'Ghachar Ghochar' delivers literary perfectionUnlike many of the novels in social realism, Vivek Shanbhag’s novella is brief and fresh. What is said is skillful, but what is left unsaid matters a great deal.
Originally written in Kannada and doubly translated—first in English, then in Nepali—Vivek Shanbhag’s gripping novella, Ghachar Ghochar, tells the story of a Bangalore-based nouveau riche family and quite amazingly secures the slim book’s position among weighty tomes like Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things.
In around 28,000 words, Shanbhag masterfully narrates the nitty-gritty of an Indian family, stripping the finest details to its bare bones and thus depicting the true, unapologetic picture of modern-day India. The Nepali translation has done justice to the English translation; however, the primary focus of this review is the English language novella.
The book opens with a commonplace declarative statement: “Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House.” Not the best of hooks—yet there is something fascinating about the description of this “airy, spacious, high-ceilinged” place. As the unnamed (or perhaps unreliable) narrator keeps ruminating about his humdrum life at a local coffee shop, the reader gets a sense that something is wrong with this man and his family—something eerie is lurking beneath these well-crafted sentences. The laconic waiter Vincent, attired in cummerbund and turban, also known for his prophetic proclamations, remains at the centre of attraction to the focaliser. One cannot help but wonder if the whole work is about the epigrammatic prophecies of Vincent; however, that turns out to be fallacious as soon as the reader reach the second chapter. The story begins here. The reader can read the whole book, come back to the first chapter, and re-read it: it enriches the whole reading experience.
We are then hurled into the household of a middle-class joint family in Bangalore. The central figure of the house is not the narrator’s father, but his uncle, Chikkappa—the family’s sole earning member. Through his spice trade, Sona Masala, he has made a fortune: the wealth is so enormous that none of the other members of the family feel like working at all. The business is simple enough: “order spices in bulk from Kerala, parcel them into small plastic packets in [the] warehouse, and sell these to the grocers of the city.” But this simple ritual is the real mantra of success of the family. The whole family orbits around Chikappa’s money, squandering it for their whims and desires. Even Malati, the narrator’s elder sister, after breaking her marriage, lives off her uncle’s money—buying every unnecessary item there were ever invented to buy. Everything seems to be poised at equilibrium. Then, an unknown woman arrives, and “throws everything off balance.”
The arrival of this woman, who’s carrying masoor dal for Chikappa, brings not only lentil stew but profuses suspicion in the family. Slowly, the dynamics of this dysfunctional family start to get revealed. What we see in the beginning, the initial impressions, are nothing but a mirage. The flawless, happy family facade is masked with private despair. And as the chapters go unfurling, we learn more and more about this family: the uncle, the father, the elder sister, the narrator and his wife—everyone has their share of stories to be told. And each one of these stories is told by this sensitive, young narrator, who at times derails from the plotlines, draws tangents, and makes strikingly humorous remarks about the family.
As the novella progresses, the reader gets to see a better picture of this new rich family in Bangalore—for the members of which money is an end, a mere object for amassing other (perhaps worthless) objects. This consumer culture reminds the reader of the 19th-century Russian novels, especially the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov—the two literary giants who wrote about the everyday problems of the upper-middle-class people in a pre-industrialised Russia. The class conflict and the anxiety to clamber up the ladder of social hierarchy echo the moral concerns that were raised by the Russain giants. Not only that the book also reflects some of the concerns raised by Nepali writers like Guru Prasad Mainali and Bhawani Bhikshu—the underbelly of familial and societal conflicts. However, the central conflict of this Shanbhag’s narrative is something different: it is dark and utterly ominous.
And one question keeps haunting the reader—what happened to Anita, the narrator’s wife? No one knows for sure. But a careful reader might speculate and come up with shocking revelations. There are plenty of implicit hints toward domestic violence: bad tea leading to a broken arm, a forgotten key to a murder. But it’s not the tea or the key that has tortured this sensitive young man of twenty-six. It’s “the last strands of a relationship [that] can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence.” His relationship, not only with his wife but other members of the family, seems to have snapped—and at times he thinks like Meursault in The Stranger, showing little or no emotional warmth, except that he still likes to think that he cares about his wife.
All the while, metaphors serve the storytelling, making the novella multi-layered and open to multiple interpretations. One central conceit is the arrival of ants. They invade the familial space, destroying the semblance of peace and harmony. The narrator’s mother thinks that these ants are not simply ants, but evil spirits in disguise. They take secret pleasure in destroying the family’s security. As the family struggles with their battle against the invasion of ants, they too grapple with the falling familial ties. There’s one instance in the book where the narrator squishes an ant that’s crawling on the windowsill. Anita seems to disapprove of the act and reprimands him sharply—not caring much about his personal as well as family history.
Anita turns out to be a not-so-stereotypical Indian wife. Although meek before marriage, she becomes bold and outspoken afterward. Hurling touches of sarcasm and profanities at family members, mocking their stupidity, and ridiculing her husband’s lack of ambition in life are some of her favourite pastimes. She even goes to the extent of supporting the mysterious woman who had arrived with the masoor dal for Chikkapa, asking her mother-in-law to listen to that stranger’s story. She abhors the uncomfortable silence in which her husband loves to wallow. Against everyone’s dismay, she even questions Chikkapa’s relationship with that woman who was humiliated in their house. The reader can speculate that this audacity might easily lead her into trouble, especially when one is caged inside the iron-bars of patriarchy.
Unable to go home, the narrator has been loitering around the cafe for two days. And the greatest suspense is that his wife still hasn’t arrived from her mother’s house. Only the other day, the whole family had mocked her, and amid the laughter they shared, they had cups after cups of tea. The husband now feels guilty for laughing with them, which shows that he still has a soft corner for her. He sits at the cafe and broods. So in the closing chapter, Vincent comes up with one of his classic succinct remarks: “Sir, you have blood on your hand.” The narrator is caught off guard by this unexpected announcement, and it sends chills down his spine. Any wise reader can join the dots and come up with a denouement that seems fitting for this horror story of a bourgeois family.
Apart from some awkward wordage like “compunction” for unease, or “washing vessels” for washing dishes, the translation is lean and elegant. It is graceful and balletic; so is the Nepali translation. Also, unlike many of the novels in social realism, this one is brief and fresh. What is said is skillful, but what is left unsaid matters a great deal. What begins as a normal narrative of a family’s social mobility becomes a psychological thriller, where everyone is ‘ghachar ghochar’: tangled up beyond repair. This haunting imagery resounds with deeper, darker truth. If there is anything like ‘literary perfection,’ Ghachar Ghochar is close to achieving that, cementing its own place in the tradition of The Great Indian Novel.
Author: Vivek Shanbhag
Translators: Srinath Perur/Yug Pathak
Publisher: Harper Perennial/SAFU
Price: Rs 400