It's been almost 20 years since Barbara Ehrenreich published Fear of Falling, her brilliant book on the anxious "inner life" of the American middle class. The book's title, "fear of falling," has become a catchphrase to refer to the cosmic jitters that afflict anyone whose lifestyle and sense of identity can be wiped out by the loss of a job or a plunge in the stock market.
In this era of globalization, "fear of falling" is also a phrase that resonates in other places. Take the southern Indian city of Bangalore, for instance. That's where acclaimed Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag has set his novella called Ghachar Ghochar — a story whose every page is soaked through with the sweaty fear of falling into economic and moral ruin.
"Ghachar ghochar" is a nonsense phrase made up by one of the characters in this story; it loosely translates from the South Indian language, Kannada, as: "tangled up beyond repair."
The tense fun of reading this vivid, fretful story lies in watching the main characters grab hold of what they think will be rescue ropes, but instead turn out to be slip knots. Our narrator, who's unnamed, is a young man whose family (consisting of his parents, uncle and sister) has hauled itself up from lower-class subsistence living in Bangalore.
The narrator's father used to be a spice salesman whose earnings barely kept his family housed in an ant-infested shack. In a white-knuckle flashback scene here, the father comes home one night from collecting his weekly payments from customers and realizes he's short 800 rupees. The panic in the family's shack is palpable. Over and over the father adds columns of numbers as the narrator's mother interrogates him:
Where did you go today? [she frantically asks]. Did someone who was supposed to pay not do so? ... Could you have put some of the cash in a different compartment of your bag?
After a sleepless night, a mathematical error is discovered and the family breathes again over a celebratory breakfast. All is saved. Then, all is lost that very same day when the father loses his job anyway because the spice company has been bought out.
Desperate, the father gambles his retirement benefits on a scheme his younger brother proposes to start their own spice company. At the opening of this novella, which jumps around in time, that gamble has paid off and made the family wealthy, but it's also cost them in ways that are hard to quantify.
To our sentimental (and somewhat unreliable) narrator, life seemed to be richer emotionally, back in the bad old days, when, as he says, "the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances."
Ghachar Ghochar is filled with wry poetic lines like that one where Shanbhag — and his translator, Srinath Perur — have rendered emotions and even random thoughts in language that's as pungent as those spices the family is marketing.
Within the tight confines of a hundred pages or so, Shanbhag presents as densely layered a social vision of Bangalore as Edith Wharton did of New York in The House of Mirth. Shanbhag's Bangalore is packed with anonymous laborers, and the leisure classes and teachers and other "brain workers" who are sandwiched in the middle.
When our narrator marries, his wife, whose name is Anita, and her family belong in that last category and that's a problem. Anita questions the family set-up too much. She disdains the dependence her husband and in-laws have on that somewhat crooked uncle who runs the family spice empire. Challenging that uncle could cost our narrator his fortune. That's when Ghachar Ghochar shifts from a powerful novella about class anxieties to an Edgar Allan Poe tale of terror.
Ghachar Ghochar is the first of Shanbhag's fiction to be published in English, but I expect it won't be the last. He's one of those special writers who can bring a fully realized world to life in a few pages and also manages to work in smart social commentary about fears that don't require much translation.