Behind the Book: the power of leaving things unsaid
We often praise books for their immense detail and beautiful imagery, but sometimes, leaving things unsaid is just as powerful. Ghachar Ghochar is refreshingly different, and requires you to read between the lines.
Ghachar Ghochar is a novella written by Vivek Shanbhag, originally published in 2013 in Kannada, a South Indian language spoken in the state of Karnataka. The novella was later translated into English by Srinath Perur in 2015. Though Konkani is Shanbhag’s mother tongue, he has only ever written fiction in Kannada. He feels as though writing fiction requires a deeper engagement with language than other forms of writing. He suggests that he has a stronger emotional and intellectual investment in Kannada, which allows him to be more expressive in it than in any other language.
This book manages to convey so much in as little as 124 pages, yet the story is extremely satisfying if you know where to look for it. Ghachar Ghochar’s main strength is that it showcases the power of leaving things unsaid. The complicated, dysfunctional family that you’re thrust into is prefaced with only a very short introduction, soon after which you are left to your own devices in interpreting the characters. The novella works to empower the reader by letting you read between the lines rather than handing you everything on a silver platter. It is a quality that I feel has been fading away since the rise of genres that require immense world-building and detail to function.
So if you’re looking to sneak in a quick read during the next few calm weeks of semester break, look no further.
The story is set in Bengaluru, India, and explores the changing dynamics of the narrator’s family. Our unnamed narrator briefly reminisces about “just how beautiful this city was a century ago”, but Shanbhag doesn’t waste his time with lengthy imagery of the location. Rather, the story revels in the small moments between characters that we may overlook in real life.
Ghachar Ghochar is told through the narrator recollecting past events as he sits in a coffee house, observing the peculiar nature of a waiter. This opening chapter does feel slightly overdrawn if I’m being honest, especially since it fails to hold much significance for the rest of the narrative. The coffee house functions as a framing device but quickly becomes forgotten in the midst of the family drama.
The narrator begins to recount his relationship with his wife, Anita, and how his family was forced to adjust in order to accomodate for her. The women in the family - his mother, recently divorced elder sister, and Anita - play a large role in challenging the protagonist’s values. All three women are incredibly well realised. Shanbhag does not idealise them in any way, they are portrayed with realistic flaws yet are all uniquely different. His mother always makes sure that no one goes to bed hungry yet the sting of her words causes a gaping wound. Anita’s upbringing causes the protagonist to confront his own assumptions but she has the habit of taking things too far at the wrong time. The novella does well in portraying the complex relationships between women, which only hurts more when a certain brutal incident firmly forces a wedge between these women, one that permanently changes the dynamic of the entire family. Here, Shanbhag subtly hints at the reality of internalised misogyny when the narrator ponders, “On that day I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women.”
The exploration of misogyny is furthered throughout the novella and although India may seem a world away for many readers, the observations made on the issue are quite revealing on how far we may or may not have come.
What I also find interesting about this novella is the way it explores the effects that money can have on such a tight-knit family. At its roots, this is a rags to riches story, but in its entirety, it is so much more. As the central family becomes wealthier, we see their ties begin to disintegrate. They no longer consult each other about purchases, whereas before, something as little as a new pair of pants would require budgeting.
It’s amazing how much information you can gain with the smallest details of the intricacy of everyday life.
I had the incredible opportunity to meet with the author earlier this year. Similar to the protagonist’s nature, Shanbhag himself is quite timid and soft spoken, raising questions about the basis of the character. When asked during a Q&A session about how he imagined the story and whether he had experienced some version of the events, given its realism, he revealed that, “I don’t think I write about my experience. You experience as you write. If I understand everything, there is no need to write. It is immaterial if it is physically happening or not.”
Shanbhag also described the process of translating as something uniquely challenging. Certain phrases in Kannada cannot translate to English, so the challenge lies in sacrificing accuracy of translation for accuracy of meaning. The differences in the tone and the sentence structures between Kannada and English cause for a slight reworking of the original story. Several scenes have been written specifically for the English version in order for certain ideas to translate appropriately. One of the only things that saddens me about this book is that I will not get to experience it as it was originally intended. Perhaps the same way in which the works of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka, although great, are not preserved in their initial form at the hands of translation.
If you’re worried about reading this book and not understanding the culture, fear not. Ghachar Ghochar is an excellent entry point for anyone willing to expand their reading list and peer into another culture for just over a hundred pages. As long as you’re ready to put in just a little bit more work to read between the lines. Don’t become comfortable in your assumptions, allow yourself to be challenged by the story. By no means are you spoon-fed answers. In part, the derivation of meaning is in your hands as this book requires an active readership rather than a passive one. Though certain terms may be alien, they happen to make sense, whether you know the language or not.
In fact, ghachar ghochar itself is a nonsense term. It has no meaning - in Kannada, English, or any other language - but once you delve into this novella, you’ll realise it holds more meaning than initially thought.
Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.