Literature and history

Why ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is the one novel that (presciently) sums up the state of the world today

Think of the liberal elite getting snarled while events take their own course.

At the risk of being lynched by the hordes who are terminally Angry Online, I would say that 2016 was something of a logical conclusion to an extended period of a certain luxuriant passivity. We saw Britain returning to an unsophisticated nativism, America electing a prolific sex offender, a host of micro-aggressions against various minorities making the news every month, and now France looks like it’s going to elect a prime minister who seems more appropriate as the admin of a Facebook page for Race Science enthusiasts.

During this time, the pundit class, the commentariat and pollsters finally unravelled themselves as a class of society whose conception of the world and their surroundings could be compared to that of an entitled housecat.

How we’re adjusting

All of these incidents had stern precedents in the past, both near and distant, Turkey, India and the Philippines moving to elect belligerently insane strongmen, and factors like neoliberal economic values, the spread of global capitalism promising us all the world, eventually offering an Uber ride from the airport for a select few. Indeed, all the journalistic buzzwords of “fake news” and “post-truth” have been around for ages (think “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and all the just, noble wars that the past few decades has seen and condoned), while journalists desperately bandy them about in a feeble attempt to grapple with the ground giving way beneath their feet.

Politicians lie to us compulsively, never offering a vision for the future but peddling a paranoid idea of the present. Financial institutions have only become far more emboldened in carrying on their merry business of making this world a cut-throat, individualistic, living hell. The really terrible part is that most of us are extremely aware of all this, and the previous staid, clichéd passages have merely been an exercise in summarising and organising concerns that we’ve all had, some of which transcend traditional Left- Right binaries of discourse.

This is because we’re a “hypernormalised” bunch, as the BBC documentarian Adam Curtis points out, borrowing the term from a Russian writer writing around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union to describe a society that is fully aware that things are not normal, but has acclimatised to the ethical absurdity of their situation. Along with the hypernormalised, there are those who feel they’ve been slighted, humiliated and left out of the grand narrative, leading to what Pankaj Mishra astutely diagnoses as a sense of ressentiment, or “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts”, as Nietzche defined it.

The novel gets it

Both hypernormalisation and ressentiment constitute some of the larger themes of Ghachar Ghochar written by Vivek Shanbhag in Kannada and translated into English by the writer Srinath Perur, which is easily one of the finest novels to come out this year. At 115 pages, its slightness belies its depth as it traces the trajectory of a lower middle-class Bangalore family climbing though echelons of society after starting an enterprise that packages and distributes wholesale spices. This is done through the lens of an introspective, perceptive narrator who suggests “It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly: when it grows it becomes brash and has its way with us.”

The Bangalore setting is important. Over the past few years, the city has seen primeval bouts of rage directed towards the North-Eastern community, African students and a host of inanimate objects of Tamil provenance. However, Ghachar Gochar is interesting in that it offers us the story of a native Kannadiga family which gained social and financial mobility as the city prospered, as opposed to the common narrative of techie outsiders swooping in, making great fortunes and perpetuating a grotesque inequality.

Shanbhag doesn’t go for the money shot – he evokes Bangalore rather subtly through the city’s unique rhythms, the talk of rusk from a particular bakery, the maladroit architecture of its lower income housing and most astonishingly, he portrays Koshy’s as the narrator’s primary adda without slipping into priapisms of cheap romanticism that every Bangalore writer is liable to.

No agency

The title, Ghachar Ghochar, which is a nonsense phrase translating into a situation that is irreparably tangled, betrays the narrator’s fatalism, helplessness and passivity. Through the course of the novel, we see that the bonds he shares with his family go from the familial to one that resembles the association one has with a cartel as the family’s finances soar. When his uncle’s lover appears at the threshold of the new, sprawling family home with a tiffin box of his uncle’s favourite red masoor dal curry, he watches and sympathises with the woman as she is shooed away crudely by the matriarch of the household, while the men, including his uncle, simply do nothing and make themselves invisible.

When confronted about the incident by his strong willed, conscientious wife Anita, he seems to imply that he struck a bold stance when he says “I didn’t abuse her.”. He also sits quietly at the dinner table as his family descends to needlessly employing thugs to achieve their various ends, all the while acknowledging that it doesn’t sit well with his sense of ethics. This inertia carries on to his workplace, a warehouse where he occupies the seat of a director and visits only with the express purpose of catching up with his newspaper reading.

The liberal elite, who have benefitted immensely from the structure of contemporary society, suffer from the same strand of hypernormalised inertia. Yet we somehow cling to the idea that we can tinker and whittle away until we reach some sort of amicable utopia. Even when big ideas that directly attempt to topple power make their way to the mainstream liberal imagination (the Occupy movement, for instance), we manage to focus too much on the process of dissent without a tangible vision for the future.

Perhaps the height of this sense of liberal gumption was seen when the Democratic Party decided to run with the slogan “America Is Already Great” in a deeply divided nation just waiting to burst at the seams. Real change will take a lot more than closing our eyes and pretending the big bad monsters don’t exist. They do and they always have under the surface – it will certainly take a lot, lot more than a Lena Dunham Op-Ed, and it will require that the moneyed classes give up the numbing comforts they are used to.

I simply don’t see that happening in my lifetime, so all I can anxiously say is, “Ghachar Ghochar, Ghachar Ghochar”.

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