“Ghachar ghochar,” she repeated, her eyes shining. “What does that mean?” “It just means that. You wouldn’t understand,” she said.”
Vivek Shanbhag is an Indian writer whose novels and plays have been written in the South Indian language, Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of his work to be translated into English (following a short excerpt in Granta’s India special back in 2015) – and if this is a representative work, then we hope that the rest of his books follow hard on its heels.
What we have here is a very elegant family drama. “Ours is a joint family,” we are told at the beginning of chapter two:
“We live in the same house – my wife and I, my parents, my uncle, and Malati. Malati is my older sister, back home now after having left her husband.”
Over the course of seven or so chapters we see the house as it is (with each member of the family, aside from the narrator’s wife Anita, largely in thrall to the uncle figure, Venkatachala, who runs a spice business that means the rest of the family don’t have to work) and the house as it was (when the narrator’s father worked, and the focus was on him, and ensuring that he was respected). The shift from father to uncle is accompanied by greater wealth (the family move to a bigger house, there is some resentment amongst their former neighbours, no one has to think so much about how far money will go). The suggestion is that this move is not entirely for the better. It ruins Malati’s marriage (she is quite spoilt) and it doesn’t do much for the narrator’s marriage to Anita (who comes to believe she had the wool pulled over her eyes).
It’s a supremely pleasant read, very light but never disposable. It has something of Murakami’s gentle ease about it, and Etgar Keret’s sweet comedy too. Obviously at 128 pages, it’s over before it begins really and one could say – if one wanted to scratch around in the dirt and find something to be critical of – that just as the drama is starting to percolate, the novel leaves you hanging (in much the same way as a short story might). But being left hanging is not the worst thing in the world. What’s more, the definition of the title, when it comes (it’s a mix up of sorts, a set of complications that defy explanation) goes some way to describing the feeling you are left with at the close of the novel – and it’s a not entirely unpleasant feeling at that.
Any Cop?: One of those books, we sense, that is going to remain something of an undiscovered gem – but we’d say if you fancy a go at a book by someone who could become the Indian Murakami, this is the place to start.