Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The many meanings of the novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Ghachar  Ghochar
Vivek Shanbhag
Harper Perennial, NOIDA, UP,India
Price Rs 399, pp 115

The question I have been asking all these years is not when the great Indian novel/s will arrive, but rather will I have the eyes to spot it when faced with one. Over the years, thanks to the literary critics in India from a variety of schools, cliques and denominations, my brain like many others’ is a clutter, accustomed to filtering a hundred opinions and readings before arriving at my own in its purity. Purity in some relative sense of the term of course! The pretentiousness that goes with high art and literature was bad enough but we now have this additional hindrance that comes in the shape of exaggerated regard for the popular. At least my own language Hindi is passing through a phase of alleged revival through a series of youthful writings, remarkable with some exceptions for their coy mannerisms and a form of nostalgia-soaked cuteness, which makes me want to label them as part of a ‘cutist’ movement. And yet I am unable to rise above the prevalent sense of satisfaction derived from the new-found popularity that these works of fiction have brought to Hindi. Linguistic patriotism is probably the most intimate, the most helpless and for those reasons the most forgivable form of patriotism. At times such an attitude can lead to a very patronizing attitude when you fail to apply the same touchstone to your own languages as you would do in other cases, in the case of languages with far superior literary achievements. You may end up protecting your own literature from the harsh glare that you expose others too, in the process telling some very pleasing but blatant lies about the current state of affairs. Such are the convoluted sentiments I carry about Hindi and maybe I should leave these emotional tangles behind and talk about what seems to me to be fairly apparent and unambiguous.   

Over the years I have been trying to build my own personal Lego chain of great Indian novels. I feel I am on a firmer ground talking about them as I am willing to defend my claims of greatness all the way to the end of the earth. Though I am afraid my chain of novels is rather modest – it includes Shrilal Shukla’s ‘Rag Darbari’, Prabha Khaitan’s ‘Pili Andhi’, Abdul Bismillah's 'Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya', and Bhagwandas Morwal’s ‘Ret’, and then dot dot dot! Meaning I hope to continue to make further additions to them and each time that happens I will have something to write about. There are several other Hindi and Indian novels in general that I admire of course but I would hesitate to place them on the pedestal of greatness. Well, I now have another novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ to add to the list, and thus this article.

The drawback I face while writing on ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is I know no Kannada and have just read an English translation, albeit a very decent one in that it is reader friendly and yet it does ring a Kannada bell repeatedly, although I may just be imagining that to feel at home in the Kannada milieu. First of all, let me explain the title which everyone finds puzzling despite the vague onomatopoeic associations. The word was invented by the children of the family in focus in the novel and means ‘things gone awry’, as in ‘everything is ghachar ghochar these days’, to give an example. The word never made it to the dictionaries because it remained confined to the children and the parents, bouncing against the walls of the supremely claustrophobic hearth forever without escaping into the outside world. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, the phrase also carries the seminal key for the portraiture of the Indian family you find in the novel. It is a closed world, a smug universe dearly protected by a family on the rise. It is the novel of the aspirational India that bombards you day in and day out through TV ads and political promises of development. But   ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is not about the cool shimmering India constructed through packaged holidays and online sales fests. The beauty of ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ lies in the most casual possible exposure of the underbelly of the family success story. It breaks the news of a fatal accident while stirring a teacup. It is indeed like a murder proposed and planned at a routine family dinner, in the very literal sense, as you will discover at the end of the novel. As for me just as I thought that the protagonist of the novel, a spineless but likeable cad with a fairly developed sense of introspection will finally just learn to continue his uneventful and feckless life with a slow-burning angst without exploding into a thunder ball or ripping away like a character from Sartre or Camus, the family dynamics takes a crazy turn, at a kind of tangent that leaves you reeling under its impact. I am being deliberately vague here so as not to reveal the ending of what seemed like a tame family saga. On the other hand how can I not reveal some things if I have to discuss a novel intelligibly? I will admit here I was aghast going through the last paragraphs of the novel and felt a wide abyss opening up within me.

