Book scan Comment

The muddled modernity of the lower-middle class

The success of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar should finally inspire a deeper literary interest in a section of Indian society that was both empowered and unmoored by the advent of liberalisation

Perhaps no section of Indian society has been as deeply affected, in all sorts of ways, by the process we call ‘liberalisation’ than the lower-middle class. It has benefitted from the material fruits of the market economy, but unmoored and suddenly thrust into the vast world of consumption, it has also felt tormented by a sense of dislocation and cultural inadequacy.

In 1995, in his now-classic travelogue Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Mishra captured the early stages of this convulsion. Mishra’s book brought to life the alienation and dark undercurrents that accompanied India’s entry into the global economy. A vigorous, even vulgar, materialism seemed to have been unleashed, as Mishra travelled in the early 1990s, but this encounter with modernity had simultaneously unsettled Indian society, creating a profound psychological disturbance.

It remains surprising that since Mishra’s book, few Indian writers have cast a surgical gaze at the lower-middle class, the strata that has been most shaped by and, in turn, shaped the consumerist mores of the new India. Indian fiction in English, for the most part, continues to be dismal, inhabited by an elite whose life experiences appear on the page too limited to portray the vicissitudes of Indian life in its fullest variety. Non-fiction has mostly been focused on the opposite spectrums of Indian society: the subaltern (as in Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing) or the super-wealthy (Rana Dasgupta’s Capital). The lower-middle class has largely been relegated to the status of a literary stepchild.

A visceral experience

This is partly why reading Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar is such a visceral experience. A novella that is simultaneously tender and searing, it tells the story of a petit bourgeois family which gains unexpected economic mobility but, in the process, finds its coherence and long-held assumptions torn to shreds.

While Mishra’s book rang prescient and true, its overwhelming aesthetic distaste for the world it documented sometimes took away focus from the pathos of a society unprepared for a world it was being hurled into. And because Butter Chicken in Ludhiana arrived at the beginning of the curve, Mishra could mostly hint at the wide-reaching changes that would shake the old stability but could not assess its full implications.

Writing a quarter-century after liberalisation, Shanbhag is in a much better position to do so. Flush with its economic success, as the family moves into an upmarket neighbourhood, Ghachar Ghochar portrays its chaotic initiation into consumption. “For the first few weeks, we bought as we had never bought before,” the narrator writes. “Soon the house was crammed with expensive mismatched furniture and out-of-place decorations.”

But Shanbhag is prepared to go beyond consumption, looking at how the influx of new wealth has been a disruptive and ambiguous — but not an entirely negative — phenomenon. Nobody embodies this better than the narrator’s sister, who divorces her husband and returns to the family household. The financial upswing has given her the confidence to challenge patriarchal authority. Her attitude is completely devoid of docility, insolent even; in short, a swagger that in a traditional society is the sole domain of men.

Her return to the family set-up leads her into a new territory, towards an assertion of sexual freedom. “Malati forever invoked a friend named Mythili with whom she’d watch films, at whose place she’d stay over, in whose company she’d take trips to Mysore and Madras,” the narrator writes. “I suspected this Mythili was a front behind which she was having an affair with someone. Even if that were true, what could I have done?”

The passage highlights the reflex to male judgement, but at the same time, an escalating loss of control which had little chance of being threatened prior to the advent of the new social circumstances. It is a condition of muddled modernity — it is how I interpreted the gibberish title — where the old order has been substantially shaken, but not dismantled, and the new world can barely be glimpsed. What exists is the condition of a society in protracted transition, with all its pain, dilemmas and confusions.

Invasion of ants

In what is set to be the most-quoted passage from the novella, and also graces the cover of the book, Shanbhag describes the debilitating effect on the family by an invasion of ants. “Once I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and found Amma in the kitchen,” the narrator writes. “She was on her haunches, facing the wall, tracing the path of a line of ants using a flashlight… I can only imagine the clamour they must have created in her mind.”

In the next paragraph, he writes of the family’s reaction to the menace: “We had no compunction towards our enemies and took to increasingly desperate and violent means of dealing with them. We’d flatten them with our hands or feet or books wherever we saw them… I took pleasure in seeing them shrivel into black points when burning coals were rolled over a group of them. When they attacked an unwashed vessel or cup they’d soon be mercilessly drowned.”

This must be one of the most remarkable passages in all of Indian fiction. It speaks of a class that is simultaneously ‘the wounder’ and ‘the wounded’, defined by a pervasive sense of vulnerability as well as a deep capacity for violence — traits that not only coexist but are inextricably tied to each other.

Ghachar Ghochar has arrived to rapturous acclaim; it’s been hailed it as “one of the novels of the decade”; it has featured in Granta. This success, in some ways, confirms the novella’s addressing of a deep literary void. One hopes it will inspire a deeper interest in a class which is numerically expanding at a faster rate than any other, and is perhaps at once the most dynamic and the most troubled strata of Indian life, but one that remains insufficiently documented. It is a corrective, and long overdue, direction that can only enrich Indian writing.

( Vaibhav Sharma is the author of Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup)

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 1:23:16 PM |

Next Story