Reading the World: ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ by Vivek Shanhbag ****

Vivek Shanbhag’s interestingly titled Ghachar Ghochar is the first of his eight books to be translated into English.  Its fluid transition from its original Kannada – an Indian language spoken by 38 million people – has been handled wonderfully by Srinath Perur.  Ghachar Ghochar has been described as ‘… a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings – and consequences – of financial gain in contemporary India’, and has been highly praised by the likes of the BBC and the New Yorker.

Ghachar Ghochar presents a portrait of a family in Bangalore, whose dynamic shifts greatly as time goes on; they move from relative poverty to wealth almost overnight.  9780571336074The uncle, Chikkappa, forms a spice company, managing to make large profits, which allow all of his family to live comfortably.  It also renders him almost godlike in the eyes of society; he is the one who saved them, and thus he deserves the best of everything.  There is a strict hierarchy within the family, too; if one family member disagrees with Chikkappa, they are immediately thought badly of, no matter how founded their own beliefs are.  The family are supposed to stick together as a single unit, with no dissenters in the ranks.  The new wife of our unnamed male narrator is just such a thing; when a woman comes to the new house to look for Chikkappa, the mother and sister of the family are cruel to her, and cast her out.  The wife takes a very negative view of this act, and speaks aloud about it.  The narrator says this in response: ‘How was I to explain that Chikkappa must be protected at all costs?  She wouldn’t understand.  For that, she would need to have lived through those earlier days with us – when the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.  Without that reality behind her, it’s all a mater of empty principle.’

As the story goes on, this newfound prosperity has a knock-on effect for all involved: ‘alliances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background.  Things become “ghachar ghochar” – a nonsense phrase uttered by one meaning something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can’t be untied.’  Everyone lives under a cloud of deception.  The narrator, whose wife is under the illusion that he works, rather than is given a monthly salary from the spice company, uses a local cafe as a place of refuge, sitting there during usual working hours, and then heading home.

Shanbhag’s prose is beautifully profound at times: ‘How different are the words of those exalted beings from his?  Words, after all, are nothing by themselves.  They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered’.  His writing is taut and intelligent, and he has presented a fascinating slice of both traditional and modern India.

Ghachar Ghochar is a slim novel, but it also has a surprising richness and depth to it.  The narrative voice which Shanhbag has crafted is engaging, and the balance has been struck perfectly between the minutiae of life and the bigger picture.  So much about India can be learnt within its pages, particularly with regard to the concepts of marriage and business.  I shall finish this review with a quote which should strike some feeling in the modern breast: ‘It’s true what they say – 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.’

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