The Entangled Web of Social Structures: Vivek Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar


Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, is a short novel that dwells on the entangled web of (changing) social structures. Told in first-person narration, the novel depicts instances in the life of a family which goes from poverty to prosperity. With a change in their financial status, there is a selective change in their worldview. I say selective because certain social codes remain deeply embedded despite the shift.

The novel opens with the narrator-protagonist sitting at the Coffee House. The narrative is observant, self-reflective, and retrospective at different points in the novel. Events and characters (some of which are more developed than others) are framed by the narrator-protagonist's commentary and perspective.

Changing social structures

Perhaps the first social structure that one encounters in this world is that of the family. One is born into it and one cannot escape it. A number of other structures and codes stem from it. The family structure is pivoted on the figure(s) of the bread-earner(s), the one(s) who provides financial stability to the unit. In the novel, the narrator-protagonist's uncle (or Chikkappa) becomes the sole earner after the establishment of the family business of spices. The rhythm of the house is determined by Chikkappa's schedule and movements.

Changes in the family unit occur when the family goes from poverty to prosperity, from a salaried life to a life of business. The change in financial status leads to a change in the family members' relationship with each other as well as a change in their structures of thought. The narrator remarks,

We thought of the family as being interdependent. . . All that changed overnight. There was enough now to buy things without asking for permission or informing anyone or even thinking about it.

This is a phenomenon that, as city-dwellers, we are perhaps not unfamiliar with. The increasing individuation of family members in joint families and the propensity towards nuclear family units is something that we experience on an everyday basis.

It's all 'ghachar ghochar'

The process of change is never without contradictions; the old and the new often clash. In the novel, the narrator-protagonist is entangled (the nonsensical phrase 'ghachar ghochar' means an entanglement beyond an easy solution) in these very contradictions. For instance, after a discussion with his wife, Anita, regarding his role in the family business, he says,

In my thinking, what came to the family was mine. In her mind, my family and I were separate entities.

Moreover, the changes are never absolute. In other words, a change does not necessarily mean a complete overthrowing of previously existing structures of thought. In the novel, this is most apparent in the family's treatment of a woman who appears at their door asking for Chikkappa. The woman is regarded as a beggar and a whore. The narrator-protagonist remarks,

We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing.

The treatment is unwarranted, as both the narrator and Anita note. Anita, in fact, goes on to question it, breaking the family's "unwritten rule" through her act of dissent. Later in the novel, this unwritten rule is defined, with sharp underlining irony, as the "selective acts of blindness and deafness" on which the "well-being of any household rests."

The messy terrain of feminism 

The novel charts, what I consider as, the "messy terrain of feminism." The narrator says that whenever he tries to write about himself, he quickly runs into three women, "each more fearsome than the other." When he observes how the woman at the door is treated by his mother and sister, he says,

On that day I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women.

The comment is an important one because it highlights an often ignored fact of our world: that women often participate in and promote sexism, that society propagates woman-on-woman hate centred on the idea of 'protecting' (the irony) one's man from the 'other' or the 'fallen' woman. Films like Parched (2015) and Lipstick Under my Burkha (2017) are important because they emphasise the need to counter this conditioning, this woman-on-woman hate, through acts of solidarity among women.

Shanbhag's novel does have two strong women's voices: that of Anita (as discussed) and Chitra (the narrator-protagonist's ex-girlfriend). Chitra works for a women's welfare organisation. The narrator remarks that he would often apply the things she said about men to himself. What we get in the novel is a man's stance on feminism. One can argue that the narrator applies those things to himself because of a guilty conscience or because Chitra does blame and implicate all men (see what I mean by the "messy terrain"?)

The 'oracular' Vincent and language

The voice of conscience in the novel is that of the Coffee House's waiter, Vincent. Vincent is characterised as a God-like figure who can read minds and prophesize, whose day-to-day utterances are "imbued with sublime meanings." However, as the narrator points out,

Words. . . are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they've entered. 

'Ghachar ghochar' means something to Anita and can never mean the same to the narrator. Vincent is perhaps an ordinary man who has experienced a lot in life and he is, therefore, accorded a wisdom not possessed by those who come in contact with him in the novel.

Words are significant to all relationships; they are the means through which we make ourselves known to our friends and partners. However, words are slippery. The narrator, for instance, finds it difficult to explain, to Anita, the family's history with ants and its inner functionings. Anita, Chitra, and the woman at the door are seen on the 'outside' in a troubled binary of inside/outside.

To conclude, Ghachar Ghochar is a short but strong novel about family, relationships, the power that money exercises over people, and the unreliability of words.
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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, published by Harper Perennial, 2016.

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