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Authors: Manu Joseph

Tags: #Contemporary

The Illicit Happiness of Other People (9 page)

BOOK: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
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‘Because three is too much,’ Ousep says.

The boy is not sure whether it is a joke; he nods. He looks away for a few seconds, then asks the inevitable question. ‘People say you have found something about Unni, is that true?’

‘I’ve always been searching, Ilango, I never stopped. Now I come back to you after three years because I thought age might make you see a few things differently.’

The tea arrives in the filthy hands of a bare-chested waiter, who is humming a film song about the relationship between flowers and honeybees. Ilango drinks in thoughtful sips. And
he begins to describe a residential colony, he gives directions on how to get there, which is the Tamilian way of telling a story – describe a place by almost giving its postal address. Several film directors live in this colony. ‘Some of them have mistresses,’ he says. Ilango pauses in a moment of embarrassment. He feels ashamed for using the word ‘mistress’ in the presence of a friend’s father.

‘It’s all right, you are not a child any more,’ Ousep says. ‘We are men. You and I. We are men. What about the mistresses?’

‘Unni said that the mistresses always lived on the ground floor. They were never on the higher floors. He used to wonder why. He really wanted to know why. That’s it,’ the boy says meekly, as if conceding that what he has just said does not deserve the tea Ousep has bought him. ‘I know it does not mean anything. Such an ordinary thing, actually. I don’t know how useful something like this is to you.’

‘It’s good. It’s very good. What I need are bits like these.’


‘The other boys I meet, they just don’t understand what I want. They try to give me their opinions. But you are a smart guy. You have an interesting memory.’


‘Did Unni find out why the mistresses are usually kept only in the ground-floor flats?’

‘I don’t know. But he was sure there is a reason.’

The boy sets his cup down, and wipes his mouth with his fingers. ‘What else do I remember about Unni?’ he says, and looks lost for a while. He is distracted by a memory, he is probably wondering whether he should give voice to it. He stares at the fasting men without looking at them. Then he makes his decision. ‘There is something else I remember,’ he says. And he speaks slowly, clearly.

One evening, he is at a friend’s house with a few other boys, including Unni. It is a small house with an unpaved walkway that runs from the gate to a high boundary wall. The boys are on the terrace, which is not very high, just about twelve feet above the ground. The gate is locked, but a stray dog slips through the bars. It does not see the boys on the terrace. ‘Dogs usually don’t look up,’ Ilango says. ‘Unni used to say that often, I don’t know why. Animals usually don’t look up.’ It wanders in, and goes down the walkway. The narrow path is about sixty feet long, and it is hemmed in by a high boundary wall on one side and the wall of the house on the other. So the gate is its only escape if a situation arises.

Unni jumps down and picks up a stone. He stands at the gate, blocking the dog’s path, and flings the stone. The stone is not intended to hit but the dog does not know that. It runs to the back wall and tries to climb but the wall is too high and this dog has probably never climbed a wall before. It stands there with its tongue out, wondering what it must do. Unni flings another stone, which hits the wall. The dog tries to climb the wall again, it slips and falls. It runs towards the side wall, runs in circles, runs towards Unni and then away from him, confused and terrified. It finally goes to the boundary wall and stands facing him, awaiting its fate. The other boys now jump down and pick up stones. Their stones miss, they hit the wall, but the dog is terrified. It makes sounds that are normally not associated with a dog. It leaps at the wall, leaps in the air, it begins to behave like an alien beast. Some stones now hit the dog. It cries, running up and down the walkway. At this point Unni says that they should let the dog go. All go back to the terrace. The dog charges to the gate and escapes. It runs down the road, it keeps running until it vanishes round the bend. That is it. That is what Ilango wants to say.

‘How did you feel about it?’ Ousep says.

‘About what?’

‘The dog. The way it ran, the sounds it made, the fear in its eyes.’

‘It was terrible.’

‘Terrible, yes.’

‘There is no other way of looking at it.’

‘Is that true?’

‘Yes. I don’t know what had happened to us. We behaved like urchins who stone chameleons just for fun.’

‘Did Unni’s stones hit the dog?’

‘No. After all of us came down from the terrace he didn’t throw any more stones.’

