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BookBrowse Reviews Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

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Ghachar Ghochar

by Vivek Shanbhag

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag X
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
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    Feb 2017, 128 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings—and consequences—of financial gain in contemporary India.

The Bengaluru (aka Bangalore) that has dominated economic news headlines over the past decade is the best known of India's high-tech hubs, a metropolis that boasts of call center workers and talented software engineers, an urban landscape transformed by its country's restructured economic policies. While Ghachar Ghochar is set in this same city, the Bengaluru described here is miles removed from its more frenetically charged cousin. But don't let the pace of this quietly devastating slim novel fool you. Underneath all that Norman Rockwell veneer is an astute commentary about India's slow move away from the family unit, a focus on individualism that is bound to have repercussions for decades to come.

It might be tempting to label the unnamed narrator, a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, as the novel's protagonist, but that would be a mistake. He is merely a cataloger of events, although admittedly a very capable one. Instead, the primary character here is the small joint family of which he is a part – his father, Appa, the patriarch; Chikkappa, the father's younger brother; the narrator's mother; and the narrator's sister Malati, who now lives at home after the dissolution of her marriage (this too would be unheard of in the old Bengaluru). The family is the main living breathing entity here, shielding its own from harm even while rents in the fabric are slowly beginning to unravel the entire unit at its seams.

The title Ghachar Ghochar is a slang term for something entangled, so knotted that it can't be made sense of. This phrase could indeed be applied to the mess the family finds itself in at the end of the novel – which is nothing earth-shattering or immediately dangerous, but worrisome nevertheless. At the start, the narrator and his family are poor, living off Appa's income as a traveling salesman. Their fortunes change however and the family is at a crossroads. They have to make a crucial decision for the sake of their future financial security. Fortunately, the move made is a good one: Chikkappa sets up a spice distribution business called Sona Masala and the family becomes part of Bengaluru's nouveau riche.

Unfortunately, money can't buy love. "It's true what they say – it's not we who control money, it's the money that controls us," the narrator muses, "When there's only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us." Malati's marriage dissolves after fractious arguments over material goods, not to mention her general discomfort at living anywhere else but within the safe embrace of her maternal home. But it is only after the narrator himself gets married, that the issue of money – and where it comes from – threatens to tear apart the carefully constructed family unit. You see, while the narrator might be perfectly content mooching off of Chikkappa's earnings, his wife is furious that he is not his own man, earning his own keep.

It is this tussle between the narrator and his wife that is really the clash between India's old and new ways. Where once family was the main safety net that built and held you, that concept is slowly becoming anathema to newer generations who want to be free of the ties that bind, of all that "ghachar ghochar." They might not earn much money right away, but whatever they do is on their own and for themselves.

Shanbhag, an accomplished Kannada writer (Bengaluru is the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka and Kannada is the state's official language), might invite comparisons with India's legendary author, R. K. Narayan, who also wrote about everyday Indian family life recalling a bygone era. But while most of the deceased Narayan's work had a gentler touch, Shanbhag's novel carries a much darker vein and therefore paints a more realistic picture, while still maintaining an air of old-world manners and charm.

Brilliantly translated by Srinath Perur, Ghachar Ghochar is a finely narrated epic – it's a slim novel that packs a punch and is a true heavyweight in all the ways that matter.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review is from the March 22, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Joint Family in India

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