A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores: On Ghachar Ghochar

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By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2017

Troubles — 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 legs: ghachar ghochar.

All families are their own countries, 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.”

Anita is repulsed by her new husband’s passivity and the family’s brutal, bullying tactics. “She would need to have lived through those earlier days with us,” the narrator laments. “When the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances. Without that reality behind her, it’s all a matter of empty principle.”

Shanbhag is excellent on the inner logic of families, and of language, how even the most innocent phrases come freighted with history. In the book’s funniest set piece, the narrator’s mother tells him she’s cooking him a special breakfast. He recognizes her announcement for what it is — a declaration of war — and flees the house. His mother has chosen to make this particular dish because the smell of it nauseates Anita. Anita takes the bait, the narrator’s sister is drawn into the quarrel, then his father. The powder keg explodes.

“Ghachar Ghochar” is one of the first books written in Kannada — a language with around 40 million speakers — to be published in America. And much about its provenance and its passage into English is distinct — it’s the product of a true collaboration between Shanbhag and Perur, a first-time translator whose interest in this kind of work came not from his closeness to the language but his distance. He felt divorced from his mother tongue, he told me, and hoped translation would help him find his way back. For 18 months, author and translator worked on the 119-page book, taking it apart in Kannada and putting it back together in English — lightly editing it here and there, even adding a scene or two.

The actual translation wasn’t the tricky part, even though Kannada is a very different language — looser, more permissive about repetition. In fact, the translation brought certain elements into sharper focus. To establish the past tense in Kannada requires some elaborate grammatical framing. But English is efficient and allows the action of the book to move as a mind moves, to leap between present and past. If anything, translating the book from Kannada into Indian English (for a version published in India last year) proved less complicated than the subsequent jump from Indian to American English; small turns of phrase evocative to the Indian reader — “washing vessels” for washing dishes, “iron box” for iron — had to be tweaked. Perur did retain one lovely local detail. The family is accused of using umbrellas to shelter them from moonlight. In the village, where no one can afford umbrellas or knows what they are, the nouveau riche put them to absurd uses.

The real work of translation is always in carrying over the unsaid — never more important than in a book like “Ghachar Ghochar,” where the characters are impelled by forces within themselves, their families and their communities that feel so furtive, even unspeakable. For Perur it was a matter of establishing a voice that could be convincingly savvy and blind. He wrote and rewrote the early pages until he settled on a tone he believed could carry the novel.

The book in our hands is elegant, lean, balletic — but how can we know if the essence of the original has been communicated? When this question has been put to Vivek Shanbhag, who has himself also worked as a translator, he has recalled one particular passage from the novel. It is, notably, one of the scenes he added specifically for the translation. The narrator’s wife has gone out of town and he is idly rifling through her closet, touching her clothes, her jewelry. He catches scent of her suddenly. He presses his face into her saris to smell more, but the closer he gets, the more the smell retreats. “Whatever fragrance the whole wardrobe had was missing in the individual clothes it held. The more keenly I sought it, the further it receded. A strange mixture of feelings I could not quite grasp — love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration — flooded through me until it seemed like I would break.”

The essence of a novel, Shanbhag seems to imply, floats like fragrance through the book. It is the emanation of the sum of its parts and cannot be isolated. And perhaps any attempt to single it out is beside the point. Translation isn’t merely an act of transportation, after all, of carrying something over. It’s asymptotic (“the more keenly I sought it, the further it receded”), a kind of contented yearning and act of ardor every bit as mysterious as the narrator’s efforts to find his beloved among her belongings.

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