The entire novel is about the characters from the small family – father, mother, father’s younger brother, a divorced sister who has worked hard to terminate her marriage and the protagonist who seems forever suspended in a state of restless idleness. The family has managed to extricate itself from a mean lower class mire mainly through a gung-ho uncle, a man dedicated to the cause of an ever ascending family. This leaves very little for everyone else to do except the bleak chore of parasitical consumption which they find acceptable to various extents. The protagonist does not seem terribly agonized over his plight and yet his prosaic uselessness bothers him like an unrelenting itch. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ has no place for deep-seated angst but just a fidgety itch in the soul causing a sort of restiveness born of purposelessness and a sense of wandering rather than seeking. The one and only character outside the family happens to be a hotel waiter, who carries the aura of a psychic and makes occasional remarks that pass off as pearls of wisdom. And thus life goes on till the protagonist gets married to a woman who likes to point at facts with a candour and firmness of character that the family is incapable of enduring. The crisis builds up further bordering on a second divorce in a family that seems to have no place for an outsider – it is just a normal, blameless, cosy, well-knit family till things go ‘Ghachar Ghochar’. The protagonist’s wife turns rebellious and unwilling to merge her individuality in the common pool of the family. The consequences of such assertion can be grave as the reader discovers through a shocking dining table conversation that hints in the most indirect way possible at a murder plot, a murder proposal placed in front of the protagonist through distant signals and broken syllables, all of which lead to the grim game under way.

‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is thus a 115-page story of tight family intimacy that takes a demonic turn when threatened and does so with a frightening casualness. Clearly, the family is endowed with everything it wants to have. The list includes an uncle willing to slave away for the sake of his kin with no desire to marry and make his own family, except the casual but cruel flings he has on the side. The protagonist’s sister has set the supreme example of rejection of the outsider by systematically hammering away at a very workable marriage. What remains unsaid is the delicate balance is kept by an uncle unwilling to marry and perfectly willing to maintain a brood of absolute idlers who grant him the status of the alpha.

I hate reducing literature to sociology and will readily admit indulging in the near criminal act here. But the reason I wish to place ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ on the pedestal of a classic is for two reasons that are difficult to discuss unless I talk some sociology. First, at least in Hindi it is deemed more relevant and urgent to dwell on the travails of making a living and the tough circumstances of life get romanticized while the raw human energy that goes into the fight for survival remains underplayed in what might seem a celebration of human passivity and helplessness. Such literature remains confined to a narrow morality of the day that looks at the world through the prism of its own sense of justice rather than an empathy with the struggle and the struggler, themes eternal to humanity. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ gives no elaborate account of how the family in question rose to its present wealth, glossing over the transition in a hurry. Instead, it dwells over what happens after the painful struggle comes to an end and the family is already wallowing in a sense of surplus security. This is the aspirational India that is increasingly becoming as typical as the helpless farmer in the countryside who commits suicide to save his self-respect. This India too I believe deserves the attention of our storytellers!

Second, it is not just the sociology but the quiet, unhysterical tone and style of the novel and its prose that struck me as unusual. In general I feel that Indians often belabour the obvious, using endless embellishments to create a literary impact, as something distinct from common conversation. This trait of excessiveness is often the bane of good literature whether poetry or prose. I loved the 115-page economy of a novel that expects to find itself under the gaze of an intelligent reader rather than an obtuse mind incapable of registering nuances. In this sense ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is a very modern and urbane novel completely rid of mushy sentimentality that continues to plague the best of Indian works. I believe the best among the Hindi writers in particular and perhaps even Bangla storytellers are unable to escape this temptation. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ thus manages to remain truly Indian not by sharing the common Indian weaknesses but by immersing itself in the kitchens and living rooms of the Indian middle classes, looking for the most vital clues.  

Lastly, even as I wind up it occurs to me that the story of the Indian middle class is best told by catching it in motion while it is forming and consolidating. In its memories of recent escape from precarious life and its aspirations for the future, you manage to catch a tale that is mushrooming all over the country. I strongly recommend the novel to the likely readers without imposing on them the extravagant claim of ‘greatness’ since the purpose here is to simply share my excitement over a novel that is certainly one of my greats and part of my tiny Lego chain of great oeuvres of Indian literature.

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