The family that ‘preys’ together

Annie Samson
Friday, 25 January 2019

The lead characters make Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar intriguing, scary and yet unputdownable

It is clearly misdirection that Vivek Shanbagh has employed in his slim but engaging Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar. The fictional device proves to be apt opening to rope us readers into a layered narrative revolving around the life of the unnamed narrator who begins his story in a 100-year-old spacious and high-ceilinged café called Coffee House, which now also serves as a bar. 

The place evokes a gentler, more leisurely bygone era where turbaned waiters with extravagant cummerbunds attend to patrons. One oracular waiter of the Coffee House, Vincent, is equated to an exalted being for his ability to inject sublime meanings into his day-to-day utterances. Our narrator is addicted to Vincent’s utterances, which seem to hold profound meaning for him.

Gradually, as if peeling an onion, we get acquainted with the members of a family which has moved from an ant-infested house in suburbs of Bengaluru into a spacious bungalow in an upscale locality in the city as its fortunes look up. In the slow-paced and riveting narration, we get ringside seats to witness the goings-on in the house.

There is Appa, the father who used to be a salesman for a tea company and whose modest income barely provided for the family of five of the narrator, while he was growing up. After Appa is forced to accept voluntary retirement, his younger brother, Chikkappa to the narrator, starts Sona Masala, a spice business. With time and the business flourishing, the family moves out from the small train-compartment like rented house to a two-storeyed spacious home in an upmarket locality. 

There is a description here of how the narrator’s family gets used to dealing with the swarming ants — using all sots of powders and poisons and then to openly inflicting violence on them by burning, drowning or flattening the ants. This violence and brutality towards the ants is among the many clues scattered throughout the book of a deeper unsettling nature of the family, which has no qualms in cutting off those who pose a threat to its unity and prosperity.

An eerie sinister feeling lingers once you finish reading the book. I had to read it once again — not at all difficult considering how slim the book is — just to enjoy the writing and understand the ending.

The second read was helpful in discovering the author’s misdirection in the opening chapter and the gradual build-up of the story towards the chilling finale. The translation is so good that one never feels anything jarring in the story. 

The fiction translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur was first brought out in India by Harper Collins. It is available in paperback and hardback.

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