This is a novel with a lightness of touch rarely found in our fiction. It is short, and the narrative is suffused with a gentle irony, with an undercurrent of pathos and humour enlivening the events which are presented in a few delicate, deft strokes. But its subject is the fears and tension that keep the nerves of the vast petite bourgeoisie living in the city, which has become today’s Bengaluru, in a state of ghachar ghochar (tied up in knots). It is typical of Shanbhag’s exposition that the phrase occurs in the book only with reference to the petticoat string tangled up by the protagonist while trying to undress his wife.
At the heart of the book is a small, middle-class family, huddled together to protect itself against the economic forces which swirl around it. Right at the start, we have a comic but moving description of how the protagonist’s father and uncle are traumatised by a minor accounting error. This episode is followed by a much-heralded visit of the venerable SM (‘Sales Manager’), who arrives only to inform the father that he is being prematurely retired. The book follows the fortunes of the family as the father fades into insignificance, while his aggressive younger brother, Chikkappa, leads the family ahead; the story is told through two houses whose very different personalities reflect the changing status of the family.
In the first of the houses, swarms of ants periodically appear and infest the house. The protagonist’s mother uses all kinds of traditional methods to drive them away but they prove ineffectual. Then, one day, they disappear as mysteriously as they arrive. Relieved, the family awaits their next arrival, with no notion of how to prevent another onslaught and making no efforts to find a permanent solution. In the second house, with greater economic security, it is the women who cause anxiety.
Ghachar Ghochar is a sensitive analysis of how our middle-class existence is defined by a single shruti: anxiety. Almost every incident in the life of this class is prompted by anxiety, shaped by it and ultimately ends up contributing to more of it. Characteristically, the family members, despite perennially clinging to one another, never make any attempt to discuss the source of the anxiety or ways of tackling the problem. Even when the family has moved up the social scale, inexplicable incidents continue to threaten its guarded existence. A strange woman appears at the front door bringing a steel container, carrying masoor dal meant specially for Chikkappa. But he refuses to emerge from the house and acknowledge her, while the women of the house ruthlessly drive the stranger away.
Beyond these tentatively depicted scenes, Shanbhag gives us an insider’s feel for the concerns that have shaped the middle class in the last half a century. There was a time when members of this class lived in villages and small towns, secure within neighbourhoods defined by friends, relatives and fellow caste members, sticking to inherited conventions of social behaviour and confining themselves to traditionally sanctioned professions. With the transformation of these towns into modern megalopolises, the secure basis of the class melted away, all certainties gone, except that of caste.
Economic prosperity means that new needs and new norms enter the home. The protagonist’s wife, who is educated and who dares to question the cruelty with which the stranger was treated, does not mind that such questioning loosens the very foundations of family existence.
Ironically, amidst all these transformations, the protagonist, in total contrast to the relentlessly active Chikkappa, remains almost completely uninvolved, seeking solace in the isolation of a Coffee Club to which he escapes from both home and office to spend hours in contemplation — of what it is not clear. But he does find profound philosophical implications in the cryptic comments of the waiter there. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, the protagonist goes through his wife’s wardrobe in her absence, touching her various possessions, seeking to recapture some sensuous feeling he has lost.
In the final chapter, the protagonist is again in the Coffee Club, waiting anxiously for the return of his wife who has gone to spend a few days with her parents. Why “anxiously”? It is not clear, but that, Shanbhag reminds us again, is the inescapable condition of the class.
The translation by Srinath Perur unerringly captures the shifting nuances that make Shanbhag’s telling so rich. Having read and admired the original Kannada, I was surprised how quickly Perur made me forget I was into a translation. The book is beautifully designed and produced, and altogether a delight to read.
Author: Vivek Shanbhag
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur
Publishers: Harper Perennial