Whisper and Your Reader Will Hear You | An Interview with Vivek Shanbhag
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
THE NOVELIST TALKS ABOUT THE EMOTIONAL AND LITERARY FORCE OF FOOD, VANISHING TRADITIONS, AND THE FOOD OF THE KONKAN COAST OF KARNATAKA
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPH: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
hachar Ghochar (Penguin Books), the first book by the Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag to be translated into English is a haunting, often troubling, account of the rising fortunes of a family of spice merchants. With uneasy calm, the book documents the corrosive properties of new wealth and plumbs the murky implications of progress in a country in the midst of a complex reckoning between modernity and weighty inherited traditions.
Set in a domestic arena that many Western readers are little accustomed to, the book presents elements of everyday Indian life with a quiet, resounding quality; the stuff and rituals of everyday life become imbued with outsize meaning. Food, in particular, takes on a portentous role, deployed alternately by characters as reward and quarterstaff in their dealings with each other and the outside world.
In a telling scene, a strange woman appears at the narrator’s house with a steel container filled with masoor dhal curry for his chikkappa—his father’s younger brother. The woman’s appearance ignites a fury in the narrator’s mother and sister. Suspicious of her intentions, they shout names at her and try to shoo her away. The woman is rebuffed, but in the fray of pushing and shoving the container falls and the red curry spills out onto the floor of the courtyard. Though the woman is barred from entering the family’s home, the pervasive smell of the curry easily crosses the doorway of the house that she herself could not, freely making its way about its interior, piquing the appetites of the people inside, causing them to wonder if, perhaps, some scrap of the curry might remain in the container, fomenting a silent, persistent indignation in the mind of the narrator’s mother.
Food tends to have this effect. It touches what the hand, the mind cannot alight upon. In Shanbhag’s formulation, it is an emotion—a complex of intuitions, insecurities, joys, and memories that combine to an effect that can be both befuddling and luminous. Shanbhag’s great gift is his ability to write into being those clusters of impenetrable feeling that lurk just beyond the realm of words.
I met with Shanbhag at his Bangalore home to talk about the literary uses of food, his literary antecedents, the porous barriers between languages in conversation with each other, and his own memories of the food of the coastal part of Karnataka where he grew up.
Vivek Shanbhag: I sent you a link to an article this morning—did you get it?
Rohan Kamicheril: Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.
VS: I’d completely forgotten about it. It’s a short piece that somebody asked me to write about Gokulashtami, which is in August and celebrates the birth of Krishna—the piece is about the various rituals and the foods that surround the festival. And it has some recipes, too—I do have a cookbook in mind [laughs].
RK: Oh, really?
VS: I’ve been thinking about it for many years but I’ve yet to write it.
RK: What’s the general idea behind the cookbook?
VS: I’m a Konkani. The Konkanis are a community from coastal Karnataka—they moved from Goa to the south of India. They moved down along the coast about four hundred years ago when the Portuguese arrived. I grew up in Karwar, a very small town in coastal Karnataka. Well, Konkanis are very fond of food. There are so many things in the culture that revolve around food—stories, literature. I want to bring all that together. It’s something that I’ve had on my mind for many years.
RK: Have you always been interested in food?
VS: Always. There are so many rivers in North Canara, and there were not that many bridges when I was young; now you don’t even notice the rivers because you can just zip through in your car. But when I was a child, every time we had to go anywhere we had to cross the river in these big boats to catch a bus. And many families—my own included—had boats like we have cars now. It was a different time. All of that has completely gone away. And when we visited relatives we always took some vegetables that were unique to where we came from. Nowadays everything is available everywhere, but that was not the case in those days.
RK: What was an example of a vegetable that you would take with you?
VS: Gokarna, for example, has a certain variety of ladies’ finger—okra—which grows very big. It’s green and slightly yellowish. It’s a big, long thing, which you don’t see here in Bangalore. It’s about eleven or twelve inches long. And there were many other things that were very specific to that place.
RK: In Ghachar Ghochar, you manage to talk about a lot in a very spare way—violence undergirds a lot of it, social change, too—and food really seems inextricable from all of it. It’s used as a stand-in for so many things. Do you feel like food is a particularly potent image or object?
