Family Matters in Vivek Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar but in R. K. Narayan's Novels Too
It might be relevant to this article to note that Justin Bieber held a sold-out concert in India, his first, this past May. India is already a powerhouse member of the globalized “flat” world, one where the Beeb can garner adoring fans all over the world through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. And while the steam off of India’s red-hot information economy might be easing a bit, the country certainly continues to make impressive strides on the global stage.
It is against this backdrop that Ghachar Ghochar, a stunning and slim novel from a regional Indian writer, Vivek Shanbhag, has been published in the West. The storyline might be skeletal but it’s powerful: an average, middle-class family suddenly finds its way to wealth. The newfound riches—along with the arrival of a new member through marriage—threaten to unravel the closely-knit family structure.
Shanbhag’s precise capture of middle-class family dynamics brings another revered Indian writer to mind: R. K. Narayan. In his 34 novels and hundreds of short stories, Narayan chronicled small-town life in south India much to the delight of his adoring fans. His fictional town of Malgudi was populated with a diverse set of delightful characters who reminded much of urban India about a simpler, unhurried past. Narayan’s book of short stories, Malgudi Days, along with Swami and Friends, was in fact the inspiration for a television series that shamelessly exploited the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.
In her compelling introduction to Malgudi Days, author Jhumpa Lahiri points out how Narayan had a special talent for exploring the “frustrations of the middle class, the precariousness of fate, the inevitable longings that so often lead to ruin.” Narayan, she says, created portraits of everyday life, and had “a vision that is unyielding and unpitying.” The same analogy can be extended to Ghachar Ghochar, the workings of which are decidedly middle-class.
In Ghachar Ghochar, an unnamed narrator records the family’s journey from a lower middle-class status to a relatively more indulgent life. It is easy to detect a note of wistfulness as the narrator looks back to simpler times: “We simply did not desire what we couldn’t afford,” he says of the early days, “When you have no choice, you have no discontent, either.” But with affluence comes trouble. “It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.”
Ghachar Ghochar might be set in a nameless town but Shanbhag is from the Indian state of Karnataka and it’s easy to speculate that this sharply observed story might be playing out in the epicenter of the tech boom, the city of Bangalore. The novel is so tightly focused inward (it’s almost a play in that regard) and the family unit seems so impenetrable that one wonders just how the modernizing forces can start to create fissures. But the cracks do slowly begin to appear.
Start with Narayan and move toward Shanbhag and India’s slow march toward modernization and its attendant restlessness can be read in the smallest of details. In the story “The Gateman’s Gift,” from Malgudi Days, a peon chugs along to a mind-numbing routine and a move to try something different is brutally swatted: “His life moved on smoothly. The pension together with what his wife earned by washing and sweeping in a couple of houses was quite sufficient for him. He ate his food, went out and met a few friends, slept and spent some evenings sitting at a cigarette shop which his cousin owned. This tenor of life was disturbed on the first of every month when he donned his old khaki suit, walked to his old office and salaamed the accountant at the counter and received his pension.”
India’s strict social mores, the nod to fatalism and conservative family values are perfectly captured in Narayan’s stories and even here, as early as the 1930s, one can see early attempts at individuality, of trying to break free of the ties that bind. In The Bachelor of Arts, for example, the college student protagonist complains about having to sneak around like an adolescent when he returns home late: “He was not eighteen but twenty-one,” he bemoans, “At twenty-one to be afraid of one’s parents and adopt sneaky ways!” That he eventually toes the line is a moot point, the seed of resentment has been sown.
But India’s strong family-focused social fabric has slowly begun to fray as Ghachar Ghochar shows. The novel might be punctuated with delightful quips and nostalgia-inducing dialog but look closely and you can see restlessness brewing among the young ‘uns. The narrator’s wife, Anita, is exhibit A, a representative of India’s new generation that is increasingly placing a premium on the individual over the collective. When she finds out that her husband does not work but merely collects a salary from the family business, she is furious. “In my thinking, what came to the family was mine,” the narrator in Ghachar Ghochar says, standing in for the old India, “In her mind, my family and I were separate entities.” Boom! The gauntlet has been thrown down. It might just be a small crack, minor seismic activity, but it is telling nonetheless.
Ghachar Ghochar and Narayan’s Malgudi Days might be similar in their themes but their subjects are beginning to color outside the lines. What started out very tentatively with Narayan has become more fully realized in Vivek Shanbhag’s glorious new novel. “Anita was not the meek, obedient sort,” he writes. Indeed she is not. Her small act of rebellion mirrors social changes across the country, changes brilliantly captured in the best fiction coming from the subcontinent.
Cover photo Mohseen Khan, Bangalore