Vivek Shanbhag has published eight works of fiction and two plays in his native South Indian language of Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of these to be translated into English, the translation by Srinath Perur. The title itself, which sounds like it could be the name of an Indian pickle or dessert, does not actually translate. It is a phrase invented by the family of one of the characters used to describe a situation where something has become completely tangled to the point where it cannot be easily untangled.
The narration starts in a café called Coffee House. The narrator, who is never named, spends much of his days there, seeking respite from “domestic skirmishes”. He is supported in this by his wealthy uncle (“chikappa”) whose business acumen in creating a spice company has raised the family from near poverty into the Indian middle class. It is clear early on that the extended family will do anything to protect that source of wealth.
In this short tale, the narrator works his way through the family history and through the family charting their change in circumstances and the effect that it has on them all. As he observes:
“We thought of the family as being interdependent: a person who spent money was also taking it away from others. All this changed overnight… Appa’s hold on the rest of us slipped. And to be honest, we lost hold of ourselves too.”
As time goes on he sees the family losing itself more and more, changing the way they behave and what they consider acceptable. Shanbhag starts with a fairly heartless scene and then rewinds to chart a slow but insidious slide into a world where the need to protect the family cash cow becomes the most important thing to all of them.
Ghachar Ghochar is novella length. But Shanbhag manages to pack a significant punch into a small space and build from what seems like a positive premise to potentially unthinkable conclusions. Shanbhag’s story telling style allows for much to implied and for significant complexity to lie beneath a simple tale well told.