Title – Ghachar Ghochar
Author – Vivek Shanbhag (translation by Srinath Perur)
Genre – Fiction
In continuation with my birthday reading goals of travelling around India through books, Ghachar Ghochar was selected from the state of Karnataka. Originally a Kannada piece of literature, I read the English version.
The setting of the story is in Bangalore (Karnataka), and begins with the narrator who spends most of his time in a coffee shop, connecting with a waiter who he deems as one of the wisest people he has come across. The narrator has had some issues at home, and prefers to while away his time sipping coffee and chatting away with Vincent, the waiter at “Coffee House”. Vincent doesn’t talk much, preferring to listen to his patrons, and speaking in short sentences that drive them to figure out their problems themselves. The rest of the book leads us to how the narrator landed up at this spot.
The narrator lives with his family in an ant-infested house. The household comprises Amma his mother, Appu his father, Malati his sister, and Venkatchala his uncle. Appu works as a salesman and has recently been told to retire since the company is not doing too well. Appu’s younger brother Venkat works in a private company but dreams of starting his own business. Appu hands over his savings and pension money to kick-start his brother’s business, and Venkat takes him on as a partner. With the venture titled “Sona Masala“, the siblings purchase spices in bulk from far off places at lower rates, and sell them in smaller sized packets at a higher cost. When the narrator completes his education, he is taken in as well to add on to the family business. Or rather, it is Venkat who does everything. The rest of the family members are only provided with visiting cards to ascertain their designations in the company, but Venkat has the first and final word. The business does very well, and their fortunes change overnight. The family soon finds itself in a bungalow, a far cry from their meagre lifestyle in a house the size of a matchbox. Theirs was a close knit family, but as they begin to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamics begin to shift. Malati finds herself married, but moves back to her parents house, not wanting to give up her newfound lavish lifestyle. The narrator gets married too, and the household now includes Anita, his wife. (The narrator is never referred to directly by any of the family members, so we don’t know what his name is.)
Each chapter takes us into the family members’ back story and their relationships with each other. They can’t tolerate one another, but put on a facade for society. Venkat is the sole earning member, and the others want to please him at any cost since that’s where the money comes from. Without Venkat, they cannot spend as they would like to. Also, with Venkat and Appa being partners in the business, siblings Malati and the narrator know that their father’s share of the business would automatically be inherited by them. But Appa has not prepared a will yet, and the siblings don’t want to take any chances that might dissuade him from their share of the inheritance. The parents know that Malati is at fault for picking fights with her in-laws and showing off her newly rich status, but they keep mum and dust issues under the carpet, considering they too revel in their present lavish lifestyle. Venkat, doing all of the work, takes it for granted that he will be waited on since the family needs the money and won’t go against anything he says or does. Anita is lied to when her marriage is fixed to the narrator – the proposal mentioned he was the director of Sona Masala. But that’s only on paper. He does not even go to work, opting to spend the day at the coffee shop instead of going to the office. With Anita’s entry into the household, issues that were earlier brushed aside are now brought to the surface. Through all the happenings, the narrator prefers to stay quiet – not wanting to displease anyone lest he gets thrown out of his inheritance, or not have money at his immediate disposal.
The title is a nonsensical phrase that comes from an incident narrated by Anita, when she and her brother were flying kites and the strings got entangled. Ghachar Ghochar is an expression of frustration that refers to “being tangled beyond repair” or “knots that cannot be untied.” The twisted cords and seemingly high flying kites are a metaphor for the lives in the narrator’s family – all muddled up and jumbled at the core but displaying a face of perfection for society. Ghachar Ghochar is not just a story in itself, but a depiction of our daily lives – about not saying the things we want to, not standing up for ourselves or others, accepting wrongdoings by pretending they’re not happening, while inwardly harboring a mess within one’s life.
I had to read the English version since I don’t read Kannada, but the translator Perur has done a commendable job. The book comes across as well written, and not a word-for-word literal translation. The humor comes through, as does the sadness. The novel is unsettling at times – where you don’t agree with the narrator’s views as a silent spectator in the wrongdoings around him, but he seems unperturbed and jokes about what’s happening. The length of the book is short (a little over a hundred pages) but it keeps you enthralled throughout. The cover is striking – providing a comparison with how ants work as a tightly knit community, and the contribution of each individual required for the entire community to benefit, grow and sustain. The spilled tea in the saucer reflects how one looks for opportunities everywhere – whether a few grains of rice, or drops of spilled dal, or the ring of a cup of tea, ants find their way around anything and through anything when looking for food. A simplistic but thought provoking book – how materialism can strip one of one’s morals. Read this one.
Rating – 4/5 (Since I read the translated version. The original would have received a 5/5 for reading in the author’s own words)
P.S. This book was selected as part of my “Birthday Reading Goals” – reading books in and around India and/or by local authors. Vivek Shanbhag writes fiction books and plays in Kannada, the state language of Karnataka. The original blog-post that lists all the titles can be read here: