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Ghachar Ghochar- A Brilliant Novel not ‘Made-Indian’ to Attract a Foreign Audience

28th August, 2017

Book Review : Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

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.”

Quintessentially Indian

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.

Encroaching money

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.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

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.

Strong Women

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
Publication: 2015
Language : English
Pages : 117
Rating : 4/5

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Do you have recommendations for novels that are so distinctly Indian?

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Ghachar Ghochar
This Post Has 29 Comments
  1. I’m so glad you found a book which resonated with you so well! It looks like there is already an English translation– so am adding this to my TBR. Your review definitely sold me!

    I never really thought about how there are books which are “Indian to please the readers… and the ones that are actually Indian.” This makes total sense to me when I read those words! Can you give me any pointers for how I would be able to identify one variety over the other, as a Caucasian American?

    1. This is an excellent read and very short too. This is the review of the English translation. The original language is not one that I am familiar with.

      I have not been to the state in India (Karnataka) where this book is set. But yes, through friends and colleagues we know what it is like. And also even though each state in India is so different from the other (even in terms of language), there are some common threads such as family bonds that we can associate with.

      Not really sure how to help you identify books that have a realistic portrayal vs one that is made up. It is just like the case when let’s say a story is set in your neighbourhood. So me, as an outsider, might praise a book if the language and descriptions are good and I feel I can create a picture of it in my mind. But only you will know how much of the book is true and how much is simply written just to please readers and how much of it is just crammed with media stereotypes. Right? Because only you (or someone familiar with the place) knows what people and houses are like there.
      I often wonder about this when I read books set in Africa. I really enjoy those stories but probably only a person who is familiar with that particular country of Africa in which the book is set can comment on the actual value of the book. I would be able to read and appreciate only the literary aspects.

      1. You have valid points about realistic portrayal vs. made up ones. I feel like this is similar to the #OwnVoices movement; where we without those experiences have to trust the author to depict things accurately and appropriately. It’s much easier to pick those things out when it comes to Western Culture since they dominated publishing for so long– we have such a wide swath of resources to compare after all this time, it’s easy! But with cultures who are only now getting more attention we have fewer data points to compare.

        I completely agree with you when it comes to depictions of Africa. I wonder the same thing often. But, I also don’t read a ton of contemporary lit where I think it’s the most critical to be accurate. Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Historical Fiction often has a lit more leeway.

  2. Very interesting review, an important point you have brought up. Many Indian authors are guilty of pandering to the west by exoticising what is normal in the Indian context. My copy of the book arrived sometime ago and I just read your post now. This can’t be a coincidence:) Can’t wait to read and discuss it!

    1. Thank you. That is a happy coincidence indeed. Do let me know if you enjoy the read or comment your link if you review it. I would be very interested in knowing different thoughts to the book.

    1. Not really easy to point out. But you know elements like a characters suddenly thrust into poverty or something so as to evoke sympathy in a foreign reader while this twist does nothing to the overall plot. The forced arranged marriage is another usual thing used by foreign writers of Indian origin. Such things do not happen anymore in the present India (talking about educated, middle class families). The girl and the guy talk or meet over coffee and decide whether they are suitable. The families talk too. But no one marries anyone after seeing them once and not talking. And this false depiction in order to gain a sympathy that works well for the marketing of the book does harm in spreading something false about the country. However a foreign reader finds it enticing because arranged marriage is something so alien to them.

      One reason is many of the foreign writers of Indian origin do not know the present India and many haven’t stayed here for an extended period of time. So their stories are mainly what they have heard from their parents who left the country years ago. Me and a few friends once had a discussion on Twitter that when we see Youtubers (some) settled abroad making videos making fun of their parents; we laugh because our parents do seem way more cooler than theirs. There is a huge gap between India in the eyes of Indians who stay here and India that a writer settled abroad writes about

      1. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and lengthy reply, Resh. I can see how frustrating this must be – a perpetuation of outdated stereotypes. I reminds me a little of talking to someone who hadn’t lived in the UK for decades and remembered it as all sunny afternoon cricket and tea on the lawn. Amusing but also very irritating.

      2. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and lengthy reply, Resh. I can see how frustrating this must be – a perpetuation of outdated stereotypes. I reminds me a little of talking to someone who hadn’t lived in the UK for decades and remembered it as all sunny afternoon cricket and tea on the lawn. Amusing but also very irritating.

        1. No problem, Susan.
          I perfectly understand your friend’s situation. One of my aunts who is settled in America visited India after a long time. When we got into a lift to go to the upper floor of the mall, she exclaimed, “Oh, you copied this from Americans.” And we kids were confused because we are used to using lifts and elevators in malls. That’s when my mom explained to us after she had left that her memories have the picture of a country that no longer exists; when mall chains etc were no longer there. But we do talk about this incident at home and chuckle.

  3. Oh, this sounds brilliant, I must find it! I am trying to recall the Indian novel I’ve seen reviewed recently which is a retelling of King Lear, because that sounds amazing, too.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this book. I’ll see, if I can get my hands on it. I’m surprised how the author has managed to do such a fabulous job in just about 100 pages. He has to be commended for the brevity.

    Coming to the New York Times review, it is really really sad that such a stupid thing comes from a renowned name. How can one rely on such reviews?

    I read So Many Hungers by Bhabani Bhattacharya, in the 1st Quarter of 2017. And I feel it is truly an Indian Novel. It is based on the man made famine of Bengal, and explores several aspects of Indian Society. I’ve a feeling that you’ll like it, if you haven’t read it.

    1. I was very pleased with the way the novel was written. It might be because it is translated from Kannada and retains that true Indianness. I often find myself less moved by the English novels set in India. I did wish this was a longer novel, you know. It has a lot of potential.

      Thank you for your recommendation. I will check it out. I am always on the look out for books that are truly Indian in nature. The premise sounds very interesting

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