The novella—that strange beast that’s not quite short story, not quite novel, not quite read—is no publisher’s favorite form. A translation—that lowly form that Indian publishers have long struggled to place and sell, especially when it’s from an Indian language—is another non-favourite. Under such circumstances, one would expect a novella that’s a translation to die a sure death, but Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, has been quietly flourishing for some time now.
In Ghachar Ghochar, a lower-middle-class family finds itself suddenly wealthy. This means a move to a richer neighborhood, from a tiny railroad-style house with no living room to a big, two-storied place. A bench, two chairs and mattresses give way to beds and dressers. No sitting on the floors to eat anymore—the family now has a dining table with six chairs. And the table on which the cooking gas stove was rested in the old house is rendered useless because the new kitchen “had a counter on both sides.”
The new-found riches come from Sona Masala, born when the family patriarch, about to be let go from his job as a tea-leaves salesman, is convinced by his bachelor brother to start a business. With the exception of the father, who’s fond of quoting “a proverb that says wealth shouldn’t strike like a visitation, but instead grow gradually like a tree,” everyone—mother, son, daughter and uncle—has made peace with being rich. Values that defined their former existence—frugality and hard work—take a back seat. The father and uncle are now owners of a thriving new business. The mother, daughter and son will inherit the company once the father and uncle pass.
No one but the uncle works. He is, therefore, king. “His meals, his preferences, his conveniences, are of supreme importance” to the family. The father, ridiculed as he may be, still controls half the company. He is Number Two in the hierarchy. The mother, son and sister are often nervous about their father: “what if he loses his head, writes a will asking for his assets to be poured down the drain of some noble cause, and dies?” They, thus, work hard to keep him and his brother happy.
This carefully preserved equilibrium is disrupted when the son gets married. His wife lets it be known that she is unhappy with his sinecure at the company—his business cards say that he is a director, he has an office in the warehouse, and a salary is deposited into his account month after month but there’s no work to do. She is also not fond of her sister-in-law, who, unable to adapt to life in her husband’s house, returns home. (The family’s attempt at reconciling their daughter with her in-laws is perhaps the drollest part of the book.) In fact, the wife isn’t pleased with anyone in the family or with the nature of the family business.
Values clash. Barbs—delicious exchanges among the women of the family alone make the book worth a subsequent read—are fired. The son, conflicted about whether to side with his mother and sister or with his wife, is prone to introspections at a coffee house, to which he disappears for hours while his wife believes he is at work. Life is ghachar ghochar, a tangled mess.
Very rarely a book comes along that you want to thrust in the hands of everyone—readers and non-readers. Ghachar Ghochar is one such book. Serious readers will appreciate the author’s ability to tell so much by eliminating, his skill at dialogue and the spare prose. The deceptively simple story line and language, along with the book’s 28,000-word length, should make even a non-reader feel right at home. At least it did the two proud non-readers I assigned it to, one of whom proclaimed himself a convert. Reports state the Ghachar Ghochar is the first book originally written in Kannada to have found an American publisher. It deserves every bit of the wide readership it’s garnering.
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee.
Follow @htlifeandstyle for more.