Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Tank _summer 16_books _59

Translated by Srinath Perur
Hardback, 124 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (December 2015)
ISBN: 9789351776178
Languages: English, Kannada
Selected by Kai Friese

“A sly and sharp novella of social ascent and personal decline. And a taste of the virtues of well-translated ‘Indian-language’ fiction over the familiar contortions of ‘Indo-Anglian’ novels or ‘IWE’ or whatever they’re calling it these days.” —Kai Friese


Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. It's called just that – Coffee House. The name hasn't changed in a hundred years, even if the business has. You can still get a good cup of coffee here, but it's now a bar and restaurant. Not one of your low-lit bars with people crammed around tables, where you come to suspect that drinking may not after all be a wholesome activity. No, this place is airy, spacious, high-ceilinged. Drinking here only makes you feel cultured, sophisticated. The walls are panelled in wood to shoulder height. Old photographs hang on the sturdy square pillars in the centre of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago. The photographs suggest a gentler, more leisurely time, and somehow Coffee House still manages to belong to that world. For instance, you can visit at seven in the evening when it's busiest, order only a coffee and occupy a table for two hours, and no one there will object. They seem to know – someone who simply sits ther for so long must have a thousand wheels spinning in his head. And they know those spinning wheels will not let a person be. Eventually, he'll be overwhelmed, just like the serene spaces of those photographs that buyers devoured and turned into the cluttered mess we have around us today.

Let all that be – I don’t mean to brood. Returning to this Vincent: he’s a dark, tall fellow, a little over middle age, but strong, without the hint of a belly. He wears a white uniform against which it’s impossible not to notice an extravagant red cummerbund. On his head is a white turban, its tuft sticking out like Krishna’s peacock feather. I can’t help feeling when Vincent is around – serving coffee, pouring beer at a practised angle, betraying the faintest of smiles as a patron affectedly applies knife and fork to a cutlet – that he can take us all in with a single glance. By now I suspect he knows the regulars at Coffee House better than they know themselves.

Once, I came here when I was terribly agitated, and found myself saying out loud as he placed a cup of coffee in front of me: “What should I do, Vincent?” I was mortified and about to apologise when he answered, thoughtfully: “Let it go, sir.” I suppose it might have been a generic response, but something about his manner made me take his words seriously. It was soon after that I abandoned Chitra and whatever there was between us. My life then took a turn that led to marriage. Now, let me not give the impression here that I believe in the supernatural – I don’t. But then, neither do I go hunting for a rational basis for everything that happens.

Today, I’ve been sitting in Coffee House longer than ever before. I’m desperate for a sign of some sort. Part of me longs to speak to Vincent, but I’m holding back – what if his words hint at the one thing I don’t want to hear? It’s afternoon. There are few people around. Directly in my line of sight is a young woman in a blue T-shirt, scribbling something in a notebook. She’s at a table that looks onto the street outside. Two books, a glass of water and a coffee cup sit on the table in front. A lock of hair has drifted onto her cheek as she writes. The girl is here at this time at least thrice a week. Sometimes there’s a young man who joins her for a coffee and they leave together. It’s the same table at which Chitra and I used to meet.Just as I begin to wonder if her friend will turn up today, I see him at the door. He takes the chair in front of her. 

In Kannada, a language that originates in southern India, the verb is placed at the end of the sentence and movement between tenses is much more fluid than in English.

[1] Ghachar ghochar is a Kannada nonsense term that roughly signifies a tangled, knotty mess.