Investigating violence

Print edition : June 24, 2016

April 22, 1987: A view of a tree-lined avenue in the Vijayanagar neighbourhood. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A view of Cubbon Park and other buildings from Hudson Circle in Bengaluru. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

A novel that asks searching questions about contemporary urban living in a family setting.

Ghachar Ghochar is a story about the violence people are capable of, especially against women. The novel begins with two stories about women. The first story is told to the narrator by Chitra, a friend who works with a women’s welfare organisation. It is about a case she is handling. A woman had been turned out of the house in the middle of the night by her mother-in-law. She had to spend the night outside. “While the woman shivered outside, her husband and his parents and sister all slept warm in their blankets…. At dawn she hid her shame from the milkman by pretending she was waiting for the milk.”

The second story is recounted directly by the narrator and took place in his family home. A woman waited hesitantly outside the house for a while before knocking on the door. She asked for the narrator’s uncle, who declined to meet her. The narrator’s mother then asked the woman to leave, and when she had refused to leave without seeing him, the narrator’s mother and sister screamed abuses at her. Two stories, about two women: one who had been turned out of the house, the other, who was not even allowed in. “On that day,” reflects the narrator, “I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women.”

It is ironic that the narrator should say this because he rarely speaks up within the narrative and certainly not in this situation. Despite his male privilege, and despite his evident distaste for the cruel words of his mother and sister, he chooses to remain silent. It is his wife, Anita, who speaks up and tells him that his silence amounts to tacit support for the abuse. “It’s enough for a man to simply stand there and watch. It’s worse than shouting at her yourself,” she says.

The most interesting, if deeply unlikeable, character in Vivek Shanbhag’s novel is the narrator. He is reflective, insightful and observant, everything a narrator should be, but he is also morally repugnant. In a family that closes ranks on outsiders, he remains passive, silent, a fence-sitter. Whenever things get tense he responds by escaping to the neutral location of the coffee house to reflect upon his circumstances. He also used to meet Chitra there, but when the stories from her work with abused women make him too uncomfortable, he changes the timings of his visits and escapes their relationship.

Indeed, the coffee house is where we first meet him; it is also, we realise with a start, where the novel ends. In a different novel, this coffee house could be any one of the city’s cafes-turned-pubs that offer its harried inhabitants an intermediate space outside traditional family structures and impersonal modern workplaces to begin conversations, build friendships, or fall in love. But for the narrator of Ghachar Ghochar, his family is his whole world and he is unable to separate his individual fate from that of the family. Thus, the entire novel is the story of the near-fall, and then the rise and rise of his family, recounted with obsessive clarity by the narrator as he sits in the coffee house.

At first the novel appears to be a straightforward elegy for the old Bangalore of gardens and gentility. The first paragraph refers to “old photographs… on the sturdy square pillars in the centre of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago”.

Bangalore had a population of four lakh in 1941. Today the city’s population is well over one crore. One out of every six people in Karnataka lives in this city. A Bengaluru taxi driver once told me that it is only in the areas outside the city that one sees a recognisable terrain; inside the city, the streetscapes are constantly changing. The city has burgeoned beyond recognition.

The narrator’s family has not just survived but profited from this growth. At first they were like so many other working-class joint families, his parents (Appa and Amma), his sister Malati, his father’s younger brother (Chikkappa), and the narrator himself, all living precariously on his father’s limited salary as a tea salesman. The narrator describes their first home with a touch of wistfulness: “In one of those teeming lower-middle-class areas of Bangalore… four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments.” He lists the few simple belongings in their house in warm, vivid detail: a wooden bench, on which his father’s younger brother sleeps and under which everyone’s footwear is kept; a cricket bat; an umbrella; two folding steel chairs. A gas stove. Such is the list of their possessions.

When his father loses his job as a result of outsourcing, an ironic touch in light of the outsourcing from elsewhere that has driven Bengaluru’s growth, a sudden decision by Chikkappa to start a spice retail business propels the family into unimaginable affluence. They soon move into a large house, fill it with mismatched furniture and spend lavishly on Malati’s wedding. “We simply didn’t know how to stop.”