VS: I have always felt that food is very integral to things. I see it as an emotion—so I treat it the way I would treat other emotions—it’s not an object to me. And not just here, but in my other stories, too. There is an incident in my second novel, Ondu Badi Kadalu—“The Sea is on One Side”—which is not in English yet. In coastal Karnataka it’s the custom that people eat rice porridge at around ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, and then they have lunch later. And the porridge is made of unpolished rice, which is slightly brownish—not white. And the rice is cooked with lots of water, so when you serve it you also have all the cooking water along with it. And then you put a spoon of ghee on top of it along with some brown crystal salt that’s made in a place called Sanekatta near Ankola. Anyway, in the novel, the character is fairly young, newly married, newly living together with his wife—maybe a year or two. He comes home to eat his porridge. His mother serves it to him on a plate and he just collapses right there and dies. But his food is still there. There are so many things happening—people moving in and out of the house and so on. Finally, someone notices the food; the salt has become a brown liquid that has flowed to the side of the rice. It reflects something. Something that he was going to eat has gone away. It’s an image that has stayed with me.
RK: In the same vein of the objects of food being more than just objects, I really loved the section where the mother is yelling at the cook, Sarasa, about how to properly season a cast-iron pan. It’s incredibly telling about the relationship between these two women: the resentment that Sarasa probably feels toward her employer, the sense of authority that the mother feels and exercises over her maid and so on. Do you feel like it’s important to bring rituals like this into the story?
VS: It is. There is so much politics around food in a family. In most Indian families, at least until recently, food was served to you. The woman of the house serves it, and there is so much politics around this act. When there are guests—what to serve, how to serve, how much to serve. There is a lot of that. And especially in fish-eating families. What part of the fish is given to which child [laughs]! There is a lot of politics there.
I remember in my own house, my mother had a habit of always showing everything she’d prepared to my grandmother—her mother-in-law— before she added salt to it, and asking, shall I add more salt? Not that it mattered, it was just a way of including her. Which was the most important thing. She would always say, shall I put this much? And she would answer, yes. I never saw her tell my mother to add more, or less. But there was a lot of power play and a lot of hierarchy. Food is an intrinsic part of everything.
With writing, the first draft is very important, when lots of things come out. And then of course I spend a lot of time editing—one fine-tunes it. But, like cooking, some things just have to be there at the beginning or you can’t add them later. Even just a few seconds more or less frying can change the taste of a dish. Writing is like that, too. Even if you use the same recipe, every time it’ll turn out differently.
RK: You have a great line in the book: “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.” So, money, which can be looked at as this very objective thing—it’s just something you buy other things with—also has a very fearsome aspect. But what I thought was also intriguing was that the commodity that the family trades in, that they make their money off of, is food—it’s spices. And even though their private life of food—the sights, smells, the politics of it all—is very vivid, the food that they make their money off of is utterly devoid of any color. It might as well be bricks or chappals. Was that something that was deliberate?
VS: I can’t say whether it was deliberate. There are so many things that come together to make a book. It has to flow. And it is not that everything depends on the flow, but for a writer there are some things that one just tunes in to. I’m glad you noticed this, though. There is also a description of how Chikkappa treats his breakfast and how the narrator treats his breakfast. The narrator’s mother tells his wife that he likes his dosas hot, while Chikkappa, he’s just not bothered, he has to leave at a particular time. If it’s ready and hot he eats, if it isn’t, sometimes he just eats in a hurry and runs away. So there’s also how people deal with food, and their relationship with food. It shows a certain personality, it shows a way of dealing with the world.
RK: There’s also a lovely section where the whole family is sitting in the kitchen and having this moment of familial communion and I think the expression you use is “closeness beyond reason.” I think food can, for a lot of people, be that thing that is extra-logical, it’s something that you don’t have to think about, or think your way through.
VS: Food is something that is there all through this novel. Starting from the very beginning—the narrator is sitting in a coffee house. And there are so many things that happen around food. Even in the family’s last meeting in the book, when they have this sort of tea party in their house, there are the rusks that the father has picked up. There is a place where you get rusks like these. And when I asked the shopkeeper why these rusks were so sweet, he said, we put milk powder in them. That stayed with me. I found it very strange—putting milk powder into rusks.
Food in India is so important because we are a poor country. For us, treating someone with good food is a very big thing. That’s why, even if it means we starve, we try to serve good food to our guests. That’s part of the culture. Food is something that we can’t be careless about. And I certainly am not, as a writer. You can see this all through the novel.
