A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores

Parul Sehgal in The New York Times:

BookTroubles — like ants — seldom walk alone. In GHACHAR GHOCHAR (Penguin, $15, paper), a new novella by the Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, a family is besieged by both and develops a taste for responding with imaginative cruelty. Sudden wealth only makes them more ruthless. “It’s true what they say — it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us,” the nameless narrator realizes, a little late in the day. “When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.” 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. The Great Indian Novel has almost always referred to a particular kind of book: big, baggy, polyphonic and, crucially, written in English — “Midnight’s Children,” say, or “The God of Small Things.” Admirers of this austere little tale, who include Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo, have compared Shanbhag to Chekhov. Folded into the compressed, densely psychological portrait of this family is a whole universe: a parable of rising India, an indictment of domestic violence, a taxonomy of ants and a sly commentary on translation itself.

The title is a nonsense phrase, meaning tangled beyond repair. Our narrator (who, with his excellent intentions and total lack of initiative, recalls Nick Carraway) hears it for the first time on his honeymoon. He has pounced on his new wife, Anita, in their hotel room, but can’t untie the drawstring of her sari’s petticoat. It’s all knotted up — ghachar ghochar, she says, reaching for a word from her childhood, a word invented by her little brother to describe a snarled kite string. The narrator is thrilled by this intimacy, to be welcomed into her secret language. In the morning, he gestures at the disheveled bedsheets, their entwined, with their own idioms, rites and taboos. Anita is not the only character who has grown up within the borders of a particular culture, yet when the narrator tries to share something of his own world, as new lovers will, Anita is understandably less charmed. To survive years of privation, his peculiar family has learned to move as one. The narrator can scarcely extricate himself in his own mind: “What can I say of myself that is only about me and not tied up with the others? Wherever I try to start, I quickly run into one of three women . . . each more fearsome than the other.” Everyone has a specific role. His uncle runs the family business, a spice packaging company. His fearsome mother and sister fight the family’s battles and keep his father, a co-owner of the business, appeased until he makes a will. The narrator’s job is to stay out of the way, mainly, “killing time with great dedication.”

More here.