Ghachar Ghochar: Of Money, Morals, and Family Dynamics

The Great Indian Dream is to acquire wealth by any means, marry into a rich family, own a big house, have own set of hired musclemen to break bones and jump long queues, and rise above all the bounds of moral web. Ghachar Ghochar is a great Indian Novel of recent times, about that dream of the teeming masses and smug classes. In it Vivek Shanbhag talks about a small joint family which acquires wealth all of a sudden when an entrepreneurial member of the family starts a masala company. The unexpected wealth leads to moral ruin. The message of this contemporary Indian parable is: ‘…it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.’

The family finds itself moving from an ant-infested, cramped little house in lower middle class Bangalore to a decadent bungalow in the affluent part of the city. The rags to riches tale shows the dysfunction becoming the norm for the members of the family. When they were poor, the close-knit family had a functioning moral compass. When they grow rich, the family loses all sense of morality and work ethic. The ruin brought by wealth is more visible on the two youngest members of the family – Malati and the unnamed narrator; one turns profligate in matters of love and money, another turns into an aimless idler.

The story is littered with gems like: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’ or ‘when you have no choice, you have no discontent either.’ Originally written in the Kannada language, the novel is translated immaculately into English by Srinath Perur. While reading it in English, I forgot that the author had written it in a language different from what I read it in. The translation captures the mood, rhythm, nuances and dialect of the original work. The novel is both dark and hilarious by turn. Some characters and situations like Vincent, the oracular waiter and confidante of the narrator, have a hint of magic in the mundane. The characters fly out of the book and you feel as if you’ve met them in the real world around you: the workaholic uncle, the insecure mother, the rebellious daughter-in-law, the idle son, the prodigal daughter, the much-ignored retired father cracking tired jokes, the feminist girlfriend. Many rustic aphorisms, rooted in the soil of the land, are translated with genuine flair – for example, to show the profligacy and pomposity of the nouveau riche, one of the characters says: ‘They say the newly rich carry umbrellas to keep moonlight at bay…’

India is a conundrum where thousands of languages are spoken by the people and still, a majority of people have no idea about the real ethos and culture of another set of people. In recent years, Indian writing in English has been much appreciated by the people across the globe. Yet, the real India mostly inhabits the pages inked by the writers of the regional literature, the same writers who are rooted in the soil from which this chaotic country derives breath, bones and being. In recent years I’ve tried to venture beyond Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai and other prominent Indian writers in English. And what an exhilarating experience it has been when you read about real India living in the pages of Perumal Murugan, Premchand, Sadat Manto, Tagore, Shivaji Sawant, Kashinath Singh, Sri Lal Sukla, and others. I can read and understand only two-and-a-quarter languages – Hindi, English and French – hence, obviously, I read the texts in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, and other languages in translations. Ghachar Ghochar is my first foray into reading Kannada literature, and man, am I mightily impressed! If you want to introduce people to mean, lean, hungry style of writing, this is it. If elegance of minimalistic writing, shorn of all ornaments, is to be witnessed, then it’s visible in this tour de force of ruin, menace and tyranny of ordinary humans.  Shanbhag leaves many things unsaid, leading the readers to peel the multiple layers of meaning. The emotions and experiences are fairly universal for someone who has lived through the two Indias – frugality of 1980s and the comfortable wealth of post-liberalization era.

Shanbhag, in this novel, appears to be the rightful heir of Chekhov and Maupassant, Premchand and Tolstoy. In a sparse, yet deep work he has written a tale that portrays psychological traumas, gender dynamics and societal anomie. The 115-page novel is a short read highlighting the Durkheimian malady of the infinite.’ As Shanbhag writes: ‘We spent helplessly on Malati’s wedding. No one asked us to; we simply didn’t know how to stop.’ Human desire is limitless, intense and never stops till it consumes everything.

Read it, please. With intense desire to understand the infinite malady.

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