I was thinking about Malati—why did she reveal avarice for money like this? What a crass display of newfound wealth, I mused. I shook myself out of my reverie after a little while when I realized that I was thinking about the motivations of a fictional character! That is the spell that was cast on me after reading the brilliant novel, Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag. This habit of thinking of fictional characters carried on for days after reading this novel.
Translated from Kannada into English by Srinath Perur, the novel focuses on the human interactions within a family. The outside world is evoked but rarely in this tale set within a home.
The contours of this familial world are drawn tightly around the characters of the father, mother, the two children and the uncle referred to as Chikkappa. The protagonist of the novel, the son, gets married and his wife Anita enters this tight circle of family members.
When a woman friend of Chikkappa comes to their house searching for him, the mother and sister keep her outside the house and tear into her with vile words and she soon beats a hasty retreat. The only one who could have intervened—Chikkappa does not speak a word in her defense. Seeing this, Anita is shocked and voices her extreme displeasure to her husband in private. And, here comes the protagonist’s thoughts, which hold so much meaning in this story. “How could I explain to her that Chikkappa must be protected at all costs? She wouldn’t understand. For that, she would need to have lived through those early days with us—when the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances. Without that reality behind her, it’s all a matter of empty principle.”
And, with that, the novel skips years backwards into the lower middle class world in which the children were raised. Money was hard to come by. The father earned money as a tea salesperson.
The author skillfully paints visual mosaics of characters with a few sentences. One such visual semantic descriptor on the father’s job goes thus: “He was inordinately proud of being a salesman.
He’d boast, how for instance, he’d managed to sell to a shop whose shelves were already brimming with tea. He’d leave home looking like an officer and return at night, wilted from the day’s sun, his clothes rumpled. One glance at his scuffed dusty shoes was enough to betray the nature of his day’s work.” Their financial situation is always precarious—even though there is enough to feed the family and to provide for the education of the children and that of Chikkappa, the whole balance is achieved by creative home management by the mother, and most importantly, by all feeling content with the basics provided by this modest income.
This delicate dance with money is upended when their uncle Chikkappa starts Sona Masala, a spice factory. The father is unceremoniously laid off from the tea company and invests his meager savings into the new venture and with Chikkappa’s ingenuity for spotting an opportunity and working towards it, the family’s fortunes change dramatically. They move from their rented house to one where they each have a room—a luxury they could not have dreamed of before.
This sudden influx of money and power irreversibly works itself into the balance of relationships and alters each in profound ways. Chikkappa’s position within the family changes. “The central figure in our household is my Chikkappa, Venkatachala, my father’s younger brother and the family’s sole earner.”
The protagonist tries his hand at helping his uncle, is ineffectual and ends up receiving a monthly allowance. The father withdraws into a shell, wistfully recalling the old days and becomes briefly animated while discussing a brief trip to the old neighborhood. The sister Malati gets married amidst great pomp but destroys her relationship with her husband by demanding respect based merely on the money she possesses. And the mother presides over this household with a tight grip, making sure that each member is beholden to the other in a web of tight-knit family bonds where moral transgressions are not addressed, but shoved under the rug, leading to an ever-increasing dependency on each other to survive.
The entry of the protagonist’s wife into this family sets off a series of incidents which question the family’s dealings and the novel ends as it starts—leaving one with questions about the nature of right and wrong.
The author drew me into the book with masterful storytelling. I muttered monosyllables to family members who intruded as I read, not putting it down till I got to the last page.
Now that I have finished this review, can I please get back to re-reading it?
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.