At my touch, the striking cover of this book leapt up and stood suspended at my eye-level. As if to escape this loggerhead-state, I bored through its skin amid a question – what does this image wish to convey? Unity? Mess? Greed? Asymmetry? Power? Victory? Abandonment? Confusion? Culture? Habit? All? None? Not quite able to coalesce all these floating words into a single bubble of appreciable mass, I threw aside my pondering gauntlet and opened the first page. I began reading, and read a little more; continued reading and didn’t pause till it was the last page. Once done, I closed the book with trembling hands and clutched it tight for what seemed like a long time. It had become a precious possession.
Ghachar Ghochar is a colloquial phrase meaning ‘messy’ or ‘entangled’. The common connotations have their bearing on life, events and relationships; and in this book, on a family. This tale follows the trail each of the six family members charts out, during the ascent of the family from a middle-class lifestyle to a wealthy, high-society one.
Appa* enjoys our current prosperity with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved. He’s given to quoting a proverb that says wealth shouldn’t strike suddenly like a visitation, but instead grow gradually like a tree.
As the family nucleus begins to feel the forces of societal and cultural dynamics, our gentle, simpleton narrator, a son of this family, is sucked into a tenebrous whirlpool of prosperity and dilemma, fighting the internecine pull of avarice and egomania. The clashes of principles, the displacement of priorities, the upheaval in expectations and the soaring of temperaments erect a series of invisible walls, within the walls of the household, holding their own by the continuous tending of monetary venom.
The splendour of this work doesn’t lie as much in the plot as it does in the narrative; a narrative exemplified by the acutely heightened sense of observation, of aesthetic, cultural and psychological nature. By cleverly deploying a well-ordered collage of ‘a bright patch behind a dusty calendar’,‘a ring of stain beneath a sipped cup of tea’, ‘a curd-smeared hand going dry during a tense conversation over dinner’ and many similar visuals, Shanbhag highlights, almost in an unassuming, understated way, the cultural nuances of a Indian Kannada family. The narrator, in his late-twenties or early-thirties perhaps, is the quintessential conchoidal make, grappling for balance and soaking in chaos with equal gusto. That a closely-knit family fabric can sustain independent creases and tears, visible only to its custodians and continue maintaining oneness in the outsider’s eyes finds a beautiful, photographic parallel in the ants’ trail:
It didn’t seem like they were here to find food. Nor did they have the patience to bite anyone. Left to themselves, they’d quickly haul to particles of mud and built nests here and there in the house. You could try scuttling them with a broom, but they’d get into a mad frenzy and climb up the broom and on to your arm. Before you knew it, they’d be all over you, even under your clothes. For days on end there would be a terrific invasion, and then one day you would wake up to find them gone. There was no telling why they came, where they went. I sometimes saw them racing in lines along the window sills in the front room, where there was nothing to eat. Perhaps they were on a mission of some sort, only passing through our house in self-important columns. But not once did I see the trail of a column, an ant that had no other ants behind it.
Such observational impeccability is just not the direct derivative of an extremely hungry eye but also of a consistently evaluating mind. Shanbhag doesn’t simply paint a picture for the reader to come, see, comment and leave; he renders the picture a voice. It is as if he calibrated the picture with a multi-dimensional brush so that at close proximity, the events would spring out of their base and present themselves upon you for further chiselling, your way. The equanimity to sacrifice an ornate climax in favour of a pragmatic one puts him, for me, in the league of R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond; one who chose to accord pride to the entangled mess of a life rather than an ironed plume of its dubious reflection.
[Note: *Appa means Father in Kannada]
[Edited on 14.01.17 – I met Mr Shanbhag at the Hindu Literature Festival, 2017, held at Chennai, India and found him every bit the keen observer and rich narrator that he emerges as, in this book. It was a pleasure!]
[Image courtesy brooklynartproject.com ]