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Book Review: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

The Kannada author writes an ingenious tale of how material wealth robs a family of its moral fortitude

Shanbhag writes of pettiness and cruelty in an Indian family. Photo: iStockphoto<br />
Shanbhag writes of pettiness and cruelty in an Indian family. Photo: iStockphoto

Most people, in this country at least, resist translations of fiction. There’s a natural suspicion towards something that is not the “original". It hasn’t helped that mainstream English language publishers have, till recently, given rather stepmotherly treatment to these books. All of that seems to be changing though. In this past year alone, publishers have made a noticeably aggressive pitch for works in translation. Take the cover of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, for instance, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur. It makes you pause, and admire; I mention this specifically because, if memory serves me right, many translated works have been doomed to obscurity front jacket onwards.

The cover image—ants crowding on to a saucer with spilled coffee—while not fully true to the text within, is the primary metaphor that Shanbhag uses to portray a family’s insecurity—more, paranoia—upon a sudden increase in wealth. The narrator, a young man, wakes one night to find his mother squatting in the kitchen, facing the wall, flashlight in hand, trying to find out where the army of ants that had invaded their home had come from. “We had no compunction towards our enemies and took to increasingly desperate and violent means of dealing with them... in time we began to be openly cruel to ants. We saw them as demons come to swallow our home and became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants. We might have changed house since, but habits are harder to change."

Later in life, after a moment of particular crisis in the family: “Amma and Malati noticed Anita’s dissent. It’s an unwritten rule that all members come to the family’s aid when it is threatened. Anita had broken that rule. She should not have." Anita is the narrator’s wife, an “outsider" to the family and, as the rather threatening “she should not have" indicates, a potential “ant" that may need to be quashed.

Ghachar Ghochar: Translated by Srinath Perur, Harper Perennial, 118 pages, 399.

Shanbhag’s novella looks intimately at a middle-class family living in Bengaluru, at how their new-found fortune becomes more of a cruel joke played upon them, unleashing the beast within. It changes family equations, robs them of their moral fortitude and peace of mind. Shanbhag shows a five-member family—the narrator’s parents, elder sister (Malati) and uncle (Chikkappa)—efficiently living off a paltry income, content with their lot because they know no better, nurturing and supporting each other through thick and thin. He then cuts across time to show how these same loving people can be cruel in equal measure.

Particularly moving is an episode when the kerosene stove in their kitchen is replaced by cooking gas, the moment of transition in their lives. Chikkappa has saved for months to make this happen, and when the momentous day arrives, there’s great excitement, with Amma saying, again and again, that she’s heard the tea can be prepared in 5 minutes on a gas stove. The childlike wonder in her remark and the excited commotion that greets the arrival of the gas are touching, pointing towards a purity and innocence that will be lost forever not long after. In stark contrast to this episode is the family’s utter indifference to the mismatched furniture that Malati and Amma start to crowd their new house with.

Shanbhag, who has published five short-story collections, is obviously a master of the form. His story is revealed, and a tension built and sustained, through flashes of memory, of significant episodes from the family’s life. The story is tightly written, there are no extraneous details, nothing that is not of importance to the plot. So skilfully is the story written that each of the characters is revealed, warts and all, no veil to hide their ugliness behind. The narrator’s frustration, Appa’s helplessness, Anita’s rage, Malati’s pettiness, Chikkappa’s moral ambiguity, Amma’s survival instinct—a range of emotions and motives give texture to the story. Clearly, Shanbhag, and us readers in English, owe Srinath Perur for creating this masterly translation.

Silly as it may sound, I also derived a certain comfort in spotting the idiosyncrasies of south Indian English written here with total confidence—from Amma “washing vessels" (which a north Indian friend has told me sounds like ships being washed), to references to the family’s “iron box" (apparently one irons clothes with just an “iron", not an iron “box"). It seemed to make the translation more “original", in a sense.

This book is interesting too for other reasons. Apart from the fact that works in translation are being given a leg-up, it may well be a pointer to the publishing industry overcoming its reluctance to invest in novellas. Considering the attention span of readers these days, this may well be the way to go.

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