‘Interesting that you remember that. A minor detail in a minor incident, after so long.’

‘I don’t know why I remember that.’

‘Did you hit the dog?’

‘Just once. I aimed at the wall but the dog got in the way.’

The dog got in the way, he says. A stray dog, probably very ugly, which is a bad thing to be in such a situation, is trapped. It is powerless, comically terrified, almost singing. What would a bunch of boys with stones in their hands want to do? This boy says he aimed at the wall. He only wanted to see the dog react, he did not want to hurt it, he did not want to hear the sound of stone against its flesh and its brief responsive shriek.

‘Why do you think he did that, the whole game, why do you think he started it?’ Ousep asks.

The boy studies his cup. For a moment there he looks intelligent, the way he looks with unhappy eyes at the cup, the way he lurks in his own silence. He says, ‘You used the word “game”, why did you use that word?’

‘I think sometimes Unni did things just to see how others reacted.’

‘Yes,’ the boy says, relieved for some reason. ‘That’s what I think. He had an abnormal interest in how people reacted. It was a game for him. Yes, that’s the word.’

‘The day the dog was stoned, were the other two present?’

‘Which two?’

‘Somen Pillai and Sai Shankaran.’

‘They were there, yes. Those three were always together. Always whispering and laughing among themselves. As if they were playing a secret game and the others were just fools who didn’t know what was happening. Unni had that attitude more than the other two. He could make you feel small and silly.’

There is a surprising strength in the boy’s tone now, the impotence of nostalgia is gone, and in its place is the force of contempt, the contempt of a male for a smarter friend.

‘People used to say that those three were up to something,’ the boy says. The way he says ‘those three’, it is as if he has forgotten that one of them is Ousep’s dead son.

‘Those three,’ Ousep says in a soft voice. ‘What exactly was it about them? What do you think they were doing?’

‘It was as if they were a part of something, something others won’t understand. Like that day. After we went back to the terrace and watched the dog run down the road, they looked at each other, made eyes, smiled. There was always something going on between them.’

‘A lot of people have told me this but nobody is able to say what exactly they were up to.’

‘Even I am not clear. They spent a lot of time together just talking, going somewhere, doing things. I don’t know what they did. Someone told me they were involved in betting.’

‘Do you remember who told you this?’


‘What kind of betting?’

‘I don’t know. I think they bet among themselves that some events were going to occur in a particular way.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I’m not clear myself. We were not very close, actually.’

‘Are you in touch with them?’

Ousep feels stupid for a moment because when he said ‘them’ he had seen the faces of three boys. But one of them, of course, nobody is in touch with.

‘No,’ the boy says, ‘I’ve not seen them in a long time.’

‘Tell me what you know about Somen Pillai.’

‘There is nothing that I remember of Somen Pillai. It’s funny, actually. You know, some guys are like that, they are so silent, they are invisible. They don’t talk, they don’t do anything in the class, they just sit and watch.’

Ousep has heard this before. Apart from the fact that he was Unni’s friend, Somen Pillai has no claim to the memory of his classmates. In the ten years that he studied in St Ignatius, there is nothing that he said or did that anybody can recall.

‘Have you met him?’ Ilango asks.

‘Yes, once. Very briefly. I’ve been trying to meet him again but he is refusing to meet me. Would you know why he would refuse me?’

‘Maybe he doesn’t like talking,’ Ilango says. ‘Some boys are like that.’

Ilango wants to leave. He takes one large decisive gulp of the tea, which is surely cold now. Ousep looks at him carefully, now willing to take a chance.

‘Did Unni ever send anyone his comics, did he ever post his comics to someone, maybe for a reaction or something?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Did he have a girlfriend?’

Ilango lets out a shy chuckle. ‘I don’t know, I was not that close to him. But I heard these Fatima School girls, they used to talk about him, I heard that from my cousin.’



‘Ilango, I know you’ve already answered this question but I can’t help asking this. Why do you think Unni killed himself?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Can you guess?’

