Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar is a Kannada novel that was translated into English by Srinath Perur. The book takes us through the changes that take over the lives of the members of one family, as they move from their lower middle-class lives into that of the newly affluent.
The story is centred on Appa, Amma, Chikkappa, Malati and the Protagonist (who is also the narrator of this story). They start off from humble beginnings, with the whole family running on Appa’s earnings and the family “simply did not desire what we [sic] couldn’t afford”. Things change when the Sales Manager forces Appa to take voluntary retirement one day and Chikkappa suggests a business venture in the form of Sona Masala, whereby they would sell spices sourced from Kerala to stores around Bangalore. Soon, we see how money changes the way they behave, (or as the narrator puts it) their “attributes found fuller expression” in their new way of life.
If there is one quote in the book that perfectly sums up the story, it is this – “It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.”
One of the things that stands out in the story is the sway that women in the story have; in the story, in their lives, and over the protagonist.
Chitra is just a passing mention, but you see the lasting impact that their long conversations have left on the protagonist, when he talks about meeting his prospective bride saying, “We should speak of the boy and the girl both seeing each other”. You also see her strong sense of self-worth shine through, when the protagonist informs you that, “Her pride would never allow her to come after me, of course. Not once in all this time has she tried to make contact.”
Anita is the woman the protagonist ultimately marries. In his own words, “Anita was not the meek, obedient sort. She would say what she felt without holding back. She could go to great lengths for her ideals. In this regard she may have been more fierce than Chitra.” She expects the protagonist to earn his living, instead of living off his Chikkappa. The narrator perfectly sums it up, when he observes that, “But my bank account began to see a larger deposit every month. Chikkappa must have felt I needed more now that I was married. The sum was comfortably larger than what we needed for our expenses, but Anita’s needs had little to do with money.”
Amma on her part, is fiercely protective of their house and family. This is reflected in the way she waged a war against the ants that infested their old home, in the way she tells off the woman who had come to meet with Chikkappa, and the way she prioritised the well-being of the family above winning a fight with her daughter-in-law. However, as Anita points out at one instance, Amma’s protective attitude to everyone at home might not be altogether altruistic, but born out of her need to prevent anyone else from challenging her authority in their house.
Malati is described as someone who had, “always been quick to anger and inconsiderate of others”. The protagonist wonders whether her short-lived marriage was the result of their own family’s newfound wealth and whether she would have tried harder to make things work with Vikram and made the necessary compromises, had the family still been living on Appa’s salary. However, the protagonist is not completely indifferent to her sufferings, he hears her sobs and wants to comfort her, but decides against it because he feels like it might only cause embarrassment for his sister. He feels that the new home isolated them and prevented the exchange of casual confidences they used to have earlier. What needs to be noted however, is that Malati is a woman who will swallow all her regret and self-pity and go ahead and do what she feels like, inconsiderate of others or not.
Even the lady spurned by Chikkappa, whom we’ll only know as Tuvvi. It takes a special kind of strength to go back to the man who is avoiding you to make that last-ditch effort to see if he would acknowledge you. And then, when you realise that you have lost, to walk out and not look back. The narrator describes her parting look as, “Even now, when I recall the contempt in those eyes, it feels like someone just spit on me.”
There is also the contrast between women like Chitra and Anita who find it unconscionable to not stand up for another woman, and Amma and Malati who are quick to insult any woman who seems like a threat. You see it in the ruthless way Amma and Malati turn away Tuvvi, when the narrator observes that, “… it is the words of women that deeply wound other women.” In the later part, you see Amma talking about a woman who was apparently killed by her husband, and instead of sympathising with her, she observes, ‘She wasn’t blameless either, there was a terrible fight about her behaviour in the night. It seems she said something terrible to her husband and he lost his temper and strangled her. He probably didn’t think she would die.’ Anita on the other hand, speaks out before Chikkappa about the unjust way in which the lady was turned away from the house. Anita later goes on to ask, “If women don’t support other women, who will?”
The title of the book is derived from the phrase that Anita uses to describe the tangled mess that is created when she tries to untangle the knot on her underskirt. By explaining the phrase to the protagonist, she allows him to be privy to something that was exclusively shared by the members of her family. However, for the most part of the story, you see the protagonist struggle to explain things about his family to her.
Through it all, the narrator almost convinces you that he is guilt-ridden by the acts of others in his family and is himself not worthy of blame. However, the story is strewn with instances when the narrator admits to his inaction. There is that instance when Amma makes a statement about Anita and the narrator joins in with everyone else as they laugh. In that instance, he acknowledges that he had betrayed Anita. But then you glimpse him ruthlessly dissecting the acts of the rest of the family that steadfastly stands up for one another while seated in the Coffee House, and you begin to question his allegiance further.
The one person in the family who seems to harbour an iota of conscience is Appa, maybe he was the conscience keeper of the family in the initial days and his unemployment led others to slight his position in the family. As the protagonist notes, “Appa enjoys our current prosperity with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved. He’s given to quoting a proverb that says wealth shouldn’t strike suddenly like a visitation, but instead grow gradually like a tree.”
A theme that keeps coming up throughout the length of the narrative, it is the difference between the outlooks of people from salaried families and those from families in businesses. It comes up initially when the narrator references back to his own earlier life where they were forced to live frugally. Soon, you see him feeling hapless as he tries to explain the differences in outlook in his family from that of the family his wife comes from. Later, you see him blaming his wife’s upbringing in a salaried family as a reason why she needed to speak up about things she disagreed with, while he was completely alright with going on as if nothing happened.
You could also see parallels between the way the family unites in their battle against the ants, and how they treat any outsider who threatens the family. The family’s struggle with the ants lead them to take “increasingly desperate and violent means of dealing with them”. The protagonist notes that, “We saw them as demons come to swallow or home and became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants. We might have changed houses since, but habits are harder to change.” It would seem like, this is the same way the outsiders like Tuvvi who seemed like a threat to one of the members of the family. And in defending the lady, Anita comes to be looked upon as an outsider as well, and thereby, seemingly a threat to the peace within the house. [SPOILER AHEAD] And you cannot help but worry along with the protagonist in the final pages, when he is concerned that maybe the family had taken steps to remove this threat from their lives!