Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: 'Ghachar Ghochar' by Vivek Shanbhag, trans. by Srinath Perur

Ever had that moment where you read a book you love, translated from a language you didn't even realise existed until you picked up the book? Yeah, neither had I, until Ghachar Ghochar, that is. I will never stop being intensely grateful to publishers who put their money into bringing popular works from other languages into English. There has been a steady flow of English books into the rest of the world for decades, yet the other way around the flow is only increasing slowly. Still, I'm grateful for every translated book that finds its way to me. Thanks to Faber & Faber and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/04/2017
Publisher: Faber & Faber
A novel of Chekhovian precision and lingering resonance which has all the signs of a contemporary cult classic. 
In this masterful novel by the acclaimed Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, a close-knit family is delivered from near-destitution to sudden wealth after the narrator's uncle founds a successful spice company. 
As the narrator - a sensitive young man who is never named - along with his sister, his parents, and his uncle move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house and encounter newfound wealth, the family dynamics begin to shift. Allegiances and desires realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Their world becomes 'ghachar ghochar' - a nonsense phrase that, to the narrator, comes to mean something entangled beyond repair. 
Told in clean, urgent prose, and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humour, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings - and consequences - of financial gain in contemporary India.
Family... you can't live with them, you can't live without them. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been dedicated to describing families all over the world. The misery, especially, of family has found itself a very popular topic. As Tolstoy wrote:
'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'
Each unhappy family has a tale, especially those families who don't know or deny that they are unhappy. Told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar unravels a tight-knit family before its reader's eyes. Perhaps unravel is the wrong word, since they seem more tightly and more frighteningly knit together by the end, yet there is also the sense that something has broken, something has changed that will change everything. It's that strange feeling at the end of a big family gathering where there's been a fight yet everyone is pretending they didn't choose sides and didn't cut ties. In that sense Shanbhag's title, a made up phrase, is central to the novel and, to the reader, both new and recognizable. It only rarely happens I find a word or a phrase in a novel that immediately rings true in the way 'ghachar ghochar' did. Similarly, it happens infrequently that a novel itself hits the nail on the head quite as succinctly and successfully as Ghachar Ghochar does.

Clocking in at just over a 100 pages, Ghachar Ghochar is a very short novel, but it packs quite a punch. And for its limited amount of pages, it is surprising just how much Vivek Shanbhag manages to incorporate into his novel. First and foremost there is family, the thing you owe everything to and that haunts you throughout your life. It comes with endless possibilities but also endless responsibilities. Then there is the concept of wealth, as the narrator's family moves from 'not quite poor' to 'rather rich' during his early teenage years. The closeness that helped them survive near poverty becomes something almost menacing once money is no longer a problem. Money becomes another string that inevitably ties them closer, while also standing between them and forcing them into roles that don't suit them. Ghachar Ghochar also gives us love, morality, values, gender roles, all addressed the way someone would while thinking over their life while sitting over a cup of coffee. And this is exactly how our novel starts, with the narrator thinking, pondering and wondering. It is an age old question; how did we get here? Shanbhag addresses the question in a fascinating way and I raced through the novel, taken in by his descriptions of family life, of fear and love, pretending not to know when deep down you know.

I love reading books from other countries, other cultures. It's the whole reason I started this blog, to broaden my horizons and learn. And I have found countless of foreign literature  gems that have added immensely both to my literary and emotional vocabulary. Ghachar Gohchar is one of those gems, originally written in Kannada, a language spoken predominantly in southwestern India. Not only does its title give me a phrase for that uncomfortably tied up, knotted up, lost feeling, it also sharply and viscerally dissects family life in a way I hadn't seen before. Shanbhag doesn't make it easy for his reader to see through his characters, he doesn't splay them wide open for us to gawp and gaze. Rather, he opens a door here or there into a character's mind, lets a light linger just long enough to cast an uncomfortable shadow across a character's features. The prose is crisp and to the point, there is no need for long or flourishing descriptions when you can deliver them as precisely and clearly as Shanbhag can. By the end of Ghachar Ghochar you feel you know his characters, deep down, perhaps even better than they know themselves. Srinath Perur, himself an author, does a brilliant job at translating Sjhanbhag's meaningful but restrained prose into English. There is not a single superfluous word in Ghachar Ghochar.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Ghachar Ghochar is a quick and insightful read into family, love and so much more. It is only an afternoon in someone's life, and yet it is their entire life. This novel is a vivisection of everything that family can mean. I will definitely be looking to read hopefully upcoming translations of Shanbhag's work. I'd recommend this to fans of contemporary fiction and Indian literature.

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