NEW YORK: The Bengaluru-based writer Vivek Shanbhag is the author of eight works of fiction and two plays, all of which have been published to wide acclaim in the South Indian language Kannada. He was a Fall 2016 resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Shanbhag’s terrific novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar, the first of his books to appear in English, was published by Penguin earlier this month in the United States (paperback, 118 pages, $15).
In an interview, Shanbhag, among other things, delves into the inspiration behind Ghachar Ghochar, his craft of writing, what he thinks of Indian TV soaps, and literary influences. Excerpts from the interview:
You’ve said you like Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: that most of the story is beneath the surface, like an iceberg; you try not to say a word more than necessary. Give us an insight into the kind of writing. Do you pare sentences, or chop mercilessly like editors do, to reach the final draft, or work with that framework right from the beginning of a new work?
It takes a very long time for a story to form fully in my mind. At any point in time there are a few stories developing in my mind. I make several attempts, keep knocking on the door to check if a story is ready to be written. Even after sitting down to write, it is important for a writer to recognize a false start. One might realize it on page 5 or on page 50. It takes a lot of courage to discard a work and start all over again. Not doing so due to laziness, greed or any other temptation is like taking a wrong road. If you choose to make a course correction mid-way instead of making a new beginning, then you are forced to say more than necessary. In essence, taking the right road, which is the shortest route, is key to achieving the iceberg effect. This comes from hard work and a bit of luck. Since it is new terrain with every story, past achievements are of no help. I start empty handed every time I write something.
I do both – allow the story to flow freely during the first draft and then chop mercilessly. Showing mercy to your own text is a sign of self-love. It is the beginning of the death of a writer.
What was your inspiration for Ghachar Ghochar?
The novel was inside me and growing for several years. It is difficult to put my finger on a single incident or experience and say it was the inspiration, but I have a hunch that the seed of the story was sown twenty-five years ago, when I first began working as an engineer. At that time, I worked with a few salespeople, and I vividly remember visiting a salesman’s house where every member of the family was involved in his job. They even knew the codes assigned to hundreds of products he was selling. This may have been the seed, but it takes a lot for a seed to grow into a tree and bear fruit. There is a saying in Kannada, which roughly translates to “one must not try to discover the source of a river,” such efforts inevitably end in disappointment.
India is full of rags to riches stories, post-liberalization. Bengaluru has benefited greatly from that. What’s the biggest malaise you see from this sudden surge in wealth?
A sudden surge of wealth has brought a kind of over-confidence to the Indian middle class and a zeal to belong to another class. However, they have no clarity about their destination. They don’t know what the ‘another class’ is and if it exists at all. In the process, people disconnect themselves from the community they belonged to until yesterday. Unfortunately the disconnect is from their language and values. The image that comes to my mind is that of a trapeze artist in mid-air who has let go of a bar without knowing which one of the swinging bars to latch on to.
A plot involving a sharp-tongued mother-in-law, idealistic daughter-in-law, and the mysterious sister-in-law is bread and butter of Indian TV soaps. Do you watch TV at all? If so, does those dramatic household scenes you write on so admirably in Ghachar Ghochar make you laugh when you see it on the small screen?
I am not an avid TV watcher but I have seen enough of the TV soaps that you mention. These shows engage our curiosity with the sole aim of holding our attention. Every conflict is only to enhance the pleasure of a happy ending. Literature goes beyond stereotypes and deals with situations not to provide a resolution but to understand deeper truths about human nature and life.
Readers used to TV soaps invariably want to know what happens to Anita, the daughter-in-law in Ghachar Ghochar.
Ghachar Ghochar is also a testament to the joint family system in India, with liberal hues of dark and grey. Do you favor large families living under one roof?
Large families living under one roof was a necessity when families were dependent only on income from a single source, which was mostly agriculture. In other words, splitting the family and hence property was economically unviable. This situation is difficult to imagine today, especially in cities, where job opportunities exist for both men and women. Individual aspirations are too strong to make way for a life under one roof, which demands some compromise in terms of privacy and social behavior.
Who are your favorite writers and literary influences?
I am influenced by many modern as well as ancient Kannada writers. Kannada has an unbroken literary tradition of over a thousand years. It is a privilege to have access to these texts, as well as to be a part of a rich literary culture that celebrates Kannada texts and western literature with the same enthusiasm. Some of my favorite western writers include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tolstoy, Melville, Katherine Anne Porter, Jose Saramago, Hemingway, Joyce…I could go on and on.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and play. I am also working with Srinath Perur, the translator of Ghachar Ghochar, as he translates another of my novels into English.