Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of Other People

NEW YORK, January 10, 2013 — According to novelist Manu Joseph, “truth shows humanity in a poor light,” and the misanthrope, alone, has a clear understanding of humanity. Fortunately or unfortunately, Joseph deems many of us misanthropic, referencing the misanthropy behind ideas and policies that govern human behavior, namely the concepts of the city and population control.

Joseph explored these ideas and many other thought-provoking theories on human nature in a discussion with fellow author Hari Kunzru centered on Joseph’s new novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, which tells the story of a father living in Madras in the 1980s and '90s who seeks an explanation for his young son’s suicide three years prior.

When asked by Kunzru about his inspiration for the book, Joseph delved into an account of his own childhood in 1980s Madras. At the time, India's was a socialist economy with hardly any opportunities for professional growth. Consequently, parental pressure to achieve academic perfection so as to travel to and succeed in America was paramount. Joseph relayed an account of a childhood peer who scored 95% on a test and was subsequently beaten and kicked out of his house by his father, who told him to go looking for the other 5%.

In this type of childhood, parental pressure fed the growth of imaginary worlds in which boys could dream of their own self-importance. Here, they pondered the meaning of life. Unlike the logical, Western approach to philosophy, which persistently seeks answers, the metaphysical questions posed by these young South Indian boys were “fundamentally unproductive.”

At this point in the discussion, Kunzru presented Joseph with the alarming fact that, according to a 2004 statistic, south India has the highest suicide rate of people between the ages of 15 and 29 in the world. Joseph responded that he doesn't intend his book to be read as social commentary.

With the underlying tone of thwarted sexuality and sexual desperation in his book, however, Joseph couldn't avoid answering Kunzru’s questions about the current rape trial in India. Joseph distinguished his characters from the defendants in the trial, naming each member of the former capable of sex crimes and the legal fight and mass protests against the latter as reflective of more than just a fight against sexual abuse. According to Joseph, today’s protests in India constitute a movement by the urban middle class, or “people who don’t matter to Indian democracy,” against the entrenched political class. It is a battle between the city and the village that, as fervent as the protestors are, is “going nowhere.” As stated by Joseph, more than 50% of India’s population is female, yet there is no political representation for women’s rights in a government that represents 364 parties. Feminist movements exist but they are “urban” and instead must be “political,” if they are ever to gain traction in both urban and rural India.

Reported by Renny Grishpan

Video: Highlights from the program (3 min., 4 sec.)

Related links:
Watch the complete program
Asia Blog interview with Manu Joseph
Shop AsiaStore for The Illicit Happiness of Other People