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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ghachar Ghochar

Vivek Shanbhag

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To purchase Ghachar Ghochar

Title: Ghachar Ghochar
Author: Vivek Shanbhag
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 118 pages
Original in: Kannada
Availability: Ghachar Ghochar - US
Ghachar Ghochar - UK
Ghachar Ghochar - Canada
Ghachar Ghochar - India
  • Kannada title: ಘಾಚರ್ ಘೋಚರ್
  • Translated by Srinath Perur

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-observed, compact family tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/4/2017 Dan Einav
The Guardian . 27/4/2017 Deborah Smith
The Hindu A 2/1/2016 Keshava Guha
Hindustan Times . 20/2/2016 Prajwal Parajuly
The Independent A 19/4/2017 Lucy Scholes
Indian Express . 13/2/2016 Girish Karnad
Irish Times A+ 22/4/2017 Eileen Battersby
New Statesman . 30/5/2017 Preti Taneja
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/4/2017 Parul Sehgal

  From the Reviews:
  • "What could’ve been another admonitory tale is elevated by an emphasis on minutia (.....) It occasionally comes at the cost of a clear narrative, but is a minor point when the writing has moments of wonderfully dark, often unexpected, cynicism." - Dan Einav, Financial Times

  • "The opening chapter demonstrates how the short novel is the perfect form for Shanbhag’s particular talents: precise observations, accumulation of detail, narrative progression by way of oblique tangents. (...) Srinath Perur’s excellent translation presents a wonderfully measured, sometimes mannered diction" - Deborah Smith, The Guardian

  • "Little in Ghachar Ghochar is as it first seems. At well under 30,000 words, the book is liable to be considered a novella, but it has the scope and ambition of a novel rather than a long story. Its concision is a function of how much Vivek Shanbhag leaves unsaid, and how much is suggested or implied. (...) This is a superb novel, unsettling and even claustrophobic, as hermetically enclosed as the family it describes. Shanbhag can be brutally unsentimental, but also moving and genuinely funny. Srinath Perur’s translation is fluent and often elegant, occasional infelicities notwithstanding" - Keshava Guha, The Hindu

  • "Serious readers will appreciate the author’s ability to tell so much by eliminating, his skill at dialogue and the spare prose. The deceptively simple story line and language, along with the book’s 28,000-word length, should make even a non-reader feel right at home." - Prajwal Parajuly, Hindustan Times

  • "Brevity serves Shanbhag’s storytelling to great effect, not least because much of what makes the narrative so gripping lies in what he leaves unsaid. (...) Shanbhag is the real deal, this gem of a novel resounding with chilling truths." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "This is a novel with a lightness of touch rarely found in our fiction. It is short, and the narrative is suffused with a gentle irony, with an undercurrent of pathos and humour enlivening the events which are presented in a few delicate, deft strokes. (...) Ghachar Ghochar is a sensitive analysis of how our middle-class existence is defined by a single shruti: anxiety. (...) The translation by Srinath Perur unerringly captures the shifting nuances that make Shanbhag’s telling so rich." - Girish Karnad, Indian Express

  • "Literary perfection is elusive, yet it is possible, as Vivek Shanbhag demonstrates in his magnificent novella, where comedy is undercut by seething menace and overwhelming regret at a failure to act decently. (...) Ghachar Ghochar may well be one of the finest literary works you will ever encounter." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "This is a timely book, written with great depth and restraint, and skilfully translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (.....) Shanbhag portrays the existential crisis of Indian masculinity, seen from the inside. (...) By unnaming the narrator, Shanbhag evokes a loss of personal identity that creates an everyman." - Preti Taneja, New Statesman

  • "This spiny, scary story of moral decline, crisply plotted and no thicker than my thumb, has been heralded as the finest Indian novel in a decade, notable for a book in bhasha, one of India’s vernacular languages. (...) Shanbhag is excellent on the inner logic of families, and of language, how even the most innocent phrases come freighted with history. (...) The book in our hands is elegant, lean, balletic" - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Ghachar Ghochar begins his account from Coffee House, the restaurant that is his regular haunt -- and escape. He admits: "I come here for respite from domestic skirmishes": life revolves around family, and his is a tight-knit one of co-dependency, a family that has made good -- or at least moved up in the world -- but balances uneasily there.
       The narrator's uncle, his chikkappa [ಚಿಕ್ಕಪ್ಪ], Venkatachala (but called Chikkappa, which defines his exact (nominal) place in the family hierarchy) brought prosperity to the family with the spice trade firm he founded, Sona Masala. They are all in this together, with Chikkappa having given his older brother -- the narrator's father -- a half-stake in the company. Nominally, the narrator is director of the company, but eager beaver Chikkappa "has a weakness for work" -- and a knack for it -- and runs everything himself. They all live together, along with the narrator's mother, his sister, Malati, -- who was married but has returned to the more familiar familial fold -- and now his wife, Anita.
       The family had long lived very humbly, on the father's small income. Only when he was made redundant did Chikkappa start his company, its quick success transforming the family and its fortunes. The narrator describes the uneasy change brought about this way, and how the family adapted (and how, in some ways, it didn't).
       The entire family is dependent on Chikkappa, and completely deferential. They have their own quirks -- Malati, in particular, isn't very pleasant -- but make sure that Chikkappa's life in the household proceeds smoothly. The workaholic doesn't lord it over them; like everyone else, he simply takes the arrangements for granted -- while as far as work goes, he does what needs be done (some of which turns out to be rather unsavory).
       The ghachar ghochar of the title is, in fact, invention, an expression from the narrator's wife's family -- "There are only four people in this world know what it means", Anita tells him, before he becomes the fifth. They use it for when something has gotten so entangled that it's practically impossible to unravel -- a tangled kite string the original example. As the narrator comes to realize, his, and his family's life, have become ghachar ghochar.
       His wife, Anita, is the odd woman out, the foreign presence in the finely-tuned (if quite on edge) family machine. She's shocked to learn that her husband doesn't have a real job, a "respectable job" -- as, except for the occasional paper Chikkappa gives him to sign, he has no duties or obligations whatsoever; he comes 'to work' but does essentially nothing in his office beyond reading the newspapers. His business cards -- reprinted every year -- "say I'm the director of the firm", but he's barely even a figurehead.
       At one point in his account he asks:

     Now, what can I say of myself that is only about me and not tied up with the others ?
       Practically everything is connected: as individual as he may be, and even with his escapes to Coffee House, his identity is found almost entirely only as part of the family unit. Marriage brings some changes, but Anita is the foreign presence, and all he can do is try to draw her into this family unit; he can't imagine escaping it and in any way establishing a life for himself, or him and Anita.
       Ghachar Ghochar is anything but sprawling family epic. The arc of the family's life and changing fortunes are described, but the narrator hones in on only a few defining moments and changes. Much seems almost peripheral -- such as the scenes in Coffee House, including the opening chapter, and waiter Vincent, essentially the only person outside the family that the narrator engages with in any meaningful way. (There is also mention of a woman he abandoned, Chitra -- a path not taken -- but she remains extraneous.) But it adds up to a powerful understated portrait, with a pervasive underlying sense of unease and precariousness.
       This compact novel, with its deceptively relaxed tone, is nevertheless a full (and unsettling) family-portrait.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 January 2017

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Ghachar Ghochar: Reviews: Vivek Shanbhag: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Vivek Shanbhag (ವಿವೇಕ ಶಾನಭಾಗ) is a Kannada-writing Indian author.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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