The appeal of India for this restless soul: A reflection

Back from a month in India, I am struggling to reorient myself. The jet lag and the cold I thought I had shaken that has now morphed into a different version of moderate misery do not help. My brain is foggy. My body is trying to adjust to the twelve and a half hours I just gained back. My heart is sick with a longing to grasp again, just for a minute, whatever it is that I left behind. That I leave behind every time I return.

India has a strange charm. One I can’t quite place. I never imagined I would go there; I cannot pinpoint when the seed was sown. I do know that for years it was a secret wish, not bound to any  particular calling but simply a desire to go there. Last year’s chance decision to visit Seagull Books in Calcutta was an opening, this year I expanded my time and orbit, and met so many more people along the way. Had so many great conversations.

How is it, I ask myself again and again, that I can travel halfway around the world, and make more solid connections—new or renewed—in four weeks, than I can manage in an entire year in a city I have lived in for most of my life? Is it, perhaps, that I am able to be myself in a strange land, relax into a comfort with who I am in a place where I do not naturally belong? Why can I not bring that person back with me? Or at least feel at ease with him when I come home.

What is home, then? And why does this place fail to complete me? Why do I feel a home-away-from-homesickness weighing on me? I envy those who belong someplace.

As long as I can remember, I have felt that I was out of step, out of sorts, a misfit. Marriage, moving, midlife metamorphosis—nothing has ever completely eased the discomfort. Only in travelling do I find relief. Only in upsetting the equilibrium do I feel whole.

At least for a while.

Toward the end of my visit, an unexpected event challenged this temporary relief. I went out to visit a friend at a school in Andhra Pradesh. Here, in a rugged and breathtaking location with only the faintest internet signal, the world was out of reach for the night. In the morning, as I climbed into the car, my driver greeted me with news he had just received. “India attacked Pakistan,” he reported with enthusiasm, “people are celebrating in Bangalore!” I politely responded that I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but all the way back into the city I contemplated what it would mean to be in a country at war. I was not unaware of the tensions that had been building, but I had no clear grasp of the historical context. As an outsider, I am cautious to hold to a respectful neutrality, but somewhere along the way a line is crossed. I have become attached to people and places. I am not simply a visitor.

Once again I am aware of a sensation similar to what I feel as a person without a coherent gender history. A neither-here-nor-thereness defines my life. Always has, always will. Only now it is slipping across other boundaries, opening new possibilities.

After this recent trip to India, and the many rewarding and validating encounters that I was fortunate to have, I am beginning to believe that if I can learn to embrace an inherent disequilibrium as a fundamental and vital part of who I am, I can finally move ahead to tell the story that has been eluding me. My own story.

Oh Calcutta! Reflections on my second visit to the City of Joy

A week in Calcutta, my second visit to the city, now lies behind me. I am back in Bangalore again, looking out over the rooftops as the sounds of a busy Saturday remind me that life is ever alive and vital in a large Indian metropolis. But, as I sit here, the sights, sounds and scents of Calcutta are still coursing through my imagination. It’s a hard city to shake once it gets into your system.

Last year, as my first introduction to India, Calcutta was not what I expected. A full assault on the senses in ways I was not prepared for. It is still is, but this year I returned with a little bit more perspective, however limited. Unlike some people I’ve spoken to who cannot imagine why anyone would want to, or dare to, go to Calcutta, picturing the city at its most difficult times (enhanced perhaps by a little Hollywood melodrama as well), I had arrived expecting it to be more modern than what I found, especially in the grand, old, if somewhat decaying central parts of town. This time, however, I noticed more office complexes and taller buildings although somehow Calcutta manages to do “modern” and yet maintain a distinct element of shabby chic. Either that or, as in the new curator’s offices at the stately Victoria Memorial demonstrate, create a generic and unremarkable annex completely at odds with the echoes of the past. It’s a wonderfully eccentric we’ll do it our way way of being as stubbornly defiant as the hand pulled rickshaw drivers that continue to make their way along the back streets.

