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Review: Vivek Shanbhag’s “Ghachar Ghochar”

Well, yes, when I typed the author’s name and the title of his novel, Microsoft Word underlined all four words, informing me that I needed to check their spelling. Never before have all the words in a title as well as the writer’s name pulled up red flags, so you may be wondering how you describe a novel with a unpronounceable title and a writer whose name is also perplexing. Vivek Shanbhag is an Indian novelist who has published eight novels in his native Kannada language. And ghachar ghochar is the made up expression of one of the novel’s characters who, when things run amuck, utters the nonsense words to indicate that things have become topsy-turvy, unexpected. It’s both an apt expression for the title of Shanbhag’s novel (with its surprising twists and turns) and for the characters to utter as these events unfold. The story is also a delight because of those surprises. Suketu Mehta, another Indian writer, has called the author an “Indian Chekhov.” I should also add, here, that it’s impressive that Penguin has taken a risk on a book by a writer unknown in the West, especially one translated—superbly—from minor Indian language.

As in Chekhov’s plays, it’s the dialogue that propels the story (which is slight) as well as the conflict (mostly from characters disagreeing with one another). You also have the story a closely-knit family, whose lives are discombobulated by the arrival of an outsider. The narrator even confesses near the beginning, “I come here for respite from domestic skirmishes.” The place he’s sought for refuge is Coffee House, and as he begins a conversation with the waiter, he asks him, “What should I do, Vincent?” Vincent’s reply is “Let it go, sir,” but I assure you that that is not going to happen. Like most of us, he can’t do that—it pretty much goes against human nature that lets us ghacharstew in our disagreements, rarely letting them go that easily.

The story, such as it is? When the patriarch in an Indian family, Appa, loses his position as a spice salesman, he decides to take the significant amount of money he’s been given as his severance and start a business of his own. His salary has permitted the family (one son, one daughter and their uncle) to live modestly, as long as they pinch pennies. Fortunately, the uncle, Chikkappa, who has always been a hard worker is quite an accomplished businessman, willing to lead the new family company, aka, Sona Masala, which also sells spices. The setting is Bangalore; Sona Masala has quickly become a great success; the ownership is split (50/50) between Appa and Chikkappa. Best of all for the narrator—although he’s given a title as a director of the company and appropriate business cards—isn’t expected to do anything. So he sleeps late and goes to Coffee House, rarely putting in an appearance at Sona Masala.

Everything goes ghachar ghochar when the narrator decides to get married. Anita, his wife, becomes the outside force, immediately destabilizing the family with her arrival. It’s no surprise that her entry into the family is the result of their economic comeuppance. The incident might seem innocent enough. All she’s done is insist that when they return from the honeymoon, that they bring a gift for each member of her husband’s family.

“The practice of giving gifts to people who live in the same house was new to us. In the pre-Sona Masala days, before we moved to the new house, all purchases were discussed among the whole family. Whether it was for clothes for Malati, a sari for Amma, trousers for me, or new spectacles for Appa, everyone knew what was being bought. Nothing new entered the house as a surprise. We even planned and plotted what new clothes were to be bought for Deepavali. We’d list our requirements to buy what was possible with the money available. The rest could wait until the next opportunity arose to shop. How were any of us to know the sense of anticipation with opening a gift-wrapped package? Even if we could have afforded it, there’s something absurd about exchanging gifts when it’s all paid for from a single pocket.”

Ghachar Ghochar is a gentle story about lives being uprooted because of sudden changes, one of them being the success of Sona Masala, which brings in enough money that the family—previously accustomed to watching their rupees—can suddenly afford to spend frivolously. Worse, it’s an outsider who makes changes about purchases (even though the money comes from her husband’s generous salary, which he does nothing to earn). Success breeds instability, but bring an outsider into the mix, and the change can be so unsettling that a once harmonious family can become factionalized, menacing, and violent.

You will read Ghachar Ghochar (which sounds like an angry dog barking) in part of an evening, about the length of time you’d need to watch one of Chekhov’s masterpieces. You’ll experience the same pleasure.

Vivek Shanbhag: Ghachar Ghochar
Trans. by Srinath Perur
Penguin, 118 pp., $16

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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