‘I don’t know. I really have no idea. But since you ask me to guess, I think he was probably not as happy and confident and superior as everyone thought. He was not good at useful things, you know, he was not the type who would have got into IIT or any engineering college. All he did was draw. You asked if Unni sent his cartoons to anyone. Now that I am talking about it, yes, I think he used to send his cartoons to some magazines. But he got rejected, I heard. Got rejected by all of them.’

‘His works were rejected?’

‘Yes. I heard he sent some stuff to an American magazine called
New Yorker
. And they sent it back to him. Unni said they wrote him a nice long letter, but they didn’t want to publish his cartoons.’

‘And you think Unni was depressed because of all this?’

‘Yes. Just think about it. What would Unni have done with his life?’

‘What do you plan to do in your life, Ilango?’

‘Me? I am going to become an engineer. Then I will write my GMAT and go to the US. Why do you ask?’

‘Just curious.’

‘I will work in the US, I will get a Green Card. I have planned out my whole life. I will get married at twenty-eight.’

‘Good, good. Any other reason you can think of? Any other reason why he chose to die?’

‘I’ve nothing more to say. The truth is I didn’t know him that well.’

‘Everybody tells me that.’

‘Because the truth is that nobody knew him well.’

‘Except those two boys?’

‘Yes, except those two. Somen Pillai and Sai Shankaran.’

‘Ilango, do you know that the three of them used to go to meet a nun in St Teresa’s Convent, who had taken a vow of silence?’

‘No,’ the boy says with a chuckle, shaking his head. ‘I am sure they did many such things that have no meaning.’

A man appears on the road, stark naked, holding a can, and walking as if he is just passing through. When he is sure that all eyes are on him he empties the can over his head. It must be kerosene. He is gleaming now in the sun. He begins to jog, screaming that he will set himself on fire if the Tamils in Sri Lanka are not saved today. He runs through the small crowd asking for a matchbox, scattering the people, who are not sure whether they must flee or stand there and watch. ‘Matchbox,’ the naked man says as he jogs in large circles. When he approaches, Ousep, with great lethargy, hands him his matchbox. The man ignores him and runs ahead asking for a light. And he looks ecstatic when the policemen finally carry him away.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in his life, Ousep Chacko waits for a nun. He is in St Teresa’s Convent, sitting on a wooden bench in the visitors’ gallery, which is deserted. There are ghostly echoes in the air, and they have a dark antiquity about them, as if they are
from another time, the violent ages when religions were born, when evil finally defeated good, and in an ingenious trick split itself into good and evil.

At the far end of the room is a small door, as if little people live inside. The door is so defiantly shut that it is hard to believe that it ever opens. But it does, without a sound, and six black cassocks emerge and stare at him. One nods to the others, and walks towards him. The others go back in and shut the door. He is all right, they have decided. A harmless man from long ago. That offends him somehow, to be considered innocuous in a fraction of a second by a sisterhood of virgins.

The middle-aged nun is holding a notebook and a fountain pen. She sits on the bench with him, one foot farther away than necessary. He has not seen her in twenty-four years, but there are still fragments he can see from her youth. He wonders how she sees him now.

She is from his village. He remembers her as a sleepy girl with eight younger sisters who used to walk behind their mother like piglets, passing by his house on their way to the Sunday market. Then she flowered into one of those young girls, their thick dark hair still wet from a long bath, who stood at the bus stop holding college books and giggled at bus conductors who had fair skin. One day, her father decided to make her a nun to save her from poverty. Days before she left for the convent, as she walked down the alleys of the village, men had only one thought, even the pious had only that thought – the wasting of a firm young body so far untouched by any man. After she was sent to the convent, she ran back home twice. But the third time she was deposited in the convent, she accepted her fate.

Now she has a vacant peace on her face that does not look like defeat. She is fine, she is happy, they all are. That is Unni’s
hypothesis – the inevitability of happiness, the persistence of happiness. Happiness as an inescapable fate, not a pursuit.

She was at Ousep’s wedding, the only nun present that day, pretty by the standards of nuns, and as famous for fleeing the convent as some legendary girls who had eloped with Hindu men. He has not seen her since. But Mariamma used to write to her and even meet her, probably with the insane caution of a woman encountering her husband’s family circle but also with the eager nervousness of a good Christian in the presence of a habit.

BOOK: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
10.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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