ONE OF VULTURE'S 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
FINALIST FOR THE L.A. TIMES BOOK PRIZE IN FICTION
“A modern classic.” —The New York Times Book Review
A young man's close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamic begins to shift. Allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Things become “ghachar ghochar”—a nonsense phrase uttered by one meaning something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can't be untied.
Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings—and consequences—of financial gain in contemporary India.
“A classic tale of wealth and moral ruin.” —The New Yorker
“Ghachar Ghochar introduces us to a master.” —The Paris Review
Named a Best Book of the Year by the Guardian, Globe and Mail, and Publishers Weekly
Shortlisted for the ALTA National Translation Award in Prose
Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award
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About the Author
Srinath Perur (translator) is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in n+1, Granta, and the Guardian. He is the author of If It's Monday It Must Be Madurai, published by Penguin India.
Read an Excerpt
By Vivek Shanbhag, Srinath Perur
Penguin Random HouseCopyright © 2013 Vivek Shanbhag
All rights reserved.
Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. It's called just that — Coffee House. The name hasn't changed in a hundred years, even if the business has. You can still get a good cup of coffee here, but it's now a bar and restaurant. Not one of those low-lit bars with people crammed around tables, where you come to suspect that drinking may not be such a wholesome activity after all. No, this place is airy, spacious, high-ceilinged. Drinking here makes you feel cultured, sophisticated. The walls are paneled in wood to shoulder height. Old photographs hang on the sturdy square pillars in the center of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago. The photographs evoke a gentler, more leisurely time, and somehow Coffee House still manages to belong to that world. For instance, you can visit at seven in the evening when it's busiest, order only a coffee and occupy a table for two hours, and no one will object. They seem to know that someone who simply sits there for so long must have a thousand wheels spinning in his head. And they know those spinning wheels will not let a person be. Eventually, he'll be overwhelmed, just like the serene spaces in those photographs that buyers devoured and turned into the cluttered mess we have around us today.
But let all that be — I don't mean to brood. Getting back to this Vincent: he's a dark, tall fellow, a little over middle age, but strong, without the hint of a belly. He wears a white uniform against which it's impossible not to notice an extravagant red cummerbund. On his head is a white turban, its tuft sticking out like Krishna's peacock feather. I can't help feeling when Vincent is around — serving coffee, pouring beer at a practiced angle, betraying the faintest of smiles as a patron affectedly applies knife and fork to a cutlet — t hat he can take us all in with a single glance. By now I suspect he knows the regulars at Coffee House better than they know themselves.
Once, I came here when I was terribly agitated, and found myself saying out loud as he placed a cup of coffee in front of me: "What should I do, Vincent?" I was mortified and about to apologize when he answered, thoughtfully: "Let it go, sir." I suppose it might have been a generic response, but something about his manner made me take his words seriously. It was soon after that interaction with Vincent that I abandoned Chitra and whatever there was between us. My life then took a turn that led to marriage. Now, let me not give the impression here that I believe in the supernatural — I don't. But then, neither do I go hunting for a rational basis for everything that happens.
Today, I've been sitting in Coffee House longer than ever before. I'm desperate for a sign of some sort. Part of me longs to speak to Vincent, but I'm holding back — what if his words hint at the one thing I don't want to hear? It's afternoon. There are few people around. Directly in my line of sight is a young woman in a blue T-shirt, scribbling something in a notebook. She's at a table that looks onto the street outside. Two books, a glass of water, and a coffee cup sit on the table in front of her. A lock of hair has drifted across her cheek as she writes. The girl is here at least three times a week at this hour. Sometimes a young man joins her for a coffee and then they leave together. It's the same table where Chitra and I used to meet.
Just as I begin to wonder if her friend will turn up today, I see him at the door. He takes the chair across from her. My gaze drifts away, then returns to their table with a jerk when I hear shouting. She's on her feet now, leaning across the table. One hand holds his collar. The other slaps him across the face. He's blurting explanations, forearms raised to fend her off. She releases his collar and throws one of her books at him, then the other, all the while screaming abuses that implicate all men. She pauses, eyes darting over the table in rage as if looking for something else to attack him with. He shoves his chair back and flees. She takes the glass of water in front of her and flings it at him. It misses and shatters against the wall.
She's surprisingly calm after he's gone. She picks up the books and her bag. For a few moments she sits with her eyes closed, breathing heavily. One of the boys sweeps up the broken glass. Coffee House had fallen silent as the few people present watched the scene unfold. Now the usual murmur resumes. On cue, as if this is all a play, Vincent goes to her table, and she raises her head to order something. It appears Vincent already knows her order and has it ready in the wings. A gin and tonic appears on the table suspiciously quickly.
I wave him over as he returns from her table. "What happened?"
Someone else in his place might say the couple is breaking up, or speculate that the man has been unfaithful. He might even observe that this is the first time the young woman has ordered a drink here. Not our Vincent. He bends down and says, "Sir — one story, many sides."
Had Vincent taken on a grand name and grown a long shimmering beard, he'd have thousands of people falling at his feet. How different are the words of those exalted beings from his? Words, after all, are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they've entered. If you think about it, even those held to be gods incarnate seldom speak of profound things. It's their day-to-day utterances that are imbued with sublime meanings. And who's to say the gods cannot take the form of a waiter when they choose to visit us?
The truth is I have no real reason to come to Coffee House. But who can admit to doing something for no reason in times like these, in a city as busy as this one? So I'll say: I come here for respite from domestic skirmishes. If all is peaceful at home I can think up other reasons. In any case, visiting Coffee House has become a daily ritual. My wife, Anita, to whom I once laid out the case for Vincent's divinity, sometimes wryly says, "Did you visit your temple today?"
Somehow, my unvoiced appeals seem to be heard when I'm in Coffee House. There are times when the thought of being there enters my mind just before going to bed, and I pass the night in a dazed half-sleep, eager for morning to arrive. I come here, pick a table from which I can see the goings-on on the road outside, and sit down. There are usually only a couple of people here at that time of the morning. Vincent brings me a strong coffee without my having to ask. I sit there and watch people pass by: in the cold of December they hurry past in sweaters and jackets; in summer they wear light, thin clothes, offering some skin to the sun. After gazing out of the window for half an hour or so, I call Vincent over, engage him in small talk, and root for pearls of wisdom in whatever he says. If the weather in my head is particularly bad, I might order a snack and prolong my conversation with Vincent. At times, I'm tempted to unburden myself to him. But then, what's the point when he seems to know without being told? These interludes at Coffee House, away from the strains of home and family, are the most comforting part of my day.
That girl who just chased her friend away reminds me of Chitra. I wonder how often Chitra must have thrashed me like that in her thoughts — I 'd slipped away from her without saying a word. Her pride would never allow her to come after me, of course. Not once in all this time has she tried to make contact. I used to join her on most afternoons, usually at that very table. She worked for a women's welfare organization, and would gradually grow incensed as she told me about her day. The things she said about men I took as applying to myself. I could only sit there mute, feeling vaguely guilty. She might say, "How could you break her arm simply because the tea was not to your taste?" Or: "Do you kill your wife because she forgot to leave the key with the neighbor?" I knew that tea shouldn't lead to a broken arm, or a forgotten key to a murder. It wasn't about the tea or the key: the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence. But how was I to explain this to her? There was no room for anything other than her anger. How, then, could there be tenderness between us? There was really nothing there, I suppose, certainly nothing physical. I never once held her hand, though I probably could have. When we had just gotten to know each other, I believed we might draw closer. But we never did. Then, one day, whatever there was between us vanished. I stopped going to Coffee House at our usual time and instead began going in the evenings. That was it — we never saw each other again.
I remember clearly what we spoke about the last time we met. She told me about a woman who had been turned out of her house in the middle of the night by her mother-in-law. While the woman shivered outside, her husband and his parents and sister all slept warm in their blankets. She'd sat there, hearing her husband's snores through the window. At dawn she hid her shame from the milkman by pretending she was waiting for the milk. Chitra's voice grew in shrillness as she described the woman's plight. "I'll make sure that husband and mother-in-law see the inside of a jail," she swore. "I must discuss the case with our lawyer before he leaves for home," she said and got up. She touched me lightly on the shoulder, said, "Bye, dear" as she always did, and left. It's all hazy now when I try to remember if I knew then that it was over. I do recall that I sat there quietly for a while after she left. I didn't show up at our usual time the next day. Or ever after. Chitra may have asked Vincent about me; I don't know. She probably realized I was avoiding her and never tried to get in touch.
As I sit here in Coffee House today, my mind is more disturbed than usual. If I can recognize it, so can Vincent. He knows I'm eager to talk to him, and he comes to my table of his own accord. I tell him: "Another lemon soda, please." He goes away after giving me a look that seems to say, "Is that really all?" In front of me, the girl finishes her gin and tonic with a couple of gulps and stuffs her books into her bag.
My mobile phone rings, startling me. Must be from home. It's been thirty hours since I left, and I'm worried about what news the call might bring. I look at the phone — an unknown number. I answer with some dread. It's someone asking if I want insurance. "No," I say curtly, and put the phone back in my pocket.
Vincent brings over a tray with a glass containing a mixture of lemon juice and salt, a bottle of soda, a tiny bowl with slices of lemon, and a long spoon. He places the tray's contents on the table with great deliberation. He produces an opener from somewhere in his cummerbund and pries open the bottle cap. As he pours, the foam comes gushing up in the glass. Vincent waits longer than necessary between pours of the soda, as if buying me time. I can pretend all I want, but how can I possibly hide from this all-knowing man the fact that I'm desperate to unburden myself?CHAPTER 2
Ours is a joint family. We live in the same house — my wife and I, my parents, my uncle, and Malati. Malati is my older sister, back home now after having left her husband. It is natural to wonder, I suppose, why the six of us should want to live together. What can I say — it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable.
The central figure in our household is my chikkappa, Venkatachala, my father's younger brother and the family's sole earner. He has a weakness for work, is at it night and day. We're in the spice trade — owners of a firm called Sona Masala. It's a simple enough business: order spices in bulk from Kerala, parcel them into small plastic packets in our warehouse, and sell these to grocers in the city. Chikkappa started the business, now our only source of income, and as a result he's regarded above everyone else in the house. His meals, his preferences, his conveniences, are of supreme importance to us all. The harder he toils, the better it is for us. He's unmarried, and we fuss over him so much that he's bound to wonder what additional comfort marriage could bring at his age. He receives all the domestic privileges accorded to the earning male of the family. At the first sound in the morning indicating he's awake, tea is made. When it's sensed that he's finished bathing, the dosa pan goes on the stove. He can fling his clothes in the bathroom or in a corner of his bedroom or anywhere at all in the house, and they'll materialize washed and ironed in his room.
Sometimes, on the pretext of work, he spends the night in his room at the warehouse. We're careful not to ask him about it. But a couple of weeks ago, there was a commotion when a woman came to the house. Chikkappa was at home, but he didn't step out. And why should he, when we're here to do battle on his behalf?
She came on a Sunday, at around nine in the morning. She'd waited awhile some distance away from the house, hoping perhaps to speak to Chikkappa if he emerged. It doesn't take long for someone standing aimlessly on the road to draw people's attention — my mother soon saw her from the kitchen window. She had on a pale green sari with a red border. Nothing in her bearing suggested she was a disreputable woman. Still, in the half hour or so the woman stood there, glancing from time to time at the house, my mother made several concerned trips to the window. In these matters, it is always the women who suspect first. The woman likely had no intention of creating a scene, and for all we know she might have been happy to leave after seeing Chikkappa briefly. But that was not what transpired.
She finally summoned the courage to approach the house. My mother saw her opening the gate and rushed out. By then she had made her way to the front steps.
"How can we help you?" Amma asked.
"Isn't this Mr. Venkatachala's house?" the woman asked, the hesitation evident in her voice.
"Yes. Who are you?"
"My name is Suhasini. Is he at home?"
"Whom do you wish to see?"
"I'd like to see him ... Mr. Venkatachala. Can I speak to him?"
"Do you have some business with him?"
"I'd like to speak to him."
"Can I see him?"
Knowing Amma, she would have felt slighted by the visitor's lack of forthrightness. But she held her tongue. After all, she had no idea who the woman was to Chikkappa, and it wouldn't do to displease him. "Wait, I'll call him," she said and came inside, leaving the woman at the door.
While this was happening, we, the three men of the house, were sitting at the dining table over our breakfasts, listening to the exchange at the door. Malati and Anita were in the kitchen, also within earshot. None of us acknowledged hearing anything.
Amma entered the room and turned toward Chikkappa. Before she could say a word, he began making signals to the effect that he wasn't home. This was all that Amma needed. She strode back outside.
"He's not home," we heard her say.
"But ... he is."
"I said he's not home."
"Will you please mention my name to him?"
"How can I when he's not home?"
"He's here. I know he is."
"Am I lying to you, then?"
"I know he's inside. I saw him through the window. Please call him. I only want to speak to him."
"In which language must I tell you? No means no. That's all — now, please leave." It was clear from Amma's voice that she was nearing the end of her patience. I was amazed she could stand so firmly behind a lie.
"I will not leave without seeing him."
Malati went to the door to join the fray. Unable to resist my curiosity, I followed her and stood leaning against the doorframe. Up close the woman was attractive, slightly dark-complexioned. I could see a healed scar on her left temple and the odd grey hair amid the black. Her green sari had a fine brown pattern on it. In her hands was a small package wrapped in plastic. A black handbag hung on one shoulder.
Amma was emboldened by Malati's arrival. "Ey," she said, her voice now raised. "It's better you leave now. Do you want me to kick you out? Who do you think you are?"
The woman was taken aback by Amma's aggression. She seemed to realize the matter was getting out of hand. Making to leave, she brought out a steel container from the plastic bag in her hand and attempted to hand it to Amma. She said, "I've brought this because he's fond of it. It's masoor dal curry. Please give it to him."
Excerpted from Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, Srinath Perur. Copyright © 2013 Vivek Shanbhag. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House.
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Reading Group Guide
“It is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable” (p. 11).
