Ghachar Ghochar: Alienation of the Kannada Middle Class [Book Review]

Fathima M

the author is a Ph.D scholar at Centre for English Studies, JNU

With the popularity and favorable reception of Indian literature in translation in recent times, there is a consistent rise in the publications of novels published in English from regional languages. Some recent examples of translations are Srikant Verma’s Magadh (2013), Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (2013) and Dharamvir Bharati’s Chander & Sudha (2015) from Hindi and K. R Meera’s Hang Woman (2014) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (2012) from Malayalam to English. With this rising interest and wide readership of translated texts, many regional writers gained popularity and literary fame in the mainstream literary circle.

Ghachar Gochar
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag Translated by Srinath Perur Harper Perennial Rs. 399/- Pp. 115

Vivek Shanbhag, a Kannada writer with a penchant for literature and contemporary issues in India has acclaimed great success after the English translation of his novella Ghachar Ghochar (2015). The book is a powerful indictment of the often negative impact of wealth—especially one that is newly acquired—and its repercussions in society. Shanbhag, an engineer by training, and author of five short story collections, two plays and three novels, explores human relationships and changing social patterns in today’s fast-paced, capitalist society.

Unlike Kannada writers like U.R. Ananthamurthy, who engaged with political underpinnings of society, Shanbhag has a more personal tone while addressing social evils. Through the narrator of Ghachar Ghochar, he evaluates the psychological effects of capitalism, the darker and brighter side of the contemporary urban set-up in India. The narrator is keen to tell the story of his joint family, to unleash the burden of his troubled domestic life and his desolate state that makes it a rare blend of a personal narrative dictating a social issue in a broader context. Financial security and independence followed by disintegrated families, broken marriages and dysfunctional relationships are some the issues that the narrator shares with us while being meticulous not to reveal too many details.

To summarize the novel briefly, it is a story of a Bangalore-based family that lives on a meager salaried income and, gradually, with the start of a family business, there is an upsurge of money in the household. The narrator’s father is a salesman who supports his wife and two children along with his younger brother, whom the narrator calls Chikkappa. After the father loses his job as salesman, the two brothers start a spice business, which brings in unprecedented money into the household. Chikkappa never marries and lives with his brother’s family. Suddenly, the bohemian lifestyle becomes a norm for the family followed by narrator’s sister’s divorce and his own troubling marriage with Anita who is a teacher’s daughter.

Shanbhag’s preoccupation with arranged marriages and idealism is crucial and relevant in the case of many Indian families, while we see that in India, compatibility on the basis of caste, religion, status etc is over-rated; the discrepancies of occupations and personal values often takes a back seat. This is evident in the marriage of our narrator who lacks discipline in his routine while his wife is a strict disciplinarian.

He realizes their differences of values and addresses this:

There’s a vast difference in the moral underpinnings of a business family and the household of a salaried teacher. I feared right then that her presence at home would be the cause of much turmoil. The biggest disappointment for Anita was the matter of my unemployment. She’d asked me in Ooty itself: ‘How much leave do you have’?

The author is highly critical of the nouveau riche class. The narrator, for instance, does not have to work for the money he gets regularly in his account. This non-working, non-aristocratic and newly moneyed class finds itself at the fringes of society. Ironical as it is, there are tones of sympathy at times, a certain kind of mildness that makes a reader feel at home, a salient feature of a domestic novel. Shanbhag, one could argue, paves way to the genre of modern domestic novel, with its compressed form and vast scope of ideas.

It is a significant novel also in the context of contemporary post-liberalization society in India that faces various social challenges. Through the portrayal of a newly- moneyed family, Shanbhag comments upon the vulnerable institution of family system, in the face of changing economic and social factors. Srinath Perur’s English translation retains the colloquial taste; he does justice to the story while trying to retain South Indian –ness with its idiosyncratic usage of words like “iron-box”. Perur is a Bangalore based writer who writes on travel, science and cities. The title, however, not so appealing is relevant at metaphorical level. The title represents entangled relationships, vulnerable social institutions and displaced individuals. Ghachar Ghochar is a knot that engenders suspense and a kind of uncertainty in our lives in the wake of modern advancements.