Ghachar Ghochar – a novel by Vivek Shanbhag

ghachar ghochar

“How did I slip into this way of life? I can only look back and wonder.”

I went into this book “blind” – not really knowing what it was about or even where I had heard of it.** Given the type of story this is, however, my reading experience actually might be enhanced by that situation, as it’s only sneakily revealed just how disturbing it truly is. It’s told as a kind of tiered flashback by (yet another!) unnamed narrator who is currently sitting in “Coffee House” – his refuge from his family and wife. The waiter at the coffee shop, Vincent, acts almost as an oracle to the narrator, who goes there seeking wisdom or advice from him. The narrator himself is rather shiftless – an idler who doesn’t seem to have an independent bone in his body – and it was easy for me to immediately not like him very much.

His story is one of a “family group” that once lived together in a very small home until, after its current, aging patriarch has lost his job, the narrator’s uncle has an idea to start up a business selling spices. It takes off and, with it, naturally so do the family’s fortunes. At the time the book begins, they are living (still all together) in a much nicer house. The narrator has even gotten married (“he never even held a woman’s hand until his wedding day”) but his wife has become dissatisfied with his not really “earning his way” in the family. (He does receive a salary and has a ‘lofty-sounding title’ in the new company but he doesn’t really do anything and rarely even shows up to “the office.”) I think he and the family could have tolerated her disdain, though, if she hadn’t also interfered when a “threat” to the family’s status quo presents itself via a woman showing up at their house asking to see the uncle (a pregnant mistress perhaps?)… The family feels that the uncle, having become the major provider, cannot be disturbed by any outside “distractions.” I think the uncle is very well aware of this and takes full advantage of it. The family treats her unkindly and basically runs her off, with Anita, the narrator’s wife, being the sole “dissenting opinion” in the matter. This is apparently intolerable, though how much so is not revealed until the book’s final pages…

One thing I admired about the book is that it’s one of those that surprises you – and does so to such a degree that I was unable to resist the urge to look back in the book searching for “clues” that might have led me to anticipate what was truly going on with this family.

I also think the book could be considered to be a warning about the corrupting nature of money, or especially newly acquired money. One of my favorite quotations from the book was the following:

“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.”

I cannot neglect mentioning that I loved the concept expressed in the novel that Ghachar Ghochar (generally meaning “hopelessly entangled” – see book cover above) was a phrase that only existed in the family of Anita, and the fact that her sharing those words with the narrator was a kind of intimacy. As the narrator says:

“Of course, those words could never mean to me all that they meant to her; nor would I ever utter them as naturally as she did. But she had shared with me this secret phrase that didn’t exist in any language, and now I was one of only five people in the world who knew it.”

It also got me thinking – are there any “invented” words or phrases that only my family or friends only used/use among ourselves? I thought of a couple, but one that still shows up from time to time at family gatherings is “defanon” (pronounced like “deaf” and “anon” strung together) which my (very young at the time) brother used once when telling a story, concluding – after escaping a dangerous situation – that “I got out of there like defanon!” I think it was a convolution of real words he heard once, but whatever its genesis, thereafter any hasty exit from a predicament in my family’s subsequent storytelling included the simile “like defanon!”  Gee whiz, now I’m wondering if I should even have shared this story, since this word may now get out “loose” in the world… I guess for once I can be glad that probably only a few people actually read my blog regularly. 🙂  What about YOU?  Does your family have any special words or phrases that no one else would understand? Care to “out” them here and share with me?

Ghachar Ghochar is a surprisingly short book as well, which makes it an easy one for me to recommend to others. 🙂 A definite five-star read for me.

(below: the author with an alternate cover of the book picturing the ants which were some of the “clue providers” I noted on the second pass)


**One thing I always try to do – but often fail to do – is make a note of where I have heard about a book that I’ve added to my TBR list. This book is a case where I failed to make a note of it, and now I can’t remember. (Though I want to say I heard of it via NPR or maybe the Sunday edition of New York Times, the book section of which I occasionally will peruse online over breakfast on Sunday mornings.)  If it was an individual who recommended this to me, and you’re reading this, please remind me so I can give you credit – and so that I may THANK you. 🙂