Ghachar Ghochar- A Brilliant Novel not ‘Made-Indian’ to Attract a Foreign Audience
28th August, 2017
A story about a family who becomes rich overnight, thanks to a business, and how the money eats into their lives; like ants.
“..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.”
There are two kinds of Indian novels- the ones that are Indian to please the readers, especially the foreign ones, and the ones that are actually Indian. Ghachar Ghochar falls into the latter category. I am amazed how Shanbhag managed to do this in such brevity and clarity. The book felt so real, the scenes right out of life.
A lower middle class family of modest means comes across new money when they start a business of spices. This alters their life style as well relationships between one another. They move into a better neighbourhood as the first step. Slowly, new changes appear in the family due to the new wealth. Once, the father of our narrator was the sole bread winner. The family was a close knit family; they did not go out and eat at restaurants; they used to keep a note of their expenditure; and think twice about lighting a gas stove.
But once the uncle, Chikkappa, starts the business, money kept pouring in and they began to enjoy . Only the father seems hesitant to enjoy the new found riches – “Appa enjoys our current prosperity with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved. He’s given to quoting a proverb that says wealth shouldn’t strike suddenly like a visitation, but instead grow gradually like a tree.”
When the narrator’s sister stays out most of the time and keeps eating at restaurants, it feels odd to the shells of their past lives but normal to their new way of living.
Our unnamed narrator
When I read the last page of the book, I realized I did not know the name of the narrator. The novel starts with our narrator in a coffee house, observing the happenings around and swimming in his thoughts. I felt as if I was sitting in the same coffeehouse and he was pouring out his heart to me. The narrator tells us how money just gets deposited in his account every month without him having to do anything. He was very happy about this arrangement until he gets married and the need to put up a false façade arises.
...and his wife, Anita
It is with the addition of Anita, the narrator’s new wife, into the family that the readers begin to see the widening cracks. Anita is a simple girl who keeps asking the narrator whether he has enough days off from work for their honeymoon. This is a huge blow to him because the narrator only ‘kills time with dedication’; he does not do any work. In order to gain the respect of the respect of his work, he pretends to be at work at the office; but he is clueless what happens there since the business is run by his uncle. He is a crossroad in life because he doesn’t have a job but his wife insists on being self reliant.
The word ‘ghachar ghochar’ is a nonsensical word that Anita uses and it translates to ‘tangled beyond repair’. The narrator hears it at first when he tries to untie his wife’s petticoat string at their honeymoon suite but is unable to. And the same way, his life seems to be tangled up too.
The Great Indian Novel?
This novel has been called as The Great Indian novel by New York Times. (I also cringed on reading in the NYT review that this is written in ‘bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages’. ‘Bhasha’ means language and the book is written in Kannada, which is the name of the language. This is another case of ‘chai tea’ for ‘chai’ and ‘naan bread’ for ‘naan’! Aren’t all books written in a bhasha/language?).
What’s more? Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City, calls Shanbhag as the ‘Indian Chekov’. The book is just a 100 pages long, but in it are imprisoned well fleshed characters, the life of a lower middle class family, the power of money and the menace of ants that alludes to the family’s rising financial situation and problems.
All the women do not have an equally prominent voice in the novel. But they make their presence felt. “On that day I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women.”
When the narrator gets married, there is friction between his mother, sister and Anita. They seem to want to hurt the other by being possessive of him. These scenes were sarcastic, humorous and contained bitter truths. I loved Anita as a character. It was refreshing to see a positive take on arranged marriage (something that is often made rotten in many Indian books), her stubbornness to be self reliant and the narrator’s observation that ‘money did not satisfy her needs’.
Final Verdict :
Highly recommended. This is a novel that is wonderfully Indian in its soul and not one that was made Indian for the sake of it. I have not even mentioned the references to ants in the novel; but that is for you to find out.
I only wish this was a longer book. I wish we had more books like this. I also wish you will read this book.
Title : Ghachar Ghochar
Author : Vivek Shanbhag; Translator : Srinath Perur from the Kannada
Publisher : Harper Perennial
Language : English
Pages : 117
Rating : 4/5
Do you have recommendations for novels that are so distinctly Indian?