Review – “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag

Last year, when I took up reading voraciously again and started reviewing for the first time, my husband made me join a senior reader’s group on Facebook, and the experience has been nothing short of amazing. From wonderful recommendations to beautiful reviews, from authors unheard of to getting acquainted with fellow bibliophiles, I have felt myself grow as a reader more in these few months than all these years of reading.
One book that caught my attention the very first time I laid my eyes on the cover (thanks to the Facebook group) is Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. If you know about this book, you must have definitely seen its intriguing cover, with ants splattered on what seems to be a coffee/tea stained plate. Ironically, ants have a tendency to travel in a single line, one after the other, and this showcase of complete chaos on the cover of this book was enough to make me pick it up as soon as I could get a decent discount (woes of a broke bibliophile), though the edition I chose is another one, a republished collector’s edition with a calligraphy cover, and no, I haven’t been paid to promote this by the publisher (just a disclaimer considering the last book I read and reviewed is from the same collection)

The unnamed narrator belongs to a rich and well to do family of six, comprising of himself, his Amma, Appa, sister Malti, wife Anita and the unspoken head of the family, Chikkappa, his father’s younger brother. Speaking of characters in this story, I mustn’t forget Vincent, the waiter at the Coffee House where the narrator begins and ends telling this story.
It’s been more than a day since the narrator has gone home, and when he finds himself at his regular table in the Coffee House, he reminiscences about the days and the journey of his life that brought him there. When he was younger, a school going child to be precise, his Appa used to be a salesman and earn just enough to make the ends meet, with some spare at times for festivities. His, Malti’s and Chikkappa’s education were taken care of by Appa along with all the other expenses which this family of five might have. Living in the city in a tunnel-like flat, in the lower-middle-class area, his life was as mundane as it could get except for the time when suddenly, his house became infested with ants, both the black and brown ones. While everyone tries to get rid of them by doing whatever they could, it was Amma who was the most affected considering that the ants seemed to be more in favor of her kitchen than anywhere else in the entire house. This particular incident, though insignificant to an outsider, held considerable importance in their lives and to an extent contributed to their nature of behaving violently with creatures disturbing their peace.
It was after Appa was forcefully made to accept the VRS, and Chikkappa decided to start his own business of Sona Masala, that their lives took a turn. Within a short span of time, the family moved from their ant-infested house to a double-story bungalow in a posh locality, all thanks to the now sole breadwinner of the family, Chikkappa, and his ways. Marrying off Malti was an extravagant event, with money being flown like water on a slope. The marriage didn’t last long, owing to the girl’s attitude which the narrator felt was somehow related to their overnight riches. Back in her Amma’s home, Malti severed all ties with her husband and in-laws, and everything went back to being like before until Anita came along. With three women in the house, peace was bound to be tested. It didn’t take long for Anita to discover the narrator was just a director in his uncle’s company in name, he actually didn’t do anything, and this became the turning point in their lives. Quarrels, taunts, and differences never stopped. All hell broke loose when she questioned Chikkappa’s indifference towards the woman, who came to their gate one fine day and Amma and Malti abused her to tears, contrary to the status he was given in the family – that of an unquestioned leader around whom the lives of the other members revolved. When Anita left the city for a week for some work, the family came together like before, calling out each other by their nicknames and having tea, which they hadn’t done in a long time. The narrator felt like cheating on her. While Anita was supposed to be back home the previous afternoon, he is at unease sitting at the Coffee House that she hasn’t arrived yet.

As fascinating as the cover of this book is, it wasn’t until the very last page that I realized how apt it is to the story. What we presume to be in tandem with each other, actually is in more chaos than anything else. The narrator’s family, though seems to be with each other, is in reality, struggling to keep themselves together despite the fact that their lives are a mess from within. Appa’s mental health is bordering insanity, Amma has no life outside that of her home and family, Malti, having faced heartbreak at such a young age is suffering, though she doesn’t show it, Chikkappa, having remained unmarried is a workaholic and the narrator himself, finds solace in the Coffee House and Vincent, away from domestic life and its skirmishes.
Usually, I don’t comment on the cover and title of the book I read, but the case is different here. When I spoke about the cover, I knew I had to speak about the title too. Ghachar Ghochar, a useless word coined by the author refers to a mess that’s become so tangled that it’s impossible to sort. Similar to it is the lives of the family members, entangled enough to disallow them to co-exist with anyone else yet their knowledge about each other is less than what they think it is. Although the relationship between the members goes from a familial unit to that of individuality, they are still unable to comprehend any invasion by foreign matter, especially to the person in power. The failure of Malti’s and the narrator’s marriage is proof that any change in their lives is unacceptable. Chikkappa is under the same category, by not acknowledging the woman who came calling out to him and her insult by Amma and Malti, he instead contents himself in his own way of life, with no room for any alterations. Even the ants are discriminated against when they invade the family’s space, they come together as a unit to cherish their destruction. This unity in diversity may be seen as a result of the family’s sudden riches, but deep down, what they don’t realize is that they had always been, and wanted to be like this. It was the lack of resources that made them stick together, and yes, old habits die hard.
When I was reading the book, I was astounded by the clarity and reality in observations. Explicit descriptions of the day to day lives, minute detailing of the ants, the time when the family was shifting to their new house, the arranged marriage and it’s anticipation and the oh-so-romantic honeymoon, all had me identify with the writing. Again, I wish I could read it in the original language rather than in translation, it must be beautiful.
The characters, though too many for such a short story, have been crafted intricately, leaving no room for guesswork. While it seemed that Vincent would take up the stage in the first chapter, the focus shifted entirely away from him to the narrator’s family, on whom he is obsessively stuck and brooding. Despite this, Vincent’s one-liners hold too much depth than the others’ entire conversations.
One may argue that this book is an “in your face” for the feminists, for the portrayal of women is in poor light. With stereotyped characters of a mother/mother-in-law, daughter/daughter-in-law, and wife, this book doesn’t do anything to show support for them. Instead, the narrator is seen making fun of it in a way, blaming the women for their own miseries and fleeing away from it as soon as possible.
Ghachar Ghochar tells a tale of the rags to riches, lower to a middle-class family in a city, and how it affects their ways and lives. The notions that brought them where they are, are kept alive, while the ones that threaten, are discarded rather menacingly. Although I didn’t find the purpose of the book, I had no trouble going through it in a couple of hours without an ounce of boredom. The story is open-ended, but then it was never about the end.


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