Literary Shelf

The Theme of Pursuit of Happiness

... & Indian Fiction In English

What is happiness? It is an eternal question. Everybody seems to believe that the purpose of life is to find happiness. Everybody also seems to believe that success leads to happiness. A high salary job, a picture-perfect spouse, a lovely house or apartment and cute kids are supposed to give happiness. The interesting thing is that those who have all the things mentioned above often find themselves anxious and adrift. The measures, the parameters for job, spouse, house and ideal children keep changing.

People in the most advanced countries like America and some European nations are the biggest sufferers of mental ailments. As societies advance, the strange pattern emerges that richness does not always result in happiness. Huge funds and resources are going into research to find out the true nature of happiness.

We have a branch of Psychology called Positive Psychology dedicated specifically for researching the correct fabric of happiness. The more we run after happiness, the more it runs away from us. Thinkers for ages have pondered how happiness works and how it changes lives. If we look at data, we find that chasing happiness makes us unhappy. The suicide rate is rising all over the world and it has reached a thirty year high in the most materialistic society in the world that is America. Materially speaking, the conditions of an average person's life have gone up. Cars, air-conditioners, refrigerators, microwave ovens, carpets, and soft beds are common. Things which were once available to kings and queens are available to the common man now. Then, why are people lonely, depressed, hateful, jealous, suspicious and why do they feel that something is lacking. It is as though a void is eating the vitality of the individual. This emptiness is not lack of happiness. It points to something else. It shows that people do not have a meaningful life. They lack meaning in life. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? There is something within us that demands answers to these questions.

It is a wrong assumption that happiness is the purpose of life. Happiness alone is not life. There is more to life than finding happiness. If we try to summarize years of empirical research, we find that happiness and meaning are two difference things. Happiness is a state of comfort, ease and feeling good in the moment. Meaning in life is much deeper. Meaning in life comes through belonging. When we cross our own "self" and do something genuine for others, life becomes meaningful. When a person becomes the best version of herself/himself, life becomes meaningful. Meaning to life comes when we break the barrier of self. Those who are leading meaningful lives are more strong than others. They are better in studies and work. They even live longer.

Advancement in human thought and research shows that there are four pillars of meaningful life. Each one of us can try and build these pillars.

The first pillar is belonging. Belonging simply means being in a relationship where you are valued for what you are and not for your money or position or power or beliefs. A person has to be valued for her/his intrinsic qualities. You are loved because you are. This is what belonging means.

In our day to day life, we often reject fellow human beings in small, unconscious ways sometimes even without realizing. Not paying attention, not answering a wish, checking phone while talking, and not being present mentally are some of the ways in which we devalue people. We hurt others by making them invisible and unworthy. We need relationships based on genuine love. Parents, siblings, spouse, friends, colleagues and neighbors are the first pillar.

The second pillar is finding a purpose in life. Purpose is not equivalent to job. Purpose is less about taking and more about giving. We can find a purpose in job but it is not the only means. For a house wife, the purpose of her life might be raising her children. We can find more than one purpose in life. When we use our energy and strength to serve others, we find a purpose in life. When we contribute, we feel needed. Without a purpose in life, people go off track. The purpose is our anchor in life. Besides a larger purpose in life, we can have small, short term purposes to keep us going on the path of life.

The third pillar is about transcendence. We in India often identify it with spirituality. When the immediate urgency of senses becomes secondary and when we connect to the higher reality, we find meaning in life. Experiencing art, listening to music or reading literature can be our bridge to transcendence. Nature photography and travel, experiencing the natural joys of mother earth can also give us the much needed connectivity. It is the vital "wify" of our lives. Most of the people are dry and dull because they have lost that connectivity.

The fourth pillar might be unexpected for you. It is relevant especially to people of literature. It is about story telling. It is about the story a person tells to herself/himself. All of us want to create a narrative out of the events of our life. It brings clarity to life. It helps us in understanding how we have become what we have become. We edit, interpret and retell our story even at the cost of facts. We are the authors of our life story. Life is not just a list of events. We can edit, interpret, reinterpret and tell our story as we like. How we change the narration changes our life. A cancer survivor instead of regretting that he had cancer, starts rejoicing in leaving bad habits, being under constant medical checkup and thereby safe. Tragedies often turn into blessings if we interpret them positively. As Steve Jobs famously said that the story teller is the most powerful person on earth.