And speaking of streets, after a taste of the traffic in Bangalore, Mumbai or Kochi, Calcutta is comparatively ordered and slow. Very slow. Typically vehicles stay in their lanes, and the traffic police ensure a general order, lights at intersections are obeyed, and major roadways can be safely crossed. Which is saying a lot to be honest. It is a walkable city. The pathways can be rough at times, or filled with street sellers and food vendors, but if necessary one can generally manage to travel along the edge of the roadway. Some of the backstreets are fairly quiet and empty much of the day. But if a single vehicle comes along, you will hear of it. More than one vehicle and you won’t be able to hear yourself think. The noise of the car horns can be ear splitting. I’m inclined to think that anyone out to acquire a new or used vehicle must head to the showroom, car lot, back alley or wherever such transactions might occur and simply lean on the horn. If a few windows shatter, it does not matter if the wheels are falling off, it’s good to go!

Another traffic related observation I noted this time is the increased use of helmets on motorcycles. Friends told me that it has been a point of enforcement over the past year. And a good thing too. I was heading up a major thoroughfare on my way to meet a friend at the Marble Palace, when I came across a motorcycle accident. There were two children and one or two adults on the cycle, all fortunately with helmets. The one boy must have fallen off. As I passed, they were carrying this dazed child to a bus stop bench and a large crowd was gathering all shouting and offering their opinions. Without helmets it could have been far worse. All I could think of was the woman I saw speeding down the expressway in Bangalore with her young daughter on her lap, neither with helmets. But of course, where I live, motorcycles are a seasonal mode of transport, not a practical necessity as they are in this part of the world.

Traffic and faded architectural glory aside, to be back in Calcutta felt like coming home. A place I returned to seeking to refine a creative focus. On my first visit I came fully intending to write; this time I came with no such illusions. I came to experience, to meet other creative spirits, and to reconnect with all the good people at Seagull Books who have become dear to me. This time my stay was shorter, but coincided with so many wonderful visitors and events. It began, the night I arrived, with the opening of Removing the Gaze, an exclusive showing of collages by German artist Max Neumann. Monday morning began with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank’s masterclass at the Seagull School of Publishing, followed in the evening by my conversation with him at the Victoria Memorial (still fretting a little at what I had hoped to talk about but didn’t, I’m afraid). Tuesday it was my turn to lead a school session. As with my first experience last year, I was caught off guard by how quickly the three hours passed and by the engagement of the students. Wednesday was a full day of sightseeing with a new friend, Italian poet Franca Mancinelli who, by coincidence, has been in the city on a residency, and Thursday morning featured a masterclass with conversationalist extraordinaire, Paul Holdengraber. Throughout the week I also had a number of meaningful conversations with Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books who was staying at the same residence where I was and doing some work with Seagull. Along with many visits to Seagull Books’ new office in their former school space, now newly opened up—a bright, cheery and inspiring creative environment—this was week packed with literary energy.

Now to see if I can carry some of the inspiration and focus I was seeking forward.

In Bangalore tonight, the friend I am staying with remarked on a new sense of perspective, of direction, and perhaps peace. As if India does give me something I need. The one thing it won’t give me is planned time for the two of us to travel, as unexpected circumstances now call him to be with his family. But such is life. This leaves me with a little over a week, and apart from one more overnight journey out of the city, much needed time and solitude to put some perspective to my own writing goals and direction before I return to the distractions and demands of life at home.

Of course, I will be back. India is not finished with me yet. Nor I with her.

Checking in from Bangalore midway through my India visit

As I write this I am back in Bangalore, my pivot point, my home base for this month-long stay in India. A fresh breeze drifts in through the open balcony door of my friend’s flat. The comforting noises of a city and neighbourhood gearing up for another day—traffic, dogs barking, children singing—rise from the streets below. The sounds carry a certain comfort, a connectedness to life, a rhythm timed to the swaying coconut palms and soaring black kites that pass from rooftop to treetop roost.

The past week took me to Mumbai, then south to Kochi. While my hometown back in Canada is in the midst of the longest unbroken deep freeze in decades, I struggled to adjust to the intense tropical heat and humidity, aware that it is not even the hot season in Kerala. Kochi is a port city, ribbons of land and ribbons of water, on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Huge tankers, barges and colourful fishing boats move in and out. It is lush and green, infinitely greener, they say, in the rainy season. With a population of about two and a half million, it is small in terms of Indian metropolises, with a greater sense of space and openness than I’ve noted elsewhere, perhaps due to the way the water is such a necessary and defining feature of the urban landscape.

