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Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar – Barbarism begins at home

A feminist tale told through the eyes of an unnamed male narrator.

In Ghachar Ghochar Vivek Shanbhag has written a devastating feminist novel from the point of view of an unnamed male narrator. As the man sits in his usual coffee house in Bangalore, India, he tries to make sense of why, since his family achieved sudden wealth, everything has become “ghachar ghochar” – tangled beyond repair. It is his wife Anita’s made-up phrase, spoken as he tried to yank loose the string of her sari’s underskirt on their honeymoon. He only “manages to further jam it up”.

In that moment, Anita took the knot and “carefully teased it apart”. Now, in a state of emotional crisis, he must do the same, stealing her phrase and her method to untangle, in stark, spare prose, the threads of family, class and gender in which he is tied up.

He comes from a traditional joint family, supported by the mid-level salary of his tea salesman father. They used to live together in “four small rooms, arranged one after the other, like train compartments”. When they start their own spice business, Sona Masala, the influx of money propels them into a bigger home in a better area.

Amma (“mother”) still guards the kitchen as her territory. Malati, the narrator’s sister, previously reliant on gifts from others, can now go out, take advantage of the freedom and privacy her phone affords her, and buy herself whatever she wants. Chikkappa (“uncle”) becomes embroiled in corruption to keep Sona Masala going. Appa (“father”), now retired, remains aloof, uneasy about their new wealth and avoiding all know­ledge of how it is made.

The success of Sona Masala throws the narrator’s worlds, old and new, into sharp relief. He now has the money and parental approval not to work. He feels emasculated into babu-like idleness by Chikkappa, who has assumed financial responsibility for the family and become the new patriarch of the home.

Through nuanced shifts in language, Shanbhag shows us a world in which, to reverse his opening description of the coffee house, the business hasn’t changed in a hundred years, even if the name has. For isn’t ghachar ghochar just a more imaginative term for the old masala – which means “spice mix” – something impossible to separate? Within this, the violence of Indian patriarchy towards both men and women regardless of social class becomes clear.

This is a timely book, written with great depth and restraint, and skilfully translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, an acclaimed English-language novelist in his own right. It sits alongside other similarly short, recently translated Indian works that voice the brutality of gender divisions in a changing social context. K R Meera’s astonishing The Gospel of Yudas (translated from Malayalam by Rajesh Rajamohan) and Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s erotic Panty (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha) have female protagonists who fight for their lives with the power of their words.

Shanbhag portrays the existential crisis of Indian masculinity, seen from the inside. The narrator baulks at the rage of his feminist acquaintance Chitra, who works for a women’s welfare organisation, but adopts her attitudes to win Anita, the daughter of a university professor. When Anita joins the family the narrator cannot navigate the clash that follows between her, Malati and Amma, who represent, to him, three stages of female emancipation, each “more fearsome than the other”. He blames the outside world for their frustrations; his own behaviour is never at fault. And he saves his most vehement criticism for Malati – the ­female version of himself.

Women’s bodies are considered as sites of financial gain and exchange and are discussed in the language of commerce. The “sona” in Sona Masala means “gold”, or is used to refer to a beautiful girl: the matchmaker describes Anita as “good as gold”. When Amma, with new money and a bourgeois attitude to match, proudly announces that her family will not ask for a dowry (a practice illegal in India, though it remains rife) Anita’s father teaches them the more confident class attitude, saying he would not “give his daughter” to them if they did.

By unnaming the narrator, Shanbhag evokes a loss of personal identity that creates an everyman. As the stories of women murdered or maimed for crimes against domesticity haunt each page of the book, the men who stand by are given nowhere to hide (not even the coffee shop). Women collude when they treat these stories as ­gossip to deflect from the gendered violence in their own lives.

Perur’s translation captures the heartbreaking achievement of Shanbhag’s writing: to present, in a line or two, a body and mind coming of age in a society that casts violence as tenderness, ownership as love. “I held her tighter still, then relaxed,” the narrator says of his first married kiss. “I raised her face and through her lips gained my first taste of her world.” The words seem reasonable but the tone is aghast: it is this that gives the book its power.

Ghachar Ghochar 
Vivek Shanbhag. 
Translated by Srinath Perur
Faber & Faber, 128pp, £10

Preti Taneja’s debut novel, “We That Are Young”, will be published in August by Galley Beggar Press

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist