Ghachar Ghochar

A Novel
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“Vivek Shanbhag is an Indian Chekhov.” —Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City

"One of the best novels to have come out of India in recent decades." —Pankaj Mishra
 
For readers of Akhil Sharma, Mohsin Hamid, and Teju Cole, a haunting, masterly novel about a family splintered by success in rapidly changing India
  
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, 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 of the characters that comes to mean 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.

Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award

Praise

"A firecracker of a novel...concise and mesmerizing." —Publishers Weekly, Boxed & Starred Review

"A compact novel that crackles with tension." —Kirkus Reviews

"In this exquisitely observed, wry and moving novel, the smallest detail can conjure entire worlds of feeling. Vivek Shanbhag is a writer of rare and wonderful gifts." —Garth Greenwell, National Book Award longlisted author of What Belongs to You

"One of my favorite contemporary writers in English translates one of the leading figures of Kannada literature. The result is mesmerizing, distressing—and altogether brilliant." —Karan Mahajan, National Book Award longlisted author of The Association of Small Bombs
 
“Vivek Shanbhag is one of those writers whose voice takes your breath away at the first encounter. Ghachar Ghochar presents life and its undercurrents with limpid prose and quiet insight.” —Yiyun Li, author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

"Tenderly alert to the new passions and disappointments of a 'rising' bourgeoisie, and handling its complex material with brilliant artistic economy, Ghachar Ghochar is one of the best novels to have come out of India in recent decades." —Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire

“How did Shanbhag manage to pack so much, so effortlessly and lucidly, into just over a hundred pages? Ghachar Ghochar is a book of distilled simplicity, its surface of seeming artlessness hiding that most complex and complicated of things—truthfully rendered human life. Beautiful, tense, surprising, utterly convincing and wise, and translated with real inspiration by Srinath Perur.”  —Neel Mukherjee, Booker shortlisted author of The Lives of Others

“A remarkable novel about the fragile civilities of bourgeois life. The reader becomes absorbed in the unforgiving self-knowledge and expansive humanity contained in every page.” —Amit Chaudhuri, author of Freedom Song and Odysseus Abroad

“Ghachar Ghochar is one of the most striking novels you’ll read this decade. . . . In Shanbhag’s hands, the Indian family is revealed in layers; as one layer peels away, what lies beneath is left raw and exposed.” —Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard (India)

“This is a superb novel, unsettling and even claustrophobic . . . but also moving and genuinely funny.” —The Hindu (India)

“Very rarely a book comes along that you want to thrust in the hands of everyone—readers and non-readers. Ghachar Ghochar is one such book.” —Prajwal Parajuly, The Hindustan Times (India)

“Altogether a delight to read . . . Shanbhag gives us an insider’s feel for the concerns that have shaped the middle class in the last half a century.” —Girish Karnad, The Indian Express (India)

“An ingenious tale of how material wealth robs a family of its moral fortitude . . . [Shanbhag] is obviously a master of the form.” —Mint (India)

“Truly a must-read.” —The Navhind Times (India)

Ghachar Ghochar reveals a consummate fiction writer at the height of his powers. . . . a literary sensation across India.” —Scroll.in (India)

Reader's Guide

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.

Q & A

An Interview with Vivek Shanbhag:
 
1. What was your initial inspiration for this novel?
 
This novel was inside me and growing for several years. It is difficult to put my finger on a single incident or experience and say it was the inspiration, but I have a hunch that the seed of the story was sown twenty-five years ago, when I first began working as an engineer. At that time, I worked with a few salespeople, and I vividly remember visiting a salesman’s house where every member of the family was involved in his job. They even knew the codes assigned to hundreds of products he was selling. This may have been the seed, but it takes a lot for a seed to grow into a tree and bear fruit. There is a saying in Kannada, which roughly translates to “one must not try to discover the source of a river;” such efforts inevitably end in disappointment.

2. Neel Mukherjee calls Ghachar Ghochar “a book of distilled simplicity;” indeed, it is a paragon of concision. Was this your intention when you began writing? Is brevity a hallmark of your work?
 
I started out writing short stories, a form that demands much discipline, and all of my novels are relatively short. I like Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: that most of the story is beneath the surface, like an iceberg. That does not mean I am always able to live up to that ideal in my writing. But I try not to say a word more than necessary.

3. You were trained as an engineer and worked as one for many years while writing on the side. What was that like?
 
Literature is my heart and soul. But since it is not possible to make a living by writing in Kannada, I had to have a day job. I worked around this and created the space I needed to read and write regularly.
 
After holding a job for over twenty-five years, I quit last January to be a full-time writer. However, I must say I enjoyed my professional life immensely. It gave me a lot of exposure, took me around the world, and created opportunities to interact with very interesting people.

4. Your mother tongue is Konkani and you are fluent in English, yet you write only in Kannada. Why is that?
 
I have written non-fiction in other languages, but fiction writing requires a very deep engagement with the language. When I started writing, Kannada was the language with which I had the strongest emotional and intellectual preoccupation. Therefore, it was natural for me to write fiction in Kannada.
 
Through language, a fiction writer seeks to touch and grasp unknown dimensions of life. Many times, I am surprised by what appears on the pages of my stories and novels. This is the pleasure and magic of writing. I have this pleasure only when I write in Kannada.

5. How does it feel to be the author of the first Kannada novel to be published in the United States?
 
I am delighted. With the publication of this novel in the United States, I hope to find a wider readership that comes from a different cultural background.

6. Do you feel that polylingual writers have an advantage over those who think, speak, and write only one language?
 
Yes, there is certainly an advantage. I know four languages. In the part of India that I come from, most people know at least three. In my everyday life, I translate all the time–either explicitly or in my mind. While writing, many times I translate from Konkani to Kannada and English to Kannada. Fortunately, I am not conscious of this process, because otherwise I would not be able to write a word!
 
With every language comes a different ethos and set of values; a different way of perceiving the world. Moving between multiple languages has deeply influenced my language structure, the phrases I use, and more. In the process, my literary language has developed its own flavor. I do not think this would have been the case if I was monolingual.

7. Who are your favorite writers and literary influences?
 
I am influenced by many modern as well as ancient Kannada writers. Kannada has an unbroken literary tradition of over a thousand years. It is a privilege to have access to these texts, as well as to be part of a rich literary culture that celebrates Kannada texts and western literature with the same enthusiasm. Some of my favorite western writers include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tolstoy, Melville, Katherine Anne Porter, José Saramago, Hemingway, Joyce...I could go on and on.

8. You have translated numerous works from English into Kannada and worked closely with the translator of Ghachar Ghochar. Can you talk a bit about that process?
 
I believe the essence of translation lies in taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another. Words have memories, a history of their own. There are no two words with exactly the same meaning. To recreate the unspoken in another language, one needs to understand what went into making the original; then one must dismantle it and rebuild it in the other language.
 
Participating in the translation of my works has made me aware of my strengths and shortcomings as a writer. It is an opportunity like no other to explore and understand one’s own creative abilities.

9. The English version of Ghachar Ghochar contains a few passages that the original does not. What are they and why did you add them?
 
This the first time I have reopened a published work. My literary agent Shruti Debi nudged me; she believed there was more to the story. It took me six months to respond to her. I added passages describing the couple’s buying spree during their honeymoon and the narrator going through his wife’s wardrobe. Now, I can’t imagine the novel without those passages—though they don’t add up to more than a couple of pages. I am grateful to Shruti for challenging me.

10. What are you working on now?
 
I am working on a novel and a play. I am also working with Srinath Perur, the translator of Ghachar Ghochar, as he translates another of my novels into English.