I stayed with a friend at the beautifully tranquil compound where she owns a flat. Her recent return home from “exile” in Dubai makes perfect sense. Here, seemingly cut off from the inevitable rush and commotion of the city streets, it is easy to imagine the stresses of the world away for a moment. And yet it is in the midst of an almost fully developed residential neighbourhood, easily accessed by auto rickshaw over a a pedestrian bridge down the lane, but by car, only through a maze of the most circuitous and narrow roadways I’ve ever travelled. Passage across the city is a disorienting journey to say the least, but within a few days, I began to register landmarks and gain a basic sense of direction.

In Kochi I was aware of two elements in particular: the striking presence of Christian churches—a testament to the historical role the Portuguese and the Dutch played for better or worse—and the overwhelming number of tourists, both on my flights and on the ground. With so much of my travel in India, I am drawn by connections to people I know, even if I have yet to meet them personally, and this often allows me to explore a space either on my own or guided by locals. So I arrived in Kerala unprepared to encounter the typical tourist experience. The only specific destination on my agenda was the Kochi Biennale, but this extensive and diverse series of art exhibits was set up, understandably, throughout the tourist-heavy areas of Fort Cochin and Jew Town. Of course, now that I have been to Kochi, and had my first introduction to the fascinating textures and tones of the region, another visit with a wider focus will be in order.

As ever, the most precious moments of travel are, for me, time for face-to-face conversations with friends I’ve come to know through the internet. India then becomes the backdrop, its sounds the accompanying chorus. In Kochi, I had several days to visit with a friend I feel like I have, in some fashion, known forever, and an afternoon with another friend I met through her, an artist who came into the city to take in some of the Biennale with me. Although it can’t be long, I am often hard pressed to remember just how, or when, some of my Indian friends, Mini in Kochi, Sachin here in Bangalore, or the Seagull Books folk in Calcutta came into my life. Each city I visit expands my circle. I feel so very fortunate to have been given this opportunity to travel, something I never imagined, but for a serious of fortuitous, albeit essentially “unfortunate” circumstances, I would ever be able to experience. It is not a gift to be undervalued. And yet I carry, somewhere inside, a fear that I’m unworthy.

Now the halfway mark of my visit is nearing. I wait on the edge of a return trip to Calcutta, eager to be back in that most singular of cities, keen to reconnect with old friends and meet with new ones. I must confess, however, to being just a little anxious about an event that awaits me there.In a few days time, on February 18th, I will be in conversation with Edwin Frank, the founding editor of NYRB Classics at the impressive Victoria Memorial. No pressure! In truth I’m very honoured to have been invited to be part of the visit of such an esteemed guest and will be sure to report back on the experience once I recover! In the meantime, I will sign off with a few more images from Kochi…

Three days in Mumbai: What a small taste of a small corner of a huge city can tell you (about yourself)

As I write this I am five days into my second visit to India in as many years. This time my stay is longer, my scope wider, my engagement deeper. It is as much about meeting, building and nurturing friendships and connections—long standing and new—as it is about “seeing a place.” One does not travel half the globe to inhabit, however briefly, a world that is so very different in texture, tone and sensations from one’s own without being open to experience. But it is a complicated negotiation at times.

As an outsider, and more specifically as a westerner from a city of a little over a million, I respond so viscerally to the intensity of the Indian metropolis. And yet I am ever conscious of my vantage point, skewed and out of context, informed by the romantic images of my youth and early adulthood—elegant colonial set-pieces, followed by the wave of popular biographies of Ghandi and Mother Theresa in the 80s. I do not wish to appear the starry-eyed searcher or the foreign curiosity seeker, for in truth I am neither. The attraction is real and formless. I feel it in my bones, but am hesitant to grant it words.

I am aware that I experience India from a point of both ignorance and privilege and to formulate a response to what I see and feel leaves me as anxious as a non-poet wanting to write about poetry but refusing to for fear of reading it “wrong”. As if there is only one way to read anything. There is no such thing as pure, unmitigated and unbiased experience.

And so to my present location: Bombay or Mumbai. With a population of over eighteen million souls, Mumbai is the largest city I have ever been in. It is arguably one of the very biggest on the planet. I have to confess I found it immediately oppressive and claustrophobic. From the moment you leave the airport, humanity crushes in on you. Densely packed slums crowd the space alongside the roadway, for kilometre after kilometre, giving way at times for marble and granite dealers, before returning again. Gradually the apparent quality of the hovels improves, but it is an urbanized poverty on a scale that is difficult to process. I knew it was there. Maybe I didn’t expect to see it so explicitly.