RK: I really like how food affords the reader a view into this domestic space that isn’t often seen in translated fiction in English. Part of that is because there’s not a lot of fiction translated from any Indian language into English, but this is particularly true of Kannada. Was it important to you to portray this domesticity and was food a useful way to bring that out?
VS: I like to tell stories. It don’t write to represent something. Somehow I just can’t do it. And I don’t believe in that kind of writing. So, though this story reflects so many things, and contains so many elements of what this country has gone through in the last twenty-five years and whatnot, ultimately it is still just the story of this family. And if I am going to write about this family then I need to have all these details because this is how they live.
RK: Another thing that’s sort of tangentially related to that is that you talk about avarekalu upma and how it’s a contentious issue in their household. I was really struck by your and the translator’s decision to leave the name of the dish in Kannada. Was that something you had to think about? I know some editors would have been tempted to put in a gloss of some sort to explain what the dish is. How did you navigate the issues around that decision?
VS: It was a conscious decision—with this and with many other things in the book. I talk about akki roti and other things as well. I’ve read a lot of translated fiction, and when these things come up, if I translate them into something else, or if I give them some other name, it won’t be the same. I don’t do it to make things difficult for the reader, but it’s good to have these things in there once in a while. When I started reading Singer— Isaac Bashevis Singer—I knew nothing about Jewish life. But after reading him for the last thirty years, I have learned so much about it. And his translations used many unfamiliar terms. I could only read him in English, but I went after those words to find out what they meant, what those rituals meant. Reading him, going after all those details—the whole thing was an experience! I’m not in a hurry to read a writer and just throw their book away. I want to read a book, relish it, stay with it—otherwise I cannot live in the world of that writer. I feel like the unfamiliar can create curiosity and can nudge a reader to explore.
RK: I don’t want to necessarily ascribe this motive to you, but the inclusion of foreign words can also be a way of expanding the literary idiom. By their inclusion in what is considered literary work, the bounds of canonical language begin to expand. Do you think about your writing having that kind of effect?
VS: My mother tongue is not Kannada. My mother tongue is Konkani. And there is so much give-and-take between these two languages. Konkani doesn’t have a script. But there is a Konkani literature that has developed over the last hundred years. Konkani is written in four different scripts. It’s written in Roman script, it’s written in Devanagari, it’s written in Kannada, and it’s written in Malayalam. Since it’s a dialect and Konkanis are spread all along the western coast of India, they write in whichever script is locally available. It is difficult to put all of that together and call it Konkani literature, but I would still say that there is a literature, one that has some very good writers. So I’ve seen how this give-and-take occurs between Konkani and Kannada. And I’m sure the same will happen between English and other languages, once they start interacting truly. And how has that interaction happened between Konkani and Kannada? Because Konkani-speaking people—like me—have written in Kannada. There are many Kannada writers whose mother tongue is Konkani. With this novel, for example, there are many Konkani phrases and proverbs that I’ve translated into Kannada and now they’ve gone into English.
RK: Is the proverb about everyone’s dosa having holes one of them?
VS: No, that’s a Kannada proverb. But there is a line about someone who criticizes someone for standing on a mustard seed but ignores the pumpkin that he’s standing on. That’s a Konkani proverb. And also the one about people who, when they get rich, they hold an umbrella in the moonlight.
RK: What is the sense of that proverb? It’s so evocative, but I wanted to hear your take on its meaning.
VS: You don’t see this in Bangalore, but in coastal Karnataka the sunlight is very piercing—it’s very sharp. So, many people use umbrellas in the summer to keep off the sun. So, when people get rich suddenly, they lose all sense of when to do things, how to do them, how to spend their money. So they hold umbrellas even in the night for the moonlight [laughs].
RK: Speaking of how these things translate from Konkani to Kannada to English, what was the process of translating the book like? Did you work very closely with Srinath Perur, the translator?
VS: Yes, Srinath translated the first chapter and then he went over it again and again and again. It took a while to get the first chapter right, because it was important to get the tone right, and establish the narrator’s position in the family. Because, what is tone? Tone is a point from which you view everything. It means that he can use certain words and certain words he can’t. He can say certain things and there are certain things he can’t—and this is important for the translator to understand. Our discussion was not about the meaning of a word or a sentence, but, rather, what has gone into making this book? So most of the discussions were about things like, why have I used a certain phrasing or, why is there a certain repetition of words or, what was my intention in structuring something in a particular way? Because when you’re translating a book into another language it’s another book. Because the sentence in Kannada may not evoke the same memories if you read it in English. So you have to be very careful when you translate.
