One thing that most Indian novels written in English have in common is their tendency towards rich description and verbosity – think Salma Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag defies this trend utterly. Sitting at just over 100 pages or 28,000 word novella can be knocked out in a single sitting. But despite it’s brevity, it packs a punch.
Ghachar Ghochar was originally written in Kannada, a south India language spoken by around 40 million people. It’s one of very few books to be translated from Kannada to English and, while Shanbhag is well established in India, this is the first of his novels to make the jump. Given his wide-acclaim in the subcontinent and the frequent comparisons to Chekov, it’s strange that it’s taken five short story collections, two plays and three novels before the Western market took an interest.
Ghachar Ghochar are nonsense words, invented by Shanbhag to indicate something hopelessly entangled – a fitting title for a book dealing with rising class anxieties and social ambition, family loyalty and the violence of the Indian patriarchy. It is full of ominous foreboding and the focus on interiors and close-knit facility situations imbues it with a sense of claustrophobia and mounting unease.
The story opens with the unnamed protagonist sitting in his favourite escape-from-family-life, Coffee Shop. The first chapter focuses primary on his attentive and all-knowing waiter, Vincent, and a former lover, Chitra, who rails against the domestic abuse she sees in her role working at a women’s welfare organization. The protagonist’s response is a curious and dark piece of foreshadowing: ‘I knew that tea shouldn’t lead to a broken arm, or a forgotten key to murder. It wasn’t about the tea or the key: the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence.’
From Coffee Shop, the story moves to the family home, where the narrator lives with his mother and father, older sister Malati, his wife Anita and his father’s younger brother ‘Chikkappa’. Initially poor and living in a small, ant-infested house, the family is raised up by Chikkappa’s successful though vaguely sinister spice company in what is a clear parable to India’s recent economic boom. The family now caters to Chikkappa’s every whim in order to protect the family interests and their new position. They close ranks against the outside world in ways that are both cold hearted and shockingly brutal – ‘the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.’
The narrator, who is ostensibly the Director of his Uncle’s company, spends most of his time sleeping or at Coffee Shop, a fact that his new bride, a progressive and clever woman, finds deplorable. There’s a sense of vague dissatisfaction, of being lost and emasculated about the narrator, but despite a few cursory attempts, he is not able to change his position and is simply carried along by the tide. Unnamed, he is able to stand in for everyman and represents the crisis of Indian identity in a fast-modernizing world and in particular, the crisis of Indian masculinity. Indeed, the three women in the narrator’s life each seem to represent a different stage of female emancipation and each, in their different way, frightens him.
It’s a beautifully crafted, vivid and ominous novella, full of suggestion, implication and things left unsaid. Oblique tangents progress the narrative and offer clues to the story’s eventual conclusion without ever feeling in the least expositional. Ghachar Ghochar is a work of great restraint, peppered with precise observations and wry, poetic lines.
The novella was translated by Srinah Perur, who worked closely with Shanbhag for weeks – rewriting entire paragraphs and even inserting some additional scenes, to produce a work as true as possible to the original. It’s hard to know how successful this was without knowing Kannada, but at the very least, the story they gave their English audience is a masterpiece in its own right.