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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag: Tangled up in blue

Sayantan Ghosh
Sayantan GhoshDec 02, 2022 | 18:11

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag: Tangled up in blue

Earlier this week I watched the riveting new Pakistani film, Joyland, that has taken the international festival circuit by storm. It’s about a dysfunctional joint family in Lahore that’s as ordinary as they come and seemingly has everything under control, until they realise that theirs had always been a house of cards waiting for a gust of wind to topple its serenity.

It made me think of all the dysfunctional families I have met in literature and perhaps the one that never ceases to be gone from my memory is Vivek Shanbhag’s slim, minimal Ghachar Ghochar. A novella that has crossed many borders and reached international shores after it was translated from the Kannada elegantly by Srinath Perur, but no amount of conversation around its genius shall ever be sufficient. So here I am, talking about it this week.

The book opens wistfully in a coffee shop in Bangalore – Coffee House, whose name has remained unchanged in a hundred years, we are told – where an unnamed narrator is desperately opening his heart to a waiter named Vincent. It’s one of those instantly transportive beginnings, once you’ve read it you’re no longer a reader outside the world of the novel. You start living in it. He recounts the story of his own family, their journey from a strictly middle-class livelihood to one of unexpected and immense prosperity, and the duplicities and frailties that come along with it.

The central conflict is presented to us once we are introduced to a whole host of characters, some of them dissolving into the background just as we start investing in them. But it’s best to go into Ghachar without knowing too much, it’s under 30,000 words in length but you’ll want to go back and reread several pages because of how layered they are and how deceptively simple they’ll seem at first. And then there are the ants that also grace the cover of the first edition of the book, encroaching the privacy of the players, revealing more about human violence than themselves during their passage.

During the release of this moving, tense little gem, Shanbhag was called ‘an Indian Chekhov’ by writer Suketu Mehta. While these titles can often be ambiguous, in this case I can assure you that it’s entirely fitting. Ghachar Ghochar is a nonsensical phrase which might signify something that’s irreparably entwined. Has there ever been a better description of the great Indian family?

Last updated: December 02, 2022 | 18:11
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