Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag (tr. Srinath Perur). Penguin. $16.00, 128pp.
For a book whose title means gibberish, or nonsense, Ghachar Ghochar packs a lot of substance. Delving deeply into the ambitions and emotions of the Indian middle-class, it joins a crowded field of books dealing with the harsh realities this demographic has to face each and every day, especially in India’s neon-inflicted mall culture and corporate-business-parks-brandishing metropolises. What makes this novel stand out is how it poses itself as a “novel of the family,” with the twist that it relates what happens after the family has attained the limits (and sometimes beyond) of its early ambitions.
Set in the South Indian city of Bangalore, Ghachar Ghochar is slim—just 115 pages—but there are a lot of things going on inside the narrator’s head. He experiences an abundance of stories throughout his quiet and yet eventful life, and then he tries to dissect them, to push them toward a conclusion that is hazy at best. The language is not beautiful in a conventional sense: it is terse and curt, and the power of the narration lies in the fact that the narrator’s family, as it transforms, also transforms us, the readers. Although this novel is short, it does not feel quick. The events happen at their pace, which is neither breakneck nor broodingly slow, and the narrator lets us peep through his emotions as they unfold.
The power of these glances lie in the way they provide us with a tour-de-force of transformation and migration—not just physical but also psychological, a shift that is both sudden and unexpected, a shift that, while being positive, also brings about undesirable changes within the dynamics of the relationships in between and outside of the family—changes the family is unable, or unwilling, to control.
Ghachar Ghochar balances itself on the dangerous terrain of the family novel, or in this case a joint-family novel, a concept rather rarely exploited literarily in the Subcontinent. The terrain is dangerous because it has already been put before TV viewers. The daily soaps are laden with hastily written scripts that limit themselves to matters like a large family’s loud dinner-table discussion on how to get rid of a rat in their sprawling bungalow; for a half-hour episode, this discourse is carried forth in all seriousness. The joint-family as a concept has always been a muse for the daily soap operas, where affairs and murders and accidental deaths and rebirths are as common as kitchen fights between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law over who would serve the husband/son.
The novel therefore either has to get rid of the clichés—which it does, but only partly—or offer a set of circumstances that would involve the reader into the family’s story. In this, Shanbhag tactfully constructs a philosophical inquiry into the rise of the family’s monetary gains, but a sharp decrease in the clan’s moral standings. Through the aforementioned stories Shanbhag paints a bleak picture of how money can shatter the virtues individuals once held dear, and to morally correct ambitions they once harbored in their hearts.
And this is where one turns to the idea, that money eventually “has its way with us.” It certainly has its cruel way with the narrator’s sister, Malati, who realizes her ambitions for the pleasures of life money ushers in. The family is plunged into the corridors of richness, a space where they don’t have to think much about what to spend on and how to spend it. Which is all new for the family of five, and while it seems as if the balance has been achieved throughout years and that they have forgotten, or at least moved on from their days of “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances,” it is only partial, and temporary.
At one point, the narrator remarks that they had been “painstakingly frugal until then,” and he struggles to find out where money started to gain control of their lives to the degree that they began to ignore its presence where once they rued its absence. Where, indeed, they lost their humility. They have certainly lost it, as the episode where, after Malati’s marriage breaks up, she goes to her in-laws’ house to take back her gold and has goons barge in to make her point rather too forcefully suggests. They have also lost the innocence of their earlier days, when the parents would share one coffee and the rest would devour one masala dosa to save every penny that they could.
In a sense Ghachar Ghochar presents an honest account of how much the story of a liberalized India has affected that nation’s family structure, plus the individuals making up this structure. It has brought in better lives, certainly, but better lives in what sense? By accounts of the elders who lived through a rather left-bending Indian economy of pre-1991 days, the family was a far better maintained, respected and preserved institution than it is today. Where once one came home to a cup of tea and a chat with family members, one doesn’t come home at all these days. Where once the 9 to 5 job actually meant that, today it extends well into the next day. Where there was once the assurance of children taking care of their parents, there today is the hefty check written by the child to lonely parents, albeit from across the seas. The economical boom post-1991 turned out to be a sociological curse- and Shanbhag’s novella subtly puts that idea in perspective.
Ghachar Ghochar is a layered novel. Srinath Perur (an accomplished writer himself) required 18 months to translate it from its original Kannada. One reading cannot do it justice; it asks to be read again, and then one more time, until each layer has been peeled off, examined, and then pieced back again. Ghachar Ghochar allows us that pleasure. The novel doesn’t seek to make big statements, but it plunges into and examines the complicated psychology of the middle class in India, and without any grand narrative or story structure. It traces the microscopic impact of outer change and transformation over the inner workings of an individual, and then it eventually comments on the social reality of life in India.
Atharva Pandit is a student, and is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai.
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