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Bring up the bodies

Nilanjana S Roy 

Nilanjana S Roy

The Indian domestic novel has long taproots, many of them carefully nurtured by male writers as much as women: Rajendra Yadav's (The Endless Sky), Saratchandra's (The Final Question) or O Chandu Menon's Indulekha.

As a general aside, here is a truth about novels that centre on the home - both sexes write them, but it's only when women tackle this territory that they are belittled for being too domestic, too narrow, too safe in their ambitions. And yet, writers (of all gender orientations) who tackle "home" know what rich quicksand this is: home is where humanity goes to be itself, with all the yearning, the ferment, the danger, the joys, the irrevocable mistakes, the risks and the unvarnished truths that accompany "being yourself".

Vivek Shanbhag's Ghachar, runs to just 115 pages, but it's one of those novels that are bigger on the inside than on the outside. The narrator is at Coffee House; he has no real reason for coming here, except as respite from domestic skirmishes: "But who can admit to doing something for no reason in times like these, in a city as busy as this one?" For a moment, you think that his story will be moored at Coffee House, that he will observe the world from the safety of those tables, with Vincent the waiter pulling everyone's quarrels and meetings into some sort of narrative order.

Ghachar Ghochar
But has a lovely riverine curve to it, and the story slides easily into introductions of the narrator's family. They used to live in a small house with "four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments", before prosperity descends upon them, which his Appa enjoys "with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved". They shift from a life of oil lamps, where the purchase of a gas stove is a luxury, to a new house, crammed with expensive mismatched furniture.

There are two big changes in the lives of Amma, Appa, Chikkappa, Malati, the narrator and his wife Anita: wealth changes the relationship between the family and its possessions, they have the luxury of treating things, and then people, carelessly. And they live without the ants who are the only legitimate tenants of a certain kind of rented house in India. In their old house, the ants gathered around rings left by tea cups on the floor, squeezed into boxes where the lids hadn't been shut tight, raced in lines along the window sill. "In time we began to be openly cruel to ants… became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants."

In Shanbhag's hands, the Indian family is revealed in layers; as one layer peels away, what lies beneath is left raw and exposed. Violence is part of living, of running a business - even a small one like Sona Masala - part of family life, of excluding a brother's former lover from the circle of the loved and accepted, part of terrorising in-laws under the pretext of claiming back one's inheritance. Cruelty lies strewn around the pages of Ghachar, Ghochar - an evocative term for the inevitable ghich-pich of human relationships that is explained beautifully in the book - like rubbish heaps; small and large incidents that readers negotiate just as we do broken foothpaths and scattered garbage in our daily lives. You only stop when the rot, and the violence, piles up in sufficient quantities to obstruct your way forward.

But family is the thing you cannot escape because you don't want to; the narrator doesn't know what to say about himself that isn't connected with family, and in this predicament, he mirrors so many other Indians. Privacy, solitude and individuality fit uneasily with family life; it is only in a moment at home, when his wife has left for a while, that the narrator stumbles across "a strange mixture of feelings" that lie outside his grasp - "love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration". And this emerges when he is going through his wife's wardrobe, almost stealthily, discovering a person who is, like everyone else in the family, possessed of a secret self that has little to do with her family role.

About the only thing missing from is a translator's note; Srinath Perur translated Shanbhag's novel from Kannada. I have no access to the original, but Perur's translation carries what I imagine is the quiet observational quality as well as the repressed electricity of the original, and it would have added to this book to have one writer known for his ear for voice talk about another who has the same gifts. Despite this omission, Ghochar is one of the most striking novels you'll read this decade - don't miss its persuasive, slowly unsettling world.

First Published: Sat, January 16 2016. 00:08 IST