted voice: ‘Good evening, dear bank clerk bastards.’ Ousep is probably at the gates of the block. Everybody must have heard it, but fortunately, Ousep had screamed in Malayalam and they do not know Malayalam. But then Ousep repeats the greeting in Tamil. Thoma feels the familiar shame. He hopes Mythili has not heard it, he hopes she is fast asleep. There is a long, terrifying silence, for about five minutes. He hears the main door open. His father is home. His mother, as always, comes to Thoma and says, ‘Be strong, Thoma, don’t be afraid. I am here. What am I, Thoma? Tell me, what am I?’

‘You’re the Rock.’

‘Yes, I am the Rock.’

He hears his father scream, ‘Where is my beloved wife, the
beloved daughter of a rubber pirate?’ Thoma knows she is sitting in a corner of the kitchen floor, near the stone grinder. That’s where she sits in these circumstances. Ousep is standing in the hall, pointing to various objects and asking, ‘What is this? What is this?’ Then he falls quiet. He is now probably in his room, sitting at his desk and writing his own obituary as he usually does.

There is the sound of a loud crash. He has flung the Best Writer award again, the silver angel on the wooden stand. Father received the award from the Kerala chief minister many years ago, when he was very young. He was famous then, his mother says. She says that when the award first came home the silver angel was looking straight ahead, but as Father kept flinging her, the lady’s neck kept bending. Now she looks up at the roof, somewhat heroic.

Thoma can hear him grunting, he is walking down the hall, he is approaching the bedroom door, but then he walks past, into the kitchen, and it appears that he has gone to the rear balcony. Thoma hears him scream, ‘Doctor, I hear you are gone! Doctor, is that true? You asked me a question a month ago. Sorry I could not answer you then. Here it is, though. It is watery. You bastard, my stools are watery. Is that the question you ask the great Ousep Chacko when you meet him for the very first time? How are your stools, Mr Chacko? Moron, how are your stools today?’

Thoma feels an irresistible urge to laugh, but then he hears him screaming at his mother – ‘Buffalo woman,’ he says. Thoma wants to be by her side but he is afraid. Ousep has never hit his mother, but what if he finally decides to? Unni was brave. Thoma does not remember a single moment when Unni was nervous or shaken. He never pretended to be asleep when Ousep came home drunk. In fact, when their father
stood too close to their mother, seething like a fool, Unni would stand between them. Ousep would push him away but Unni would always regain his position, fists clenched. Unni usually went about life at a leisurely pace, his movements slow and gentle, but when he was angry he became alert and menacing. Sometimes Thoma got the feeling that there were two people inside Unni.

One night, Unni slapped his drunken father. Ousep just fell to the floor as if he had no strength in him and he did not rise. His head began to bleed but he lay there quoting from
King Lear
. Unni calmly put a thread through a needle and stitched the cut on Father’s forehead. A whole week after that Unni looked a bit sad, and he did not meet anyone’s eye in that period.

Thoma hears heavy footsteps approach, the door opens, he gets the sweet sugar-cane smell of liquor. Ousep is very close, probably standing right next to him. Thoma is on the floor, lying on his stomach, his head buried in the pillow.

‘Get up,’ Ousep says. ‘Get up, my idiot son.’

Mariamma walks in. She does not say anything yet. The Rock waits.

‘Get up,’ Ousep says.

He lifts Thoma’s head by the ear and holds it that way for a few seconds and then drops it. But Thoma pretends to be dead. Ousep pokes his back with his finger. ‘Get up,’ he says. Mother decides to scream, she has had enough. She wrestles with Ousep, saying, ‘Leave him alone, leave him alone.’ So Thoma wakes up, he is afraid his mother will get hurt. Ousep leads him out of the room.

Thoma sees his father walk in front of him, swaying unsteadily, his hair like Einstein’s halo, shirt dirty and wet, trousers sagging. This is not the man he sees in the morning, the strong, tidy and
fragrant writer, his long hair neatly combed, so elegant and handsome, who reads four newspapers in three languages with such indestructible clever eyes that Thoma feels scared for the reporters whom his father is reading. In the mornings the man looks exactly like the Great Ousep Chacko of his mother’s fables.

