When we in the West think of Indian fiction what comes to mind are books written in English, from Salman Rushdie to Rohinton Mistry. There are compelling reasons of economics and distribution for this, but there also is a large body of writing in India in other languages that rarely gets translated.
Ghachar, Ghochar is a very welcome example of this. Its author, Vivek Shanbhag is a respected writer in the Kannada language, considered a “minority language” in India although it is spoken by about 50 million people, mostly in the south of the country. This is the first of Shanbhag’s eight novels to be translated into English.
It is a short but closely observed novel revolving around one family’s perilous financial rise and the sometimes dubious measures they take to solidify their gains. It can easily be read as a metaphor for India’s booming new economic power, but the characters never feel anything but distinctly individual.
The book is narrated by an unnamed young man in present day Bangalore, who wiles away most of his day at a Raj-era coffeehouse. The family, the narrator, his sister, parents and uncle had lived in relative poverty, all together in a ramshackle house. “The whole family stuck together,” he says “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.”
When the narrator’s father is forced into early retirement from his job as a coffee salesman, the narrator’s uncle, Chikkappa, uses the severance pay to start up a company importing and repackaging spices. Soon the family’s fortunes improve and they all move together to a larger house.
“It is natural to wonder, I suppose, why the six of us should want to live together,” the narrator says. “What can I say – it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable.”
Together, the family coddles Chikkappa, who has a seedy love life and shifty business practices. The narrator is listed as the Director of his uncle’s company but has no real responsibilities apart from signing documents he doesn’t bother reading. He takes on a wife who soon sees that her husband is not the business dynamo she expected.
Everything in the family has it seems become “ghachar, ghochar,” a nonsense phrase meaning all messed up, all tied in knots that can’t be untied. That, Shanbhag seems to suggest, is the plight of India today, caught between a capitalist whirl and a not quite forgotten traditionalist past.
Well worth reading not just for its social commentary but kalso for its vivid and precise descriptions of family dynamics.