Ghachar Ghochar

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated by Srinath Perur) begins in a deceptively gentle manner with its narrator seated at the coffee shop where he seeks daily refuge from “domestic skirmishes.” It’s true that Shanbhag reminds us this is not European café culture as our narrator remembers the young woman, Chitra, whom he used to meet there, and who worked for a women’s welfare organisation:

“The things she said about men I took as applying to myself. I could only sit there mute, looking vaguely guilty. She might say, ‘How could you break her arm simply because the tea was not to your taste?’ Or: ‘Do you kill your wife because she forgot to leave the key with the neighbour?’”

However these actions seem remote from the narrator himself whose overriding characteristics are timidity, inertia, and the avoidance of conflict. Although married, he still stays with his parents, sister, Malati, and his uncle, Venkatachala. Though Venkatachala is his father’s younger brother, he is the head of the household (or Chikkappa) as he is the sole earner thanks to his spice business. His entrepreneurial skills are contrasted with those of the narrator’s father, Appa, who spent all his days as a salesman for a company dealing in tea leaves, often struggling to earn a living, only to be sacked. It is this misfortune which leads Venkatachala to establish his business, and allows the rest of the family to live off his profits, a situation which the narrator’s wife, Anita, finds difficult to accept. As he explains it, his decision not to work is more accidental than deliberate:

“I recall a time when I received daily lecture about how I had to study well and find a job. The pressure eased when Sona Masala began doing well. The family no longer looked to me as the person who one day would have to provide for all of us.”

He begins working for his uncle’s company, but soon realises that the position is a sinecure and that he does nothing of any use:

“They’d assign me a few trivial tasks because I was there, but nothing of significance ever got down without Chikkappa’s approval.”

When he is first married he pretends to go to work in the hope of his wife’s approval, but this doesn’t last:

“I was back by half past three. If Anita was surprised she didn’t bring it up. The next day I returned at one, had lunch, and slept through the afternoon. The day after I didn’t step out all day and stayed in bed on the pretext of a headache.”

Anita is furious:

“Why did you cheat me?… Why did you marry when you are living off others?… How can you not feel ashamed of living of alms?”

Anita is, of course, the outsider in the family, and she looks at the narrator with the eyes of an outsider. Rather cleverly, Shanbhag aligns us with the narrator before supplying Anita as an alternative viewpoint. She also sees Venkatachala’s business with the eyes of an outsider, wondering where the wealth comes from. It is noticeable that one night, as the narrator and Anita watch Venkatachala unload trucks beneath their bedroom window, he quickly loses interest while she keeps watching.

Shanbhag cleverly decribes the incident which creates a crisis point in their marriage in the novel’s second chapter, but only returns to its aftermath near the end when we are well acquainted with the family’s ways. A woman appears at the door asking to see Venkatachala but the mother and sister forcefully turn her away. The narrator is aware that what they are doing is wrong yet does nothing to intervene:

“The woman had not abused us. She had not come here to pick a fight. We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing.”

Later Anita brings the incident up, claiming that the other women acted out of self-interest, not wanting to see Venkatachala married. Though the narrator knows she is right, he is terrified she will upset the delicate balance of the household;

“The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.”

A family meeting makes clear what must be done.

Ghachar Ghochar is a domestic morality tale, but its reach goes much further. With economy and incision, Shanbhag demonstrates the corruption of a comfortable life. The novel’s narrator is the archetypal bystander; at one point he says, “As usual I hadn’t said anything, but my very silence implicated me.” Turning a blind eye, keeping his mouth shut – these are his talents. When he tells Anita, “it doesn’t matter who’s doing what as long as long as it all runs smoothly,” he is not only referring work. Behind its jokey title and garish cover lies the work of a writer prepared to look into the darker depths of human nature.

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12 Responses to “Ghachar Ghochar”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I just got this yesterday (and with a much less garish cover too). Seems this coincidence—that you review a book I’ve just bought— has arisen before! Glad you liked it.

  2. Melissa Beck Says:

    Very interesting book. Who is the publisher of this one?

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Really like the sound of this. I think I would enjoy it a great deal. Your commentary on the domestic focus reminds me a little of a Kawabata I read fairly recently, The Sound of the Mountain. There’s a fair bit of procrastination (or looking the other way) there too.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read of this one previously, but have annoyingly lost track of on whose blog. It does sound rather good. Dark depths under a light surface.

  5. “Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night” | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a […]

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