The ride into the city was endless. A thick yellow haze hung in the air and I began to regret my decision to hire a non-A/C cab. In the rear view mirror I could see the eyes of the driver watering. With the smog and exhaust fumes blowing in through the open windows, I wondered what it would be like to spend each day moving back and forth through the impatient traffic and gridlock hour after hour.

For the traveller who arrives by air, a city makes her first impressions in the journey in from the airport. Mumbai’s welcome is pungent and emotionally disarming. From the vibrant interior of an ancient yellow and black cab, I watch the corrugated metal landscape pass as we slowly descended into the city. I take no pictures. It would not feel right.

Once I am finally settled in my hotel in the Fort area of south Mumbai, I grab my backpack and head out. The streets of the city are noisy, fast and congested. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that they often appear empty in photographs—it’s an illusion!) They seem to change flavour and character from block to block. Crossing the street, even daring to walk along the edges where the uneven pathways are blocked, or nonexistent, is an exercise in blind faith. A motorcycle is likely to roar up behind you, racing against the flow of traffic, blaring its horn to make you disappear. A legless older woman working a rusted handcart down the side of the road is my new hero. I’m at odds to know what I think of this place. I feel a little pressed under the weight of the space.

As ever, I take note of the street dogs. Here they’re a rather sorry assortment of creatures, weary and worn. Perhaps they don’t stand a chance against the cats that appear to quite handily own this part of town.

My immediate destination lies in the heart of the Kala Ghoda arts district. The area is crowded. Following my friend google  in search of the library where the literary portion of the annual arts festival is to be held, leads me through a bag search, metal detector and frisking, and into a large square crowded with young people  A variety of  sometimes quite tacky horse-themed artworks are displayed and the selfie generation is quite enamoured of them all. I am a little perplexed. I later learn that this is a new addition to the festivities, one that has drawn large numbers of people, mostly young, in from the suburbs, not for the arts so much as the party atmosphere. This type of attraction and congestion alters the tenor of the area. Of course, I’m here for the festival too—a little unexpected serendipity—but fortunately the literary programming is taking place beyond this makeshift corral, across the road in a garden oasis behind the David Sassoon Library. There one is magically removed from the noisy traffic and crowds on the street outside.

Now on my final day in the city, at least one tiny corner of Mumbai is less strange. The streets seem shorter, less confusing. The architecture is beautiful. This part of the city wears its age with grace. I have been to the Gateway of India, the obligatory tourist gesture, and today I saw the sea from the other side, looking out from Marine Drive. A completely different world unfolds there. Large, expensive vehicles line the shady streets, students pour out of colleges and universities, and in the distance, across the waters, the towers of the city’s centre appear ghostly in the midday heat. But it’s hot. I don’t stay long.

So, after my first, brief encounter with Mumbai, three things remain: the gift of being a stranger in a place where, despite disorientation and an inability to comfortably communicate, a little semblance of familiarity begins to emerge; the necessary joy that literary community affords including the precious opportunity to meet, in person, supportive and inspiring writers previously known only online; and finally, the chance to experience a hectic, sometimes seemingly harsh, city at rest. Late last night, after a wonderful, long visit with a friend, I made my way back to my hotel through the quiet virtually empty streets. Ranjit accompanied me part of the way, down byways I likely would not have attempted on my own, until he was certain I knew where I was, and I finished the walk alone. Here and there men spoke quietly, or bid one another good night. On sidewalks, those without homes were already fast asleep, and lonely yellow and black cabs crawled by, hopeful for a late night fare.

Funny that such a huge city could test me by day, and win me over at night.

The expansive possibilities of Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote

As someone who has lived a landlocked existence with an endless sea of prairie grass stretching to the east and the high cresting waves of the Rocky Mountains rising to the west, oceans have long held an inexorable pull on my imagination. Every family holiday that brought me close to either the Atlantic or the Pacific was magic. When I was younger I was drawn to stormy seascapes, images of rugged wave-ravaged shorelines, and stories filled with high sea adventure and intrigue. Now it is something else, something quieter, more metaphysical, that possesses me. From the far shores of Vancouver Island to a lonely beach on the eastern coast of South Africa, I’ve welcomed, however briefly, the untethering afforded by the impossible emptiness expanding beyond me, and revived that longing that no river, lake or landbound body of water has ever been able to fully resolve.