An Introduction to Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag
As Ghachar Ghochar opens, the novel’s unnamed narrator is waiting for a lemon soda at his favorite haunt, a Bangalore café named simply “Coffee House.” To outsiders, nothing about him would seem out of the ordinary. Perhaps only Vincent, the waiter whom the narrator suspects “knows the regulars at Coffee House better than they know themselves” (p. 2), can sense that he is a man in turmoil. As he contemplates whether to unburden himself to Vincent, the narrator begins to recount the events that led him to this desperate place.
About two weeks earlier, a woman arrived at the house where the narrator lives with his father, Appa, his mother, Amma, his wife, Anita, his sister, Malati, and his uncle, Chikkappa. The woman—whose “affection for Chikkappa was evident” (p. 16)—was polite and came bearing his favorite curry, but Amma and Malati attempted to send her away, at first coldly, and then with increasing anger.
Chikkappa remained hidden away inside the house as his sister-in-law and niece verbally abused the woman, who eventually left in tears. The narrator was stunned to see his mother and sister behaving “like dogs protecting their territory,” but said nothing (p. 17). His wife, Anita, did not participate—an act of dissent that cannot have gone unnoticed by his mother and sister. Though they barely acknowledged what happened, the incident clearly upset the household’s delicate balance.
Although he is the younger brother, Chikkappa is the true head of the household. For many years, the family scraped by on the meager salary Appa earned as a tea salesman. They purchased only the barest necessities, and those only after a period of intense calculation and discussion. This all changed, however, when Appa lost his job, and Chikkappa convinced his younger brother to let him use his retirement savings to open a wholesale spice company, Sona Masala. The company became an overnight success, enabling the family to move into a large home, which they were able to furnish as they pleased.
For the first time in their lives, the family is free from financial worry. With a generous dowry, Malati marries the son of a wealthy merchant in an opulent wedding. Chikkappa works tirelessly, and the business flourishes. Appa has no responsibilities within the company, but because of his initial investment, he “owns half of Sona Masala’s considerable assets” (p. 37), as Chikkappa promised. Yet “Appa enjoys [their] current prosperity with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved” (p. 24), leading the rest of the family—including Malati, who has left her husband—to fear he might donate his share of their wealth to charity. The narrator draws a salary from the company, though he, too, has no official duties. Unlike his father, he is unperturbed by this situation—until it is his turn to marry.
When the family turns its attention to finding a suitable wife for the narrator, a family friend makes an introduction to a young woman named Anita, the educated daughter of a professor. On their honeymoon, she teaches him the nonsense phrase “ghachar ghochar” (p. 77), which she and her brother first used to refer to a kite string that became so tangled it was impossible to put right. Soon the phrase became family slang, and the narrator incorporates it into his lexicon, delighted to be admitted into the small circle of intimates who understand its meaning. These early days with his new wife are the happiest of his life. But after they return home and Anita discovers the truth about the narrator’s idleness, and the lengths to which the family will go to protect its newfound prosperity, it becomes clear that sudden wealth has turned their lives ghachar ghochar.
In simple, straightforward prose, Vivek Shanbhag unpacks a story of dazzling subtlety and depth. The first of his books to be translated into English, Ghachar Ghochar chronicles the complicated fortunes of an Indian family and introduces a master storyteller to the world stage.
1. The narrator is a regular customer at Coffee House. What draws him there?
2. What is your opinion of the narrator? Is he as hapless as he portrays himself to be? Why does he alone remain nameless?
3. Why didn’t the narrator’s relationship with Chitra work out? Would he have married a woman like Anita if he had met her by chance rather than by arrangement?
4. Why is Chikkappa so generous to the rest of the family? Does his behavior set the tone for the household?
5. What was Chikkappa’s relationship with Suhasini, do you think?
6. Why is Appa ambivalent about the family’s new wealth? If he were to become “ruinously entangled in some philanthropic enterprise” (p. 23), what might the rest of the family do to prevent his giving away his share of the business?
7. Which members of the family would have been happier if Chikkappa hadn’t opened Sona Masala? Is sudden wealth more a curse than a blessing?
8. What is the significance of the ant infestation?
9. At what point does the story begin to feel sinister?
10. What role does Vincent, the Coffee House waiter, play in the novel? Why does the narrator choose to open his story by talking about him?
11. Early on in the novel, the narrator thinks, “Words, after all, are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered” (p. 5). Discuss an instance in the novel that illustrates this.
12. Is there anything more you wish you knew about any of the characters?
13. Ghachar Ghochar is the first novel written in Kannada to be published in English in the United States. In what ways does the story Shanbhag tells feel foreign? In what ways does it feel universal?
14. Vivek Shanbhag has been compared to Anton Chekhov. Are there other writers whose work this book is reminiscent of?
15. Have you ever experienced a feeling of “ghachar ghochar” in your own life? Discuss.