Ghachar Ghochar, the English-language debut of South Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, has all the trappings of becoming a modern classic. Translated nimbly from Kannada by Srinath Perur, it is a deceptively simple story about domestic havoc caused by money — the fulcrum on which all family dynamics are balanced. For a book that is not even 150 pages long, it packs in social commentary about the financial anxieties of the upwardly mobile and family ties fraught with veiled friction to make for an enduring tale about the perils of cupidity.
This book paints a striking portrait of a traditional domestic household in India. I often feel that writers caricature South Asian culture and its values to pander to Western stereotypes, but Shanbhag eschews such trends and opts for a sharp, pared down exposition of the psyche and lifestyle of a middle-class Indian family. He authentically depicts the implicit rulebook of unspoken etiquettes and convention that Eastern societies abide by. The story grasps the complex dynamics of a traditional joint family with concise skill — a lot of issues are swept under the rug, every family member has to make adjustments to accommodate the other people living under the same roof and there is a deeply cultivated tendency to avoid awkward confrontations behind a facade of deference.
The unnamed narrator in this book is part of a close-knit family and walks us through the rags-to-riches story of his middle-class family who are nearly down and out before they are resuscitated by his father’s younger brother. Chikkappa, as the uncle is referred to, and his spice company elevate the family from frugal living to bourgeoisie luxuries. The book intricately observes the shift in the balance of power between the brothers. Now Chikkappa is the meal ticket; that makes him the new man of the house and his every whim is instantly catered to. The narrator’s father, Appa, is now no longer the breadwinner and has receded into a stoic inhabitant of the house — the fate of many retired men in South Asian families.
A compact, multi-layered portrait of family conflict and the insecurities of bourgeois life
Chikkappa is somewhat of a slippery character and is not above using underhanded dealings to advance his business. Everyone in the family has an inkling of the shady goings-on, but they choose to look the other way, dominated as they are by their self-preservation instinct and acquisitiveness. This self-interest stems from a deep insecurity with regards to money and this complex psychological portrait of the family’s distinctive attitude towards wealth is depicted with great insight.
Along with the shift in power between the men, the power dynamics between the women of the house are vividly brought to life. Amma is a formidable force to reckon with and is clearly the one who calls the shots, even if it is from the kitchen. Her daughter Malati is a spoiled brat who is always in combative mode and Anita is the fiery, morally upstanding daughter-in-law. She is the least submissive character in the story, the one who holds a mirror to the family’s bullying tactics and so is obviously met with resistance and aggravation. Despite their personal differences, however, when any outsider threatens to disturb the peace in the family, the women unite forces and can be shockingly vicious, like “dogs protecting their territory.” In some ingenious set pieces, the domestic minefield that the women have to navigate to assert their respective control in the house is comically depicted.
Ghachar Ghochar searingly explores the financial tensions of the upper middle-class and their efforts to preserve their new-found status. The narrator retrospects about simpler times when, if they wanted new clothes, they had to let go of other luxuries and as a consequence, did not desire what they could not afford: “When you have no choice, you have no discontent, either.” This is in stark contrast to their present-day attitude where they have the tendency to splurge. All of them have an intense fear of losing affluence, but their counter-intuitive reflex, partly impelled by ostentation, is to spend lavishly.
The nameless protagonist is a free rider who has no real job and is content with reaping the benefits of his uncle’s successful business. Anita, his wife, is indignant with her husband’s passivity and lack of drive. His bland personality makes him the perfect vantage point from which to observe his family and their ruthless greed. Such a narrator could easily come across as unlikeable, but credit is due to the writer and the translator for managing to make the narration feel vigorous and consistently engaging.
An overarching theme is Amma’s preoccupation with the ants that are constantly invading their home; this is an allegory of how defensive the family is towards intruders. They close ranks against any outsider who threatens to disrupt their order and thwart any attempts of outside intervention. Shanbhag deftly uses wry language laden with darker undertones to convey their hidden motives.
The crisply crafted story is simple enough on the surface, yet gives raw and penetrating insight into the complexities of familial ties. What sets this book apart is how the story represents wise truth with diluted menace and economy of expression, masterfully combining humour with pathos. Ghachar Ghochar is a laconic and incisively observed story of morality and class insecurities told with delectable candour.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer
By Vivek Shanbhag,
Faber & Faber, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 30th, 2017