When we talk about happiness and pursuit of happiness, we have to remember that these concepts are applicable only to well-to-do people. We cannot talk about bliss and pursuit of happiness among those who are struggling with basic needs of life. In every discussion, there is always a point where one has to agree with Karl Marx. Pursuit of happiness cannot be a theme with hungry, naked people. When we accept that this is an idea for those who are well-fed and well – covered, our thought process becomes clear. "Pursuit of happiness" is a luxury.

It we decide as to what is not happiness, we can easily see as to what is happiness. Pretension, hypocrisy, negative emotions, emptiness and dehumanization are clearly not happiness. Doing one's duty, being true, kind, tolerant and physically fit is happiness. A long life and a good memory are happiness. Being active is happiness. To love and to be loved is happiness. Being productively busy is happiness. To sing and dance is happiness. Happiness is finding one's passion and following it. Connecting to one's own self is happiness. Being bold and daring is happiness. Contradicting oneself, to be wrong at times and not fearing to be wrong are also happiness. And then there is joy is not doing anything. To be idle is happiness sometimes. Happiness is an attitude. To take life as a journey, take lessons from experiences and move on – this is the attitude. There is nothing like a physical, material destination. The journey is the end. Balancing body and soul is happiness.

With all these ideas, definitions and approaches in mind, when we come to Indian English fiction we find that like life, 'pursuit of happiness' is a strong theme here. We may call it happiness, fulfillment or meaning in life – the essence is the same. With Raja Rao and especially his Kanthapura (1938), freedom was the key element of happiness. To endure the British was suffocating. Thinking of freedom and working for it was happiness. The Serpent and Rope is a bit complicated. Ramaswamy, the Vedic scholar cannot continue his mismatched marriage with Madeleine, a French. Madeleine represents Western materialism. Ramaswamy represents India's Vedic Brahman tradition is its purest form. Something awakens within Ramaswamy. For him being Brahman becomes a search. 'A Brahman is one who know Brahma (God).' The two sides, husband and wife cannot go along. Liberation from each other is a kind of fulfillment here.

For Mulkraj Anand, protest, rebellion, freedom and social equality mark happiness. R.K. Narayan writes on an ordinary, earthly plane. Romantic love as described in The Guide (Raju and Rosie) and Waiting for the Mahatma (Sri Ram and Bharathi) is what can be called his idea of happiness.

Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth are among the most evolved Indian English novelists. They sail into realms of emotion at different levels. The theme of pursuit of happiness becomes relevant in the context of their writing. Amitav Ghosh has a wide range – travel, colonialism and post colonialism, diaspora, history, memory, political movements, communal violence, love and loss and now climate change. In my view, Ghosh's fiction which borders on Anthropology, History and Geography, is basically post colonial. His writing is seething and bleeding in the pain of the lost wisdom and lost eastern way of life. How the colonial masters have permanently damaged the ecosystem of the east. The dysfunctional system is bad for the soul, body and also climate. Ghosh is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished novelists in English in current times. Besides postcolonialism, there are matters of heart spread all over his pages. With refernce to Amitav Ghosh when we think of the theme of pursuit of happiness, finding meaning in life seems to be a more appropriate term. "Revisiting roots" is a motif for finding meaning in life. "Revisiting", the word is important here because it does not suggest that we should go back to old times. It means that we should understand and imbibe all that is good, reasonable and relevant in our traditional way of life. We cannot undo what our colonial masters have taught us. What we can do is to add their good tools in our arsenal and then go back to understand and imbibe our way of life. We can enrich our lives if we accept west and yet never leave our roots. That is the model I draw from Amitav Ghosh.

