It’s astonishing how much detail, plot and character development Vivek Shanbhag packs into his novella Ghachar Ghochar. Published for the first time in English and beautifully translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, the book is an epic family saga told in less than 30,000 words. On the surface it’s a rags to riches tales as a family just surviving in the suburbs of Bangalore suddenly comes into money after one of the brothers establishes a successful spice company. Almost overnight they go from an ant-infested shack – as aptly described in the blurb – to a mansion which they fill with all sorts of mismatched, but expensive, furniture. This whip-lash transition from poverty to wealth leads our narrator – the younger son – to observe:
It’s true what they say—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.
Dig a little deeper and the book is a meditation on self worth. For the younger son, who has never had much in the sense of ambition or lofty dreams, this influx of cash is both a blessing – he can sleep in and wallow in his laziness – and a curse – when he marries his wife, Anita, she expects him to get up and go to work. Our narrator is therefore required to face his own sense of value, a difficult proposition when his family questions his purpose. When they were poor he at least could help in the slaughtering of ants that were overwhelming the house. Our narrator, therefore, looks for self worth in his relationship with his wife. The day he gets married to Anita is filled with anticipation, excitement and lust. And yet what becomes clear is that our narrator isn’t just in it for the sex, though that’s certainly appreciated. What he’s looking for, what he desires, what he feels will give his life meaning is having someone outside his family who loves him unreservedly. In one of the many moments of reflection afforded to our narrator, Shanbhag expresses this in the most gorgeous, eloquent prose:
A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage—a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all. I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgment of my love. The rush of these feelings all at once is too much to describe. Language communicates in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with the entirely unprecedented. Similar feelings must have welled up in her, too. Her face was buried in my chest. Her arms tightened around me. I could feel the bangles on her arms pressing into my back. Through touch, through the giving, yielding closeness of our embrace, this unknown woman began to be known to me. I’ve often longed for a comparable experience, but there seems to be none. That sense of strangeness, surrender, dependence, compassion, entitlement, and a hundred other sentiments bundled together cannot possibly be relived. I held her tighter still, then relaxed. I raised her face and through her lips gained my first taste of her world.
I don’t want to spoil the novella, but suffice it to say that our narrator discovers that closeness and intimacy is not enough. At least not for his wife who, above anyone else in the book, understands that wealth is a means, not an end.
The near universal praise afforded to this novella by critics is deserved. Assuming its eligible – sometimes it can be difficult to tell with translated works – I’d be stunned if Ghachar Ghochar is not at least long-listed for the National Book Award and next year’s Man Booker International Prize.