Ghachar Ghochar book review: tightly-woven novel is a terrific read

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NEW YORK: Kannadiga writer Vivek Shanbhag’s terrific novel Ghachar Ghochar (Penguin; 118 pages; paperback; $15) translated by Srinath Perur – his first ever published in the English language – is a treat to read with its tightly-woven plot, engrossing characters that capture the essence of post-liberalization rags-to-riches India with its pervasive, quirky family dynamics, and a climax worthy of a satisfying, mind-bending thriller. It’s rendered seamlessly with marvelous brevity of writing that makes one yearn for more as the last page is turned over.

On the surface, Shanbhag’s characters in Ghachar Ghochar seem like pebbles on the bed of a shallow stream, unruffled, enduring monotonously the daily grind, tug of small tides. With the efficiency of a minimalist painter or a sand artist, however, Shanbhag shifts contours, thrusts upheaval and suspense at a moment’s notice. One can sense the threat of rush of water from a breached dam; an evacuation. He examines his characters as minutely as a veteran jeweler would pore over the intricacies of a piece of stone, reflections that startle us at times, make us wiser as we turn the pages.

The fact that Ghachar Ghochar spans only 118 pages and its minute size seems to be more out of consideration for readers who might be inclined to carry a phone and a Nook too in the same pocket, doesn’t take away anything from its superb quality. One is reminded of Ian McEwan’s observation of humungous novels that “very few novels earn their length”.

Ghachar Ghochar revolves around the fortunes of a Bangalore-based joint family who from living in almost penury – dependent on a single ageing breadwinner, join the legions of the successful rich in India, after a wily, young family member launches his own business selling spices, to great profit. The family members immediately become subservient to every wish and whim of the businessman, who lives under the same roof as his older brother and his wife, his nephew and his wife, and a niece, who divorces her husband and comes back home.

Through the narrator, the nephew, who has a grand title in his uncle’s flourishing business, but does little work and lives on the edge of despondency, the lives of the characters in his life are weaned out in exquisite detail. Frailties are exposed like jackfruit on a tree pecked open by a determined sharp-beaked bird; yellow innards revealed.

Shanbagh is a master at playing with imagination too. What he reveals and revels in hiding, for us to decipher like pointillism, is an art form in itself.

A section which deals with the wedding of the narrator – from his hesitant contact with his erudite fiancée, to the wedding day, culminating in the first night, the first touch, and honeymoon, is a master class of the highest form of writing. It’s riveting for the sensuality Shanbhag sprinkles in the narrative, without delving into the sexual act itself.

Ghachar Ghochar is a novel not to be missed.