And so, I come to Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote’s  astonishingly rich, endlessly engaging Jonahwhale, a collection of poetry that returns, again and again, to gather inspiration, stories and imagery from the watery depths. For Hoskote, who grew up in Goa and Bombay, proximity to the sea has been a constant, one which he admits informs his life, his awareness and his writing. But as an accomplished translator and cultural curator with a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity that extends beyond boundaries, disciplines and art forms, his work cannot be confined to any specific thematic template. His poetry welcomes a wide array of influences, follows maps and legends that navigate an extensive territory, and resounds with an eclectic musicality. The poems in this collection run from multi-voiced epics taking their cues from historical, literary, or artistic starting points, to one line aphoristic pieces and everything in between. This book has accompanied me these past six months, and yet every time I open it I discover a line, a passage, or a verse that pulls me in anew, to reread, refresh, and reconsider.

I cannot assess or review such an impressive collection, I can only respond, which is perhaps the best I can manage with any of the poetry I have read this year.

Divided into three parts, or movements, the first section, “Memoirs of the Jonahwhale” summons voices from a wealth of historical, literary, and linguistic resources, some self-evident, others detailed in the poet’s endnotes, which, I understand, reflect Hoskote’s desire to honour his scholarly self rather than an obligation to explain his allusions. Some of these notes, crafted with a curator’s attention to detail, are fascinating in themselves and may well inspire a reader’s further exploration, but, as one would hope, context, background, and intertextual sources simply enrich the reading experience. They are not essential to the appreciation of the rhythms, images and intensity of his poetry.

A strong musical sensibility underscores the entire collection, and here Hoskote draws on an abiding interest in modern avant-garde music—composers like Brian Eno, Terry Reilly, and Steve Reich—a passion rekindled for me in recent years. It is, then, not surprising that my favourite piece is “Baldachin”. In memoriam Bruce Conner, the American filmmaker whose masterwork Crossroads combines classified footage of nuclear weapon tests with an eerily sublime soundtrack by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleason, the poem also incorporates the looped trigger line of Steve Reich’s Cuban Missile Crisis inspired composition “It’s Gonna Rain”. The result is an extended prose/verse piece that pulses with the energy of an impending storm:

You are the company the name is you poisoner you cannot pretend you cannot hide you cannot swim in these neon currents I am become Death the destroyer of worlds this ocean one open mouth swallowing islands this art of making things disappear in a glow that throbs in the eye that cannot sleep this frame that’s come apart leached the colour from every drifting current this voice that shakes the continents no earthly thing trembles on its breath this baldachin of milk-white smoke has nothing to hide no crystal globe no night of mean knives no shallows no depths all ploughed bare all punctured all furrowed It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain It’s gonna rain

Beyond the sheer scope and wealth of Hoskote’s poetic vision, it is his keen sensitivity to rhythm, pacing, and visual space—the music and the architecture of a poem—that makes this collection so impressive, so endlessly engaging. If the first section contains some of the most ambitious epic offerings, complete with choral arrangements and refrains, the ten-part poem “Poona Traffic Shots”, which forms the second part, stands as sort of land-bound counterpoint tracing a cycle of rain-soaked ground voyages through countryside and memory, that calls back to the sea in its imagery:

The kick-starter has whooping cough, won’t purr.
.       A dead crow’s beak
points from the trash heap like the tip of a schooner
.       sunk in a shallow bay, a bruise
at first only grazed, then scooped by nautical furies
.       from the coast’s offered skin.

Moving into the final section, “Archipelago”,  the tone turns more intimate, not personal as these are not explicitly autobiographical or confessional poems, but smaller, sometimes quieter more focused, often inspired by art or classical themes. Like finely imagined poetic miniatures echoing history, the unforgiving beauty of nature and, as ever, rarely far from the water.

If literature can evoke a sensation so undefinable and expansive as that which I feel at the ocean’s edge, this wise and elegant collection comes close.

Jonahwhale by Ranjit Hoskote is published by Penguin India.

 

 

 

Of secrets and sacrifices: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

The end of June is upon us and I have managed to get through Pride month with a minimal amount of stress and anxiety. In my city the official celebrations are not held until late August, but there is plenty of Pride around all the same. I have written before about my general sense of disconnect from the LGBTQ community, and the rejection and isolation I’ve experienced over the years. But to be honest, I look at Pride with some measure of envy. I wonder what it would feel like to be able to celebrate myself for who I am and not wish, after all these years, that my life had been different.

