Reviewed by: Ananya Sarkar
Book: Ghachar Ghochar
Author: Vivek Shanbhag
Translation by Srinath Perur
Published by Harper Perennial, 2015
Price Rs 399
Ghachar and ghochar are two gibberish words that do not literally mean anything. Yet, Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag not only chooses these as the title of his book but also brilliantly invests the expression with significance. Written in the first person, this novella describes the trajectory of an ordinary middle-class family with a deftness and poignancy that make it extraordinary.
The book primarily revolves around the narrator, his parents (Appa and Amma), sister (Malati) and bachelor uncle (Chikkappa). It animates how the sudden change in fortune, thanks to the family’s business venture in spices – Sona Masala, changes their entire world and shifts the dynamics of living in unprecedented ways. The corrupting influence of wealth is no secret, and Shanbhag intricately shows its power and how it steadily flouts the old rules till the once-familiar edifice gives way.
The unnamed narrator is frank and unflattering in his portrayal of the various family members. Though he loves them and would never side against them, his confession about their strengths and weaknesses as well as the overall idiosyncrasies wins our trust. However, despite his quiet and sensitive nature, he is not without certain glaring drawbacks himself. His inability to act and the escapist trait, for example, feature prominently when he habitually seeks refuge in Coffee House to get “respite from domestic skirmishes.” Languor and complacency also get the better of him when he chooses to live off the money earned by his uncle without working or helping in any way.
The pages also realistically portray differences in the ideals and value systems between Appa and Chikkappa, the families of the narrator and his wife, Anita, as well as between the narrator’s family and Malati’s in-laws. Appa, for example, does not agree with the sordid and questionable means employed by his brother at work. However, he does not protest due to the knowledge that the family’s fortune depends on it. All he can do is withdraw himself from any direct involvement with the running of the business and resort to philosophy from time to time. Differences in socioeconomic backgrounds also lead to varied ethos. As the narrator aptly puts it forth in one instance, “And let’s face it: there’s a vast difference in the moral underpinnings of a business family and the household of a salaried teacher. I feared right then that her (Anita’s) presence at home would be the cause of much turmoil.”
A note of levity is skilfully interspersed throughout the book, which prevents it from being boringly sombre. Whether it is Amma’s incessant small talk with the domestic help to mitigate the uneasy silence in the house or the indirect altercation among Amma, Malati and Anita that puts the narrator in a fix, Shanbhag succeeds in making us smile amidst the viscosity.
The storyline is tightly woven without any leisurely meandering or wayward digression. Every incident, occurrence and detail is integral to the plot and contributes towards a comprehensive understanding. An undercurrent of gentle irony is also present, but the writer takes care to never make it too stark or disturbing.
The use of symbolism is also to be noted. For instance, the old furniture from the family’s rented house is unable to fit into their new two-storied home and lies discarded and scattered. It signifies how the familiar values and ethics will no longer be pertinent in their new lifestyle. Again, a sky overcast with clouds at a time when the narrator’s marriage is in question helps to accurately externalise the situation and bring home the mood of dejection.
Certain descriptions also stand out for their sheer beauty, which has a transcendental quality. An example is the narrator’s experience of the Indian arranged marriage: “A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of a traditional marriage – a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers too; I must offer her my all.” At another point, he remarks about money, “It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.”
While reading the work, one becomes aware of the singularity of the particular family. The equations between the different members seem to be comprehensible and acceptable to only those within the family. And, in spite of the complexities, a sense of intense attachment and empathy remains. There are episodes such as the one in which the kerosene stove in the kitchen is replaced by cooking gas accompanied by childlike excitement and the family having tea together and attempting small talk to allay the unspoken tension of the narrator’s marriage. These show the family members’ warmth and mutual understanding, which in spite of all odds bind them as one.
The phrase “ghachar ghochar” is used for the first time with reference to the petticoat string that gets tangled in the narrator’s hurry to undress Anita during their honeymoon. The expression comes to signify anything that is undesirably entwined or messed up. We realise how it encapsulates the state into which the family devolves. Again, at the end of the novella, it is this phrase that the narrator uses while waiting anxiously for his wife’s return. The title does justice to the book.
The cover image with ants clustered at the centre of a plate is creative and arresting. Ostensibly, the ants are a reminder of the nagging menace at the narrator’s previous home. However, they also symbolise the principle of honest labour by which the family abides at the time and the greater closeness (evinced in their joint effort in killing ants) which was present. The image cleverly underscores one of the central tenets of the novella.
Srinath Perur’s translation of the work is seamless and creditable. Author of the travelogue If It’s Monday It Must be Madurai, he has been able to successfully transpose the Indian milieu and context into the English word. And thanks to him, the book is now accessible to non-Kannada readers.
Though the book is a novella, one wishes it was a novel so that the story line could have been explored further. Among the characters, Anita comes across as a little inconsistent. Given her boldness and independent-minded thinking, along with the fact that she is modern and educated, any person would logically expect her to work or be engaged in some serious preoccupation. It would hardly suit a woman of her type to only prod her husband to earn his own living without doing anything about it herself.
Ghachar Ghochar is an engaging family drama that leaves a bittersweet aftertaste - like that of dark chocolate.
Ananya is a short story writer, book reviewer and poet of sorts. Her work has been published in The Times of India, Woman’s Era, New Woman, 4indianwoman, Children’s World, KidsWorldFun, Muse India, Induswomanwriting, Conversations Across Borders, Indian Ruminations, Earthen Lamp Journal, Spark and The Hans India. Ananya won the first prize in both the Story Writing Contest by the American Library, Kolkata as part of the Fiction Festival 2008 and Induswomanwriting Poetry Contest, 2012. She was also a prizewinner in the LoudReview Review Writing Competition, 2012 and Writers’ HQ Story Competition, 2016.