Self-fulfillment becomes a major theme in the novels of Vikram Seth. His characters as they go through life learn how to deal with relationships, love, loss, heart break, death, loneliness and void. His novels give a healthy understanding of life. Personal space is essential for happiness in Seth's world.

A mention may be made about the popular novelist Chetan Bhagat. His message that our institutions facus too much on grades and percentages is important. The general Indian obsession with class and grades is a major deterrent on the path of happiness. Likewise his attack on regionalism and casteism in matters of marriage is also commendable.

A mention may be made about the female perspective on happiness and its reflection in their works. Each woman novelist has a different view of happiness but the connecting point among them is definitely their womanhood. The society makes a woman conscious of her gender. It is difficult to find a woman writer who is not conscious of her gender. Probably this is the reason why economic freedom, emotional liberty, need for space, equality and freedom from the perpetual male gaze mark the definition of happiness for all women novelists. The cravings are similar. Nayantara raised the issue of economic dependence and plight of divorced women in The Day in Shadow (1991). Shashi Deshpande effectively raised the issue of sexual abuse in The Dark Holds No Terror (1980). The God of Small Things (1997), the phenomenal novel by Arundhati Roy demands social equality, personal space, money, freedom and right to self not only for women but for all. Happiness is a remote idea here. Burning in turmoil and suffering are the order of the day. Anita Desai and her noted novels Cry the Peacock (1963) and Voices in the City (1965) cry for understanding and acceptance. As said earlier, with women "womanhood" becomes the unique point of experiencing the world. Whether they like it or not, they are always conscious of the different treatment society gives them at every juncture and moment of life. This becomes the moot point. The blisters of ages of suffering are hard to hide. "Home" remains central to a woman's happiness. Togetherness, relations, warmth and love remain crucial to a woman's happiness.

We can conclude that there can be no definite definition of happiness. We cannot derive any set theory or formulae for happiness from these novels. Nevertheless, we can understand human existence in a better way by reading these novels. Reading fiction helps us in developing our own concept of happiness and achieving it. Reading a novel is certainly equivalent to happiness. Material sumptuousness is essential to happiness but it is certainly not the only thing. A holistic approach can lead us to happiness. "Happiness" is a way of life; it is not a destination.


Although no direct reference has been made in the above paper, the following sources have helped the author in forming the ideas expressed in the paper.

References :

  1. Mineo, Liz. "Harvard Study, Almost 80 Years Old, has Proved that Embracing Community Helps Us Live Longer and Be Happier". April 11, 2017.
  2. Backer, Joshua. 10 Positive Psychology Studies to Change Your View of Happiness. 2014.
  3. Yesapogu, Venkateshwarlu and Kandula, Manjula. The Phisophical Ideas and Themes of Legendary Writers of Indian English Literature Through Their fiction – A Critical Study. International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature (IISELL), Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2016, PP 23-29, ISSN 2347-3126.
  4. Sidiquii, Shehjad. Social Elements in the Works of R.K. Narayan and Mulkraj Anand. Pune Research, An International Journal in English, Vol.3, Issue 2, March-April 2017, ISSN 2454-3454.
  5. Tiwari, Shubha. Amitav Ghosh : A Critical Study. Atlantic Publisher. New Delhi. 2003. ISBN 81-269-0299 – X
  6. Tiwari, Shubha, Ed. Critical Responses to Anita Desai. Atlantic Publishers. New Delhi. 2004. ISBN 81-269-0343-0
  7. Jaya Bharathi, N.B. Quest for Self-Fulfillment in Vikram Seth's Novels The Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy. Language in India : Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow. Volume 13:12 December 2013 ISSN 1930-2940.
  8. Begum, Syed Hajira. Shifting Paradigms in Postcolonial Women's Fiction. 2nd National Conference on 'Recent Research Development in Environment, Social Science and Humanities' Indian Federation of United Nations Associations, New Delhi, 16th August 2017.
  9. Avtar, Ram and Talan, Pradeep Kumar. Chetan Bhagat and His Youth Calling Approach.
  10. 10.O'yeah, Zac. Writing Fiction is a Prayer, a Song : Arundhati Roy, an Interview. 2nd June, 2017


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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