There is, in many a queer life, an inability to negotiate the public and the private, the secret and the shared, in a fluid wholistic way. Sacrifice becomes an element of existence in the world.

Time, place, and cultural considerations have long had an impact on queer lives lived. Set in Calcutta and California, Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is the kind of LGBTQ story that resonates with me, even if my own experience is very different. A queer life dominated by a need to hide and a failure to find release and connection the way one longs for is not simply a story of the past. This novel speaks to the choices we make in our attempts to salvage some normalcy when what we need or long for is denied or feared to be impossible—a reality that reaches beyond the constraints of culture or questions of sexuality or gender identity.

This warm and richly woven tale examines the shifting dynamics within a traditional Bengali family as values slowly change in response to influences from inside and outside India. Roy, a writer and journalist from Calcutta, who lived in the US for twenty years before returning to his native city, draws on his own experiences growing up in a protected, comfortable family as well as the challenges and freedoms afforded by moving to America, in this multi-faceted exploration of the conflicts between identity, honesty, and obligation.

Central to the story is Romola who, having agreed to a marriage negotiated by eager family members, finds herself in small town Illinois with Avinash Mitra, a quiet young man she hardly knows. When a letter from India arrives one day, the homesick bride tears it open without checking carefully and finds herself holding a letter from her husband’s lover who had hoped that they would be able to build a life for themselves in the US, away from the prohibitions of Indian society. This man, Sumit, wonders why Avinash did not wait. Romola, unable to begin to process the information, tucks the letter away. She does not confront her husband. His secret remains with him, her awareness of his secret remains with her. Years later, after his father’s death, their son, Amit, finds the second page of the letter and assumes he has uncovered a piece of his mother’s hidden past. Secrets multiply.

Moving back and forth in time, this novel traces the childhood and youth of both Avinash and Romola, their years together as a family back in Calcutta where they raise their child in a multi-generational household, and Amit’s eventual settlement in San Francisco where he marries an American woman and becomes a father himself. A fine example of classic, emotionally balanced storytelling, each chapter adds to a network of secrets, large and small, creating a rich and bittersweet tapestry. Roy resists the temptation to break open the fragile restraints that bind his main characters, and although not entirely without hope, there is a deep sadness at the heart of Don’t Let Him Know. For Romola this is often expressed in a degree of repressed bitterness, making her, at times, less than likeable. Avinash, by contrast, withdraws. He often appears to fade into the sidelines, something that anyone who has lived for a significant amount of time closeted or otherwise invisible will recognize. His first attempt, later in life, to connect with other gay men finds him awkwardly out of synch and results in an episode that is by turns humiliating, exciting, and potentially dangerous. As a reader, I longed to know him more, yet I admire Roy’s decision to tell this story, this way.

Many LGBTQ people exist in spaces defined by loss and longing.

There is more at play here, of course. Questions of class, race, tradition, and family honour also arise, but, as with the central conflict, these issues are woven into the texture of the story. Finally, this is a novel rich in sensual detail—light, scents, and sounds. Places, from the streets of Calcutta to suburban America neighbourhoods, are skillfully evoked. My recent stay in Calcutta enhanced my appreciation of that setting in particular, with the many small features I recognized adding an extra dimension to my enjoyment of this book. A more “conventional” read for me, perhaps, it turned out to be a perfect choice for Pride month,

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy is published by Bloomsbury.

As it is in our house: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.

India is a linguistically diverse country, with twenty-two scheduled languages, thirteen different scripts, and over 720 dialects. Yet when Western readers think of contemporary Indian literature, the work that most readily comes to mind  is typically written in English, whether by India-based or diasporic writers. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, which has garnered much attention over the past year, has been, for many English readers, their first introduction to a book originally written in the South Indian language, Kannada. As one of the long listed titles for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), even more readers will now have a good excuse to meet this established Indian author through this novel, his first work to be translated into English.

At first blush, Ghachar Ghochar seems an unassuming short novel—the story of a family whose financial circumstances take a turn for what should be the better, and the impact of their newfound fortune on their household dynamics. And so it is, but it is much more. Complicated undercurrents run through this tale, building to an ending with uncertain and disturbing implications. What makes it especially unsettling, and affecting, is the strangely passive, rationalization of the narrator. He practices a willful ignorance.

