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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur

Like a cappuccino in the café where the protagonist spends most of his days, this novella is a comforting read until the grounds at the end which leave a surprisingly bitter taste.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag, Srinath Perur (trans.) (Harper Perennial, January 2016)

On the surface, Ghachar Ghochar is a family saga which charts the everyday life of its members as they move from poor to wealthy in one generation. As to be expected, the family becomes corrupted by its newfound riches over time. But author Vivek Shanbhag’s skillful treatment of the cliché turns it into a metaphor for modern India and provides the insight that the impact of economic prosperity isn’t always positive. In particular, the work shows that women are generally the losers in a society obsessed with consumer disposables.

The story is told by “Kurkure”—we only learn his nickname. The son of a hard-working spice salesman, he grows up in a small, ant-infested house in a blue-collar area of Bangalore. The day that his father is made redundant becomes the turning point of the family’s fortunes. “Chikkappa”, his father’s younger brother who lives with them, decides they should set up a spice company of their own.

The firm’s runaway success initially pulls the family out of poverty but stokes up trouble for later. Kurkure is given a sinecure and spends most of his time daydreaming at the Coffee House. His sister, Malati, returns to the family home after her marriage breaks down and demands to be waited upon by their mother while their father, “Appa”, who owns half the company, slips into a somnolent existence. All of them rely on Chikkappa to keep the family afloat. Correspondingly, he begins to rule the roost.

Into this uneasy alliance comes Anita. Through an arranged marriage, she becomes Kurkure’s wife and is quick to discover he is not the dynamic company director she imagined. As the daughter of an academic, she is used to speaking her mind and doesn’t subscribe to the traditional “put-up and shut-up” role of wife and mother. Soon she is set against the other members of the household too.

Kurkure notices the underlying tension but can motivate himself to do little more than shrug his shoulders. His attitude is so hands-off that at first it is possible to read his depiction as lazy writing. However, Shanbhag’s artistry is such that it is only towards the finale that we see the extent of Kurkure’s self-delusion and realise he has been an unreliable narrator all along.

 

The bitter ending comes when Anita takes herself off to Hyderabad, ostensibly for a job interview. The family regroups, tentatively realizing that relations are so much more pleasant without her. They begin to talk casually about neighbors from the old days who probably murdered their wives and lovers but escaped punishment. Appa sees where the conversation is leading and points out that they seem to condoning killing someone “when it suits us”.

Chikkappa’s answer sums up the extent to which his moral compass has deviated:

 

These things are not as big a deal today … do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Son Masala? Everyone else does it too. You never know when you might need these people. It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure these people are looked after ...

 

Kurkure’s immediate reaction is to worry whether such comments will persuade Appa to give away his share of the company, thereby disinheriting him. It is only on the last page that he realizes he (and by extension India itself) is trapped in the system which supports them, and it is corrupt. It is indeed a ghachar ghochar, a made-up phrase meaning mess. But what is the way out? This is a question that many societies, not just India, should be asking themselves.


Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.