Literary Review

Coffee house chimera

Ghachar Ghochar; Vivek Shanbhag, trs Srinath Perur, HarperPerennial, Rs.399.  

Ghachar Ghochar begins with an act of subtle misdirection. We are in Coffee House, a café-cum-bar-cum-restaurant, where the unnamed narrator used to meet an old flame, Chitra. Now that he is married, he comes here “for respite from domestic skirmishes”. We are introduced to a waiter, Vincent, who responds to the narrator’s troubles with pithy, enigmatic epigrams. It is difficult not to think of Coffee House as a fictionalised version of Koshy’s Parade Cafe, a sense that is confirmed when the novel’s setting is later revealed to be Bangalore.

Any impressions the reader might form from the opening about the novel and its course are soon undermined. We learn little more of Vincent or Chitra. The narrator spends several hours there each day, but his time there is spent not in flaneurial observation but in obsessive reflection, and the only subject that truly interests him is his own joint family. Domestic novels are often presumed to concern women whose lives are confined to the home, such as Manju Kapur’s novels or the first half of Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column. The narrator of Ghachar Ghochar is free to move as he pleases, but he finds family life inescapable.

Little in Ghachar Ghochar is as it first seems. At well under 30,000 words, the book is liable to be considered a novella, but it has the scope and ambition of a novel rather than a long story. Its concision is a function of how much Vivek Shanbhag leaves unsaid, and how much is suggested or implied. One ends the book feeling on the one hand as if one knows this family intimately, and yet that all this knowledge is, at best, provisional.

The novel charts the family’s course from petty bourgeois simplicity, in a house “with four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments,” to immense prosperity and a house in which each person has their own bedroom. The transition is rapid, almost sudden, and the unexpected product of the family’s first crisis. The narrator’s father, a tea salesman, is forced to take voluntary retirement. The family appear thrust into near-poverty, symbolically represented by a forced return from a gas to a kerosene stove. But the father’s younger brother — Chikkappa, to the narrator — uses his brother’s severance package as start-up capital for a spice distribution business. This venture, Sona Masala, is the vehicle of the family’s social mobility. Their elevated status allows the family to arrange profitable matches — in the social, rather than financial sense — for the narrator and his sister Malati. But her marriage splinters early, a familiar story of incompatibility between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, rather than a wife and husband.

And while the narrator and his wife, Anita, enjoy a honeymoon of genuine happiness and romance, she is soon repulsed by what she finds in her new home. Chikkappa is the family’s only earning member: the father, who owns half of Sona Masala, finds the business and Chikkappa’s methods sordid, and the narrator occupies an office while doing no actual work. Anita insists that he earn his living: he makes a pretence of going to the warehouse but is unable to change his way of life. Here, too, relations between mother and daughter-in-law appear untenable.

All family novels exist, to some extent, in the shadow of Anna Karenina and its famous first sentence. Is the family of Ghachar Ghochar a happy or unhappy one? It would be easy to conclude the latter. Two unsuccessful marriages, a father held in contempt by his wife and children — he commits the cardinal sin of laughing at his own jokes — and only tolerated because of their collective fear that he might leave his stake in Sona Masala to charity. And a capacity for petty acts of cruelty that, in the case of Chikkappa and his running of the business, can extend to gangsterism.

Yet each family member displays an intense attachment to the family and an aversion to any change in its daily life or internal dynamics. The failure of the siblings’ marriages is not an indictment of arranged marriage but a reflection of their inability to coexist with anyone outside the family. Samuel Butler said of Thomas and Jane Carlyle that by marrying each other they had done a great service, for only two people were miserable instead of four. This is a family of unsympathetic, even repellent individuals, but they are best off with each other.

The narrator might claim to seek refuge in Coffee House, and muse half-heartedly on the corrupting influence of money, but he is not so much a self-reflecting misfit as the family’s embodiment. His unflattering, sometimes snide portrayals of his relatives are ultimately a form of self-indictment.

This is a superb novel, unsettling and even claustrophobic, as hermetically enclosed as the family it describes. Shanbhag can be brutally unsentimental, but also moving and genuinely funny. Srinath Perur’s translation is fluent and often elegant, occasional infelicities notwithstanding, and proof of the value of a translator who is an accomplished writer in English — Perur is the author of the charming travelogue If It’s Monday it Must Be Madurai. It is rare enough for a Kannada novel to appear in English, let alone in a fine translation, and in Perur’s rendering this novel ought to find the wide non-Kannada audience it deserves.

Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.

Ghachar Ghochar; Vivek Shanbhag, trs Srinath Perur, HarperPerennial, Rs.399.

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