The novel, set in Bangalore, opens at our protagonists’ favourite haunt, Coffee House, with a description of Vincent, the attentive waiter and quiet confessor who tends to his customers’ need and listens to their woes with sensitive discretion. He is not an audience so much as a pretext for the unnamed narrator to unfold his account. Something is troubling the young man. But his concern is distracted. He seems to harbor a conflicted attitude toward women—lack of understanding even—that hints at but does not betray the depth of what we will eventually learn is the true nature of his anxiety.

What follows is a portrait of a joint family bound at all costs to the well-being of the bread-winner, a holdover from their earlier days when resources were limited and they learned to stick together, “walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.” However, that which once insured their survival in the face of financial distress, stands to destroy them once money is no longer a pressing concern. The story unfolds in terms of status, beginning in the present. The narrator who lives with his wife, his parents and his sister, and all are expected to defer to Chikappa, his father’s younger brother, the founder of the successful spice distribution company that has afforded the ascension of the family from a cramped, dirty house in a lower middle class area of the city to a smart, two-story dwelling across town. Although it is officially a family business, in practice there is little need for the other men to have more than perfunctory roles. The uncle manages it all and the family lets it be. Everyone except Anita, the narrator’s wife, who comes from a very different background and ethic.

Moving down through the family hierarchy, the narrative steps back in time to the years when the narrator’s father, his Appa, struggled to look after his family and put his brother through school on a modest salesman’s salary. Yet, even if money was ever in short supply, he placed great value on good honest, hard labour:

He was inordinately proud of being a salesman. “What do you think a salesman is . . .?” he’d boast, especially when launching into stories about his prowess—how, for instance, he’d managed to sell to a shop whose shelves were always brimming with tea. He polished his shoes every morning and put on an ironed shirt. He’d leave looking like an officer and return at night, wilted from the day’s sun, his clothes rumpled. One glance at his scuffed, dusty shoes was enough to betray the nature of his day’s work.

Everything changes when Appa is unexpectedly forced into early retirement. This is the impetuous his brother needs to act on a business scheme he has been contemplating and, although both brothers are co-owners, they soon find themselves ideologically at odds and as the spice firm takes off, Appa drops into the role of a silent partner, slipping into an increasingly defeated mood. His family worries about his sanity, but not for his sake so much as their concern about their right to his share of Sona Masala’s assets.

The narrator, who with his mother and sister all fall in place, more or less on level, below the two older men, makes much of the interdependence of his family, financially bound in poverty, emotionally bound in wealth. They are all at odds, in their own ways, with the world into which they have ascended almost overnight:

It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control the 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. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The sister, Malati, has a particularly disastrous, short-lived marriage. Amma, the matriarch, tries to mediate between family members and maintain their honour against an outside community she no longer knows how to negotiate. Meanwhile, the narrator seems to lose any drive or motivation he may have once aspired to. He too is given a title in the family business, complete with an office and income, but soon realizes there is little for him to do. His uncle has everything under control and no one dares to question what that really means. He takes to lazing around in bed and frequenting Coffee House, showing little ambition, afraid or unwilling or perhaps unable to break away and create a future for himself. With the addition of Anita, his bride by arranged marriage, the precarious household harmony is set completely off balance. The daughter of a professor, she comes from a different background with different expectations and little inclination to suffer fools gladly. She also brings the book’s title, a nonsense expression unique to her family meaning “tangled beyond repair” that she shares with her husband on their wedding night. Yet, it is unclear whether he understands the full relevance of this image before it is too late.

Told with a carefully weighted tone and an economy of words, Ghachar Ghochar is a deceptively easy and enjoyable read. It is not until one nears the latter pages of the book that a creeping unease enters the narrative. The protagonist notices many troubling signs, but repeatedly neglects to act. It is unclear if he shares his father’s tendency to despondency or is simply too self-focused. The troubling factor is that this type of opting out, is not an uncommon response for young men when they cannot find their footing under shifting socio-economic conditions that they feel, rightly or wrongly, are beyond their control. In the Indian setting, the complications of family dynamics and expectations exacerbate the situation. And this, for me, is the real strength and tragedy of this slender volume. There are no easy answers, no heroes, no clear resolutions.

Too much like real life.

Ghachar Ghocharby Vivek Shanbhag is translated by Srinath Perur, and published by Penguin Books.