RK: I’m unsure if this is the right word, but is readability—and accessibility—something you strive for in your work—and in the translation? The book is about a very particular family, in a very particular part of the world that not a lot of people know about and, yet, it’s very relatable. How do you navigate the gap between these two impulses—to be universal and to be particular? Are they contradictory?
VS: They aren’t contradictory. You say you aren’t sure if readability is the right word, but for me it’s the most important thing. For me, the book has to be readable. People have different definitions of readability. There are so many things that can make a book readable. It could be the details, it could be the insight into life, it could be the language, it could be the way it is structured—it could stem from a hundred different things. Without readability it is not possible to capture the mind of the reader. And if you don’t capture it, you won’t be able to communicate what you want to communicate. When you completely capture it, then you can be sure that you can be subtle; you can whisper and your reader will hear you. I grew up reading so many writers who wrote in languages that were not Kannada or English and who were translated into Kannada and English. And I never felt that detail came in the way of understanding a human life. When you read Tolstoy, that Russia, of the eighteenth century, is something that I can’t even imagine. But if I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I can see it happening in front of me. Or José Saramago and Singer—I see that life. It’s all there. What’s important is creating that life and having that emotional connection with it. And if you can create that then you don’t see any contradiction between readability, universality, specificity, detail.
RK: You mentioned earlier that the book has been translated into fifteen other languages. How many of them are Indian languages?
VS: I think six of them are Indian languages.
RK: Do you see hope for a larger conversation between regional Indian cultures?
VS: If you look at the kind of readership and response that I get in Kannada, it is very satisfying. People respond, they write, they discuss, they fight with me. It’s very much alive. There must be more translations between Indian languages, across Indian languages. There was a time when many people knew other Indian languages. But that is going away because people study in English-medium schools and they end up with only one language, unfortunately.
I used to edit a journal called Deshakaala and it had a section called “Desha Bhaashe.” In every issue I translated a writer from another Indian language. But the effort that was required to bring out these fifteen pages was almost eighty percent of the work for each quarterly issue. Because it was so difficult to gain access to writing in other Indian languages. And if that’s the case for me, I can imagine how hard it is for other people who don’t have this access, who know only English. People always say that literature in Indian languages is a goldmine and I agree, but you don’t find gold in a goldmine, you get ore. You have to process tons of ore to get just one gram of gold. It’s the same process here. You have to pick the right things, translate them, and do a good translation, so that you really do get gold. And indiscriminate translations can do harm, because people are in a hurry to be judgmental about these things. So there is a lot of effort required; there is a lot of patience required.
RK: In the novel, the family seems to struggle to find a balance between their accustomed ways of doing things and the ways in which one is increasingly expected to be modern, wealthy, successful. Is there a contradiction between progress and traditional ways of being?
VS: Unfortunately, over the last ten years or so there has been a lot of right-wing politics around any talk of tradition, and “tradition” has become a very bad word. I think we should really understand this phenomenon and break it because tradition works on many levels. We should not allow people to run away with these things—the way that festivals are celebrated, for example. They’ve turned them into something that they aren’t supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be all show and pomp, it’s not about creating communal tension. There’s another narrative around tradition and we need to understand and support it.
For example, there is a tradition—it’s not observed around here—that during Ganesha Puja, one of the ways in which you decorate the pandal is by hanging rare vegetables on it. So people would go to faraway places and bring back vegetables. It’s a very beautiful way of celebrating. And after the festival is over, you would eat the vegetable. As children we used to go and see who had what rare vegetable and I still remember how, once, somebody had brought a mango from some faraway place—it was unheard of to get a mango in August! There was a lot of speculation that maybe it was a plastic mango [laughs].
These are all elements that are going away. And I’m not saying that freedom isn’t important—it is very important. Money and technology have brought in a great relief to the women of the house. Invariably, almost 99.99% of the time, the women of the house cook. So anything that can lessen their burden is welcome. But at the same time we should understand the beauty in eating.
This interview has been condensed and edited.