20 MARCH 2018 | KAREN KAO
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
This quote comes from Leo Tolstoy in his famous novel Anna Karenina. As unhappy as Anna was, the nameless narrator of Ghachar Ghochar has no right to his unhappiness. He’s the director of a successful spice trading company and a newlywed. The young couple lives in a magnificently appointed home in an upmarket area of Bangalore. They live with his parents, sister and uncle, the source of all their wealth. And yet the narrator, indeed all his family, is deeply unhappy. Money, it seems, is the root of all their evil.
It’s very tempting to read Ghachar Ghochar as a parable. For one thing, the novel is a mere 28,000 words long, 118 pages in my Faber & Faber edition. For another, this is a story very much being told to us by the narrator as he sips a lemon soda at the grand Coffee House. He introduces us to each of his relatives in the order to their economic significance to the family unit.
But my suspicion is that these characters are mere tools, sharp as they are, to criticize today’s India. Within the family hierarchy, the value of the corrupt uncle Chikkapa increases as the hard-working father Appa recedes into insignificance. Amma, the mother, will go to any lengths to protect her own interests, thinly disguised as family loyalty. The narrator’s fractious sister Malati and his outspoken wife Anita stand in for modern Indian women.
As for the narrator himself, he longs for the days when the family was poor.
We’d been painstakingly frugal … what choice did we have? We consulted each other when money was to be spent, gave precise accounts. We thought of the family as being interdependent: a person who spent money was also taking it away from the others. All that changed overnight. There was enough now to buy things without asking permission or informing anyone or even thinking about it. Appa’s hold on the rest of us slipped. And to be honest, we lost hold of ourselves, too.
I finished Ghachar Ghochar in one sitting. It’s that easy of a read. But there had to be more to it than a parable on the evils of money. Yiyun Li wrote a blurb for Vivek Shanbhag that calls him
one of those writers whose voice takes your breath away at the first encounter.
Then there’s my friend, the anthropology professor with an expertise in South Asia. He told me Ghachar Ghochar was a refreshing departure from the derivative English-language literature coming out of India these days. So I felt compelled to take a closer look at Ghachar Ghochar and this is what I found.
It’s a master class on the art of leaving things unsaid. And behind the close observations of Indian life lies a deep lake of emotion. There’s the cynical way in which Shanbhag views families.
it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable.
There is humor, too, behind the clear-eyed realism.
the sword of insult seldom cuts on the surface. No, it lacerates from within and leaves wounds that reopen with remembrance.
But above all, there is pathos in this tale of an aspirational Indian family who can no longer recognize itself. When Anita challenges the family’s obeisance to the mighty rupee, the narrator despairs.
I didn’t know how to make her see the relationships in our family from the inside. There was no other way to comprehend them.
You have to understand: we were once poor.