Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

In brief: The unnamed narrator takes us through the changes in his life from growing up poor in India to striking it rich in the family spice business.

The good: It’s compulsive reading, you never know which way the story will turn next.

The not-so-good: A quick read.

Why I chose it: Sounded different, thanks to Allen & Unwin for the ARC.

Year: 2017

Pages: 119 (ARC)

Translator: Srinath Perur (from the Kannada)

RRP: $24.99 AUD (available May)

Publisher: Faber & Faber (Allen & Unwin)

Setting: India

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Several months ago now, I read about Ghachar Ghochar and thought it sounded like an interesting, quirky tale. I enjoy books set in India, although I’m guilty of not seeking them out often enough. Fortunately, this slim volume arrived in my letterbox just before a convoluted public transport journey – the perfect time to read!

But what is ‘ghachar ghochar’? It’s a made up word, meaning everything is higgledy piggledy, not quite right. From the opening pages, we start to understand that everything is not quite right in the narrator’s world. He sits at a place called Coffee House, which does serve coffee, but it’s also a bar and restaurant. The narrator goes here multiple times a day, to sit and observe and occasionally engage in mundane conversation with the waiter, Vincent. The narrator is lost, but how did he get to that point? The story then unfolds in neat, clever prose that tells so much in few words. It’s the story of growing up poor, then striking it rich as the family’s spice business becomes successful. The narrator reflects on what seems to him simpler problems of his youth – insects in the house, sharing a room with others – with almost wistfulness. Times were tough, but the family were together.

Reflecting on the family’s new wealth seems to only bring unwanted drama. Women crying out the front for his uncle, a wife who he must confess to that he doesn’t have – or need – a job. Everything and everyone in the family has become more distant. The narrator himself feels superfluous to the business, to his wife, to everything. So much feeling is conveyed in simple, short sentences here that I can’t help but be amazed at Vivek Shanbhag’s prowess as a writer (and that of Srinath Perur as the translator). The prose is beautiful, evoking scenes quickly in my mind and showing just what we need to know of the characters, no more. It’s a wonderful book to read, reflect on and read again.

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