When a young friend quoted an excerpt from a novel which convinced him that it would be one hell of a read, I did not know what it meant. It read: “If there were ever a sudden almighty silence in marine drive, you would hear a thousand bra straps snap.” When I once read that “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why it evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.
When I once read in a Magazine that physical intimacy begins with a kiss, I wondered apprehensively: “But then, how far would they go?” So, it is hard for me to not like the twelve-year-old Thoma in Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People.
Thoma is glad that he is not a woman, because unlike his elder brother Unni, he does not know how to decipher clues. When Gloria Miss stands in front of the class with her arms folded, Thoma felt sorry for her. He wondered how women go through their lives—how they handle this shame. He knows that if he were a woman, he would have spent his whole life missing all the insults hurled at him by other women. To people who do not know how to decipher clues, there is an aspect of reality that is incomprehensible-an aspect of reality that involves people.
When Gloria Miss stands in front of the class with her arms folded, Thoma felt sorry for her. He wondered how women go through their lives—how they handle this shame. I remember that when I reached high school, the world suddenly started appearing bizarre. My classmates used words which were too harsh for my tastes. They were happy to be taught by teachers with well-developed breasts. I remembered that in a travelogue I had once read, there was a narration of the incidents which followed when a teenaged blonde in the house the author stayed was soon to be blessed with a cute baby. His landlord wanted the author to find out who shared the responsibility. I couldn’t extort any sense out of the landlord’s request. I felt that I was slowly beginning to understand. A classmate told me that the great Mahatma Gandhi, and even our parents were guilty of this fundamental sin. But to me, like little Mencken, girls were only cat-like creatures with pig-tails to be pulled. I was twelve then.
When I was in high school, my idea of amusement was placing my feet beneath the bench of the girls who sit in front of me. One of them used to giggle, placing her slipper heels on my shoes, and a boy near me often warned me: “She will slap you!”. I am yet to understand why people are moralistic about all this. Perhaps this explains my ambivalent attitude towards some popular causes.
Our school was near a college. Once when I and a classmate were thrown out of the classroom, a new teacher was curious to know why the classroom had two watchmen. After saying that it pains her, and that we should come inside, she wanted to know our sin. When she heard that we were staring at the college girls roaming outside, we were asked to go back to where we rightly belonged. The smile on our faces disappeared. When I was thirteen, I often walked through the corridors of the college with a classmate who used to say with great sadness that they are much older—that they are meant for someone else. He believed in flouting the norms of conventional morality, and was convinced that Bill Clinton was a much persecuted man. He also believed that Aishwarya Rai should not dress provocatively.
I do remember the proverb that often startled Thoma: “You can wake up a man who is asleep, but not the one who is pretending to be asleep.” After my mother wakes me up in the morning, I used to soon go back to sleep, pretending that I am only trying to recall what I had just read. After a while, it would be clear to me that this kind of a thing does not fly anymore.
Like Thoma’s elder brother Unni, I too wanted to marry the day I would reach the legal age. When my classmates wanted to know at what age I would like to to marry, I used to answer: “Twenty one”. After laughing uncontrollably, they would tell me: “Shanu, you have to be a strong man to protect your wife. What would you do if someone else lays his hand on her? Will you able to beat him up?” They would then introduce me to seniors saying: “Here is someone who wants to marry the day he turns twenty-one.”
What I have always admired in Manu Joseph’s work is his keen eye for bogus. When we read his journalistic pieces on political correctness, the “false humility” of celebrities, and the “dull nobility” of the masses, it might appear that these are facts which should be obvious to anyone—To anyone who is willing to see it. But, the damage to the objects of his criticism becomes greater and greater as we proceed through the article. When the piece ends noting, “Even his silence says something about India. Success is a precarious fortune in this country, and people who have achieved something do not want to squander it by antagonizing the powerful. As Mr. Tendulkar told me about 10 years ago when I pressed him to comment on the cricket-bookie nexus: “We should mind our own business.”, we feel that the damage has become irreparable. What a terrible thing political correctness is.
How easily has many seemingly obvious facts escaped great minds? Haven’t we heard many others say that they love truth and beauty, and that they hate political correctness? How often have we read of the vices of journalists who write about the meaningless lives of celebrities?
In this novel too, we see how people think and rationalize—the words they use, and the tactics they employ to “get their way”—to pull down their betters. Thoma’s father Ousep trusts the editor who asks him to reveal his sources in the name of “journalistic tradition”. It seems odd to him that plain men, simple men, men who are not writers too can make their wives laugh. He is convinced that his father-in-law was mesmerized by his prose. He is surprised when he suddenly finds himself unemployable because not long ago, publishers who had read his short stories wanted him to write novels. Introspection often fails the cognitive elite. Ousep also wonders how humiliating the honest compassion of fools is. But then, Introspection fails everyone else too.
But, what makes this novel beautiful is the way it portrays the “pure love of a twelve-year-old boy” for a sixteen-year-old-girl. Many young boys would agree that the novel speaks their mind:
“When girls toss their hair and hold clips in their mouths, when they run their hands down the back of their skirts before they sit, when they shift a lock of hair from their face and stuff it over their ears, or cover their mouths when they have to laugh, when they do these things that have no name, and when he hears a female chorus sing ‘I have a dream’, Thoma’s chest fills with ache and he wishes them well in life. Is there a movement in his body that can fill a girl with such love? Do women long at all for men the way men long for women? The cold fear inside him at the sight of Mythili, are women capable of such agony inside them, do their throats go cold and do they feel a deep wandering sorrow?”
“She shows him her palm and says that there are angles between her fingers. Thoma wonders whether he is in love with her. She makes a fist and knocks his head with her knuckles. How do all the bloody women in Madras know how to do this? He feels humiliated for a moment but then Mythili rubs his head. She rubs his head fondly. “I think you read a lot, Thoma.”
“A lot. I read all the time.”
The whole day, Thoma wanders down the lanes of Kodambakkam with a sense of well-being and with sympathy for everybody he sees on the road because Mythili does not know them.”
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