26 March 2016

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

A review of Vivek Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar, published in BL Ink:

Vivek Shanbhag’s craft is so good that it’s practically invisible. His novel is a disconcerting, deeply affecting read about the decay of one family’s moral certainty.
To all outward appearance, Ghachar Ghochar is a novel of domesticity, of familial tyrannies. But it opens (and closes) in a space outside the home. It is as if it is only from that distance that the story might have a chance of being told, of escaping the suffocating clutches of the home in which it is unfolding. So we meet our unnamed narrator in the “airy, spacious, high-ceilinged” Coffee House.
Spaces matter to Shanbhag. He is adept at illustrating how they shape our social selves; function as mirrors for our internal landscapes. Coffee House, for instance, is not “one of your low-lit bars with people crammed around tables”, but a place which “makes you feel cultured, sophisticated” if you drink in it. Sitting there, the narrator watches a couple have a public break-up, and is reminded of a long-ago relationship with a woman that he had once broken off within these walls. The Coffee House section also doffs its hat to an older, less cluttered Bangalore — a quick gesture that is one of Shanbhag’s few concessions to obvious big-picture-ness.
The theme continues as the narrative comes into its own: the generous two-storey house in which the narrator and his family now live is contrasted with the cramped space in which he grew up: “four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments”. The move from one house to the other is the spatial counterpart to the family’s sudden rise up the social ladder.
“Everything we’d brought from the old house appeared more worn, even unrecognisable in this new place,” observes the narrator. But it is not only objects that have been displaced. The people, too, seem to have lost their moorings. The architecture of the old house created a certain camaraderie that is all but lost in the new house, where everyone has a room to themselves. Where every decision earlier had to be made as a collective one, the family now has enough money “to buy things without asking for permission or informing anyone or even thinking about it.”
But in Shanbhag’s telling, these changes, that could have led to an increase in individual freedom, lead instead to dissolution, to a state of normlessness that the 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim called anomie. “Appa’s hold on the rest of us slipped. And to be honest, we lost hold of ourselves, too.” The small-time salesman with his painstakingly accounted-for labour is replaced at the helm of the family by his younger brother, and by a business that makes much more money in a much less transparent fashion. As the existing relationships between them break down, so do the values that had held the family together. The weight of new money is too much to bear.
And yet the family does hold together. In some terrifying way, it is all that it does. In one of the book’s most devastating moments, the narrator voices a seemingly bland, throwaway thought that later seems resonant with meaning. Referring to his new wife Anita, who has just been openly critical of the family’s dubious behaviour, he says, “I didn’t know how to make her see the relationships in our family from the inside. There was no other way to comprehend them.” It is an ominous thought in this political moment, but it is tempting to think of the family here as a metaphor for the nation, and this new compass that no longer measures right and wrong — only insiders and outsiders.
Given its powerful metaphoric qualities and its moral heft, it is tempting to read Ghachar Ghochar as a parable of post-liberalisation India. But while parable it may be, this is not a simple book. Shanbhag has produced a text so immaculately crafted that its craft is invisible, until you go looking for it — and discover that what you thought were asides were actually clues placed there strategically for you to discover. It is a book that draws you in with a deceptively chatty air, and before you know it, you have become privy to its chilling confidences.
Srinath Perur’s stellar translation from the Kannada both preserves the gentle observational quality of Shanbhag’s prose, and allows his aphoristic brilliance to shine through. The storyteller’s skill is such that you might be enticed into hurtling through — but there is much here worth lingering for.
I was especially moved by Shanbhag’s portrait of an arranged marriage, sweeping us up with its potential for tenderness, and the heady, erotic sensation of surrender. And while the book has been justly feted as a portrait of family and class dynamics, it is also a perspicacious account of our relationship to work. The lower middle-class family’s everyday involvement with the work of the breadwinner (which Shanbhag, in an interview with this writer, singled out as the germ of the story) and the inseparable relationship between work and self-respect — these are powerful themes, and the novel deals with them memorably.
There is something unsparing about Shanbhag’s novel. Like Anita, it is a voice from the inside, and it insists on telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that telling may make us.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, March 26, 2016.

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