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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.