In Ousep’s room, the noose is ready. It is his lungi, which is dangling from the fan, his chair placed ceremoniously under it. Ousep kneels on the chair and pulls himself up. He puts the noose around his neck. Thoma sits on the floor, by the wall, with a paper and pen. He has already written the words, ‘The Obituary of a Failed Writer’. Mariamma watches, leaning on the bookshelf.

Ousep says, in a calm, serious way, ‘The Obituary of a Failed Writer.’

Thoma pretends to write.

‘By A Staff Reporter,’ Ousep says. ‘A man was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his house.’

For some reason that brings a terrifying burst of laughter to Thoma’s chest. He holds it, but then his mother, too, begins to chuckle.

‘… Enquiries reveal that the man’s name is Ousep Chacko, the greatest writer the Malabar Coast has ever produced, greater than all the no-talent effeminate bastards who masquerade as writers today.’

Ousep loses his balance somewhat and wobbles for a moment on the chair. Thoma is shaking with laughter now. He begs his mind to bring sadness to his throat. He tries to think of Unni, but it is his brother’s comic that appears in his mind. It is set in a beautiful park with four children sitting on the swings. Among them is Ousep, hanged by the neck with his own lungi, swinging happily with the children.

‘You bastard, Thoma, you find this funny,’ Ousep says, gently touching the noose. That makes Thoma burst out laughing, but in the hysteria of a deep terror he is also crying. Mariamma comes to him and leads him out of the room by his hand. They go to the other bedroom, laughing, wiping their tears. ‘Now sleep,’ she says. ‘You have school tomorrow. I promise he won’t come here again. He is done for the night.’ And she shuts the door.

Mariamma leans on the bookshelf in the bedroom she has not shared with the man in years. He is still standing on the chair with the noose around his neck. She inspects the chair. It has grown weak over time but a chair never collapses like a table. That is the true nature of a good chair. At best, it becomes lame, it tilts. That won’t be enough to kill Ousep. She can go and snatch the chair right now from under his feet. It would be a perfect murder. She has considered it before but she is not very sure about the strength of the lungi or even the fan. Ousep is heavier than he looks.

‘Ousep Chacko is survived by a wife, who is a buffalo woman, and an idiot son. His elder son Unni Chacko died three years ago in mysterious circumstances.’

‘Get down,’ she says. ‘And go to sleep.’

Ousep removes the noose, somewhat gloriously, as if it is the garland of his fans, those garlands he used to receive when he was much younger. She helps him off the chair. He drags his chair back to the table.

‘Why are you looking so sad, Mariammo,’ he says. ‘Don’t look so sad.’

‘I am not sad.’

‘The secret to happiness is not to have any expectations from people.’

‘I know that.’

‘Especially from the people who matter most to you.’

‘I know that, too.’

‘Go away, go.’

She leaves quietly. He changes, turns off the lights, bangs the door shut, and goes to sleep.

Mariamma stands facing the large portrait of Unni in the hall. She runs her hand over its surface, though he seems more lifeless when she does that. He surveys his mother with a knowing smile. He has her beautiful nose, her skin of high pedigree, her colour. He has his father’s high forehead. Some people think Unni was arrogant, which is not such a bad thing, not as bad as people make it out to be. But people have their way of thinking. So they have a faint triumph in their voices when they speak of Unni’s death, his fall from the height. It is such a defeat, it seems, to die.

There is nothing that she understands about his death. People say something must have happened in those twenty minutes when he was home, or something must have happened on the stairway. Or maybe he got a phone call. Maybe he saw something. But what could have happened, really? Nothing makes sense. Some people say he was not normal, he was drifting towards dark thoughts, he was too clever for his age.

In the days that followed Unni’s death, his father tried his best to find out what had happened. He spoke to almost all the classmates and friends of Unni, but in the end nothing could explain what the boy had done. And Ousep gave up. ‘Some boys don’t make it, that’s all there is to it,’ he said, and closed the chapter.

BOOK: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
7.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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