It is at this point that the narrative takes a sharp turn, into an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. Chikkappa, with his shady deals, becomes the central point around which the family functions. When Malati’s marriage breaks down, Chikkappa sends thugs to intimidate her in-laws. While once they were a close-knit family, now uneasy distances grow between the members. They leave certain things unsaid and pretend not to notice the darker side of the business. Incrementally, after each incident, the narrator stays silent, until it reaches the stage where it is no longer possible for him to speak out. It is not that he is unaware; for example, he is very much aware that his mild-mannered, unworldly father needs to be kept in good humour to prevent him from giving away or willing away his share of the business. As a narrator he is attentive; he is even ashamed of his silence. Yet he does not speak.

As is often the case in such novels, the family house plays a significant role in the novel’s imagination. First, there is the small cramped space of their first home, in which there was a tremendous sense of closeness among the family members. Despite their modest income, or at least partly as a result of it, there was a strong moral underpinning to their life then. The narrator remembers one accounting crisis which led to his father and uncle sitting up all night to tally the accounts. In one of the novel’s loveliest scenes, the next morning the family celebrates with a rare, special breakfast of akki roti. “It felt like we had all come together and averted a calamity.”

At the same time, even in those days of modest means and struggle, there was another, darker side to life. Infestations of ants suddenly began to appear in the house, around rings left by teacups, around dosa pans, around coconut shells. The family members begin to kill the ants indiscriminately. One night, the narrator, then a boy, wakes up to find his mother seated on her haunches, facing the wall, tracking a line of ants with a flashlight. The siege by the ants persists, and the family’s anger grows savage. “In time we began to be openly cruel to ants. We saw them as demons come to swallow our home and became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants. We might have changed houses since, but habits are harder to change.”

At this point, while reading the novel, I turned back to look again at the arresting image on the cover: a crowd of black ants swarming over a coffee stain on a saucer. The narrative had suddenly acquired another, more disturbing layer, suggesting ugliness ahead.

The second house, into which the family moves after its new-found prosperity, is large and sprawling. Whether it increases their happiness the narrator does not say, but he does suggest that it increases the distance between the family members, so much so that when the narrator thinks he can hear his sister crying in her room after finally breaking with her husband, he ignores the sound and proceeds to his own room.

Even in such a large house there is a lack of privacy and a growing feeling of claustrophobia. Much of the novel itself is narrated by the narrator in the first person plural—“we”, referring to the joint family as a single indivisible unit. There is a point in the novel when the narrator consciously makes an effort to talk about himself. “Now, what can I say of myself that is only about me and not tied up with the others?” he wonders. But he finds that there is nothing he can say: he has no life outside the family, no fulfilling work, no identity that is not inextricably tied with the identity of his family.

But not everyone in the novel is morally corrupt. Against the passive figure of the narrator and his dysfunctional family, we come up against the active and assertive figures of Chitra and Anita—women who speak clearly and work for justice and who believe that there is a moral imperative for what they do.

Unlike the guilt-ridden, anxiety-ridden narrator, they are fearless and see the law as a way to do the right thing rather than as something to be evaded.

Further, Anita’s conception of work itself is not merely as a means of livelihood or a source of honest income, though this is important, she remarks, but as a wholesome and fulfilling vocation, a form of useful engagement with the world.

Even the title of the novel, a phrase drawn from Anita’s family idiom, suggests that other, more compassionate ways of life are possible.

Finally, and not least of all, over 3.3 lakh crimes against women were reported in India in 2014, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, of which more than 8,000 were listed as dowry deaths. Over 15 per cent of all suicide victims in 2014 were housewives. Contemporary fiction cannot avert its gaze from these numbers. A key element of the novel, therefore, for me, is the spotlight that it turns on violence against women —not only subtle microaggressions but also physical and verbal abuse, as well as actual or threatened acts of violence.

This slim, powerful novel by Vivek Shanbhag comes to us in a skilful English translation from the original Kannada by Srinath Perur. Asking searching questions about contemporary urban life, it is the kind of novel that appears once in many years.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is an IAS officer and is currently based in Bengaluru.