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30 May 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:04pm

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar – Barbarism begins at home

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

By Preti Taneja

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.

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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.

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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 appears in the 24 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain