Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Kiran Desai's debut novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), made the author an instant success at the age of twenty-seven. She is the voice of a younger generation of Indian writers who write in English, many of whom live in self-exile. Indeed, many expatriate Indian novelists have gained international attention, including Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Anita Desai (Kiran Desai's mother).
India is home to many religious groups, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. It also has a history of political strife among those groups, exacerbated by the interference of British colonialism and modern globalization. Desai, like other Indian writers in English, combines these elements of India's traditions and history with a secular emphasis on storytelling. Her work explores the toll that these cultural divides have taken on India's population.
Desai's work is known for its rich and colorful language, and detailed presentations of setting and character. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard presents a fictitious small town called Shahkot in North India. The town has a mixed culture of traditional Indian social norms and of modern life, wherein the runaway Sampath Chawla, who just wants to be left alone, is forced into being a holy man in spite of himself.
Given its popularity, the novel was still in print as of 2008; it was reissued as an Anchor paperback in 1999.
Kiran Desai was born on September 3, 1971, in New Delhi, India, the youngest of the four children of Anita and Ashvin Desai. Her mother, Anita Desai, whose own mother was German and whose father was Indian, is one of the most respected and famous Indian writers today. Ashvin Desai is a Delhi businessman. Kiran's parents are now separated, due to the nature of Anita's career and travel. Kiran's early life was spent in Delhi, and sometimes in a family house in Kalimpong in the Himalayas, the scene of much of her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss.
Kiran was educated at a convent in Kalimpong, and at the age of fifteen, accompanied her mother to England when her mother got a temporary teaching position there. When Anita Desai moved to the United States to teach and write, Kiran went with her, for she has remained closest to her mother, as a friend and fellow writer. In America, Kiran went to high school in Massachusetts and then to Bennington College in Vermont. At first she planned on studying science, but because of her natural talent for writing and her mother's encouragement, she soon switched majors. After graduating from college, she enrolled in writing programs at Hollins University in Virginia and then Columbia University, where she got an M.F.A. in writing. She began Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard while at Hollins and completed it as part of her M.F.A. work at Columbia. The novel was published in 1998, when she was twenty-seven. The book was well received by critics, and the book received the Betty Trask Award from the British Society of Authors.
After this success, Desai secluded herself for eight years to write her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss (2006). While the first novel introduces social problems, it does so in a light comic or satiric mode and does not linger on them. The second novel takes up the more tragic theme of the loss of tradition, and the difficulties faced by immigrants who try to make a new life. For this novel, Desai won the Booker Prize for fiction. At the age of thirty-five, she was the youngest woman ever to win it.
In addition, The Inheritance of Loss was selected as a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year in 2006; as one of the New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2006; finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2006; short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2007; and long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC Award of 2008.
As of 2008, Kiran Desai lived in Brooklyn, New York, but spent time regularly with family in India. She is close to her family and especially to her mother. Indeed, mother and daughter have given readings of their novels together.
In the Himalayan foothills, in the small north Indian town of Shahkot, during a very hot summer, many proposals are made to induce the monsoon. By September the situation is so bad that famine relief camps have to be set up. This is the year Sampath Chawla is born. His mother, Kulfi, is only twenty-one and just married to Mr. Chawla. She gets bigger and hungrier as the drought gets worse, but none of the relief planes coming with supplies reach them. Kulfi is so hungry, she obsesses about food and sells everything in the house. Finally, she draws pictures of food on the walls, and when there is no more wall space, Sampath is born. It is the day the monsoon rains finally come. In the storm, Kulfi gives birth, and Sampath has a brown birthmark on his cheek. As if by miracle, a Swedish relief plane drops a crate in front of the Chawla house with food in it. Kulfi thinks her baby looks like he came from another planet. The baby is named Sampath, Good Fortune.
Twenty years have passed. Sampath has grown into a thin and oversensitive young man, unable to sleep with the noisy breathing of his family around him, all sharing the one ceiling fan: father, mother, grandmother Ammaji, and sister Pinky. He rushes to the roof of the house where it is just as hot. He sings and walks back and forth all night, wishing he had somewhere else to go; he feels suffocated in his life. When morning comes and the town begins to wake up, he sees his father come out with a yoga mat. His grandmother goes for morning milk. She worries that Sampath did not sleep.
Mr. Chawla is a man of habit and performs morning exercise. He is forty and head clerk at the Reserve Bank of Shahkot. He shouts orders to his family as he readies for the day. Ammaji and Pinky try to keep up with his demands. Mr. Chawla reads bits from the newspaper. Kulfi is uninvolved with what is going on and sits by the window thinking of food. She has grown more and more peculiar, and the grandmother has to do all the work. Pinky is disgusted by the political scandals her father reads and wants him to read the story about the Cinema Monkey who attacks ladies outside the cinema, stealing food and pulling at their saris. Mr. Chawla lectures Sampath on how to be a success. Sampath had been happily idle until his father found him a job at the post office. The father and grandmother argue about Sampath's future, and the sister joins in.
Sampath bicycles in the morning traffic of Shahkot, among children, clerks, beggars, holy men, animals, and cars. Pinky gets off the back of his bicycle and goes to the public bus. She is pretty, and removes a hairpin to stab any man who hassles her. The post office is a gloomy building, and Sampath crawls under the barbed wire fence. He hears the flirting between two postal workers, Mr. Gupta and Miss Jyotsna. She describes an incident with the Cinema Monkey who ripped her clothes and ran off with her peanut cone. Sampath is fascinated by her beautiful red toenails. They speak of the wedding of the daughter of their boss. When the boss, Mr. D.P.S., arrives, they jump to attention. Sampath tries to add up the wedding accounts, but all the bills look alike, and his mind gets dizzy. As soon as the boss leaves, the two clerks flirt again, and Sampath begins reading the mail. He is supposed to sort the letters, but he likes to read about the lives of the people of Shahkot. At the end of the day, Sampath has finished none of his work and is scolded.
- Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard was adapted as an unabridged audiobook read by Madhav Sharma and produced by Isis Audio Books on six tapes (1999).
Later, the whole office staff is on duty at Mr. D.P.S.'s house to help with his daughter's wedding. Curious, Sampath wanders into rooms of the house and looks in drawers. He is drawn by the expensive perfumes, even dressing up in wedding clothes. He becomes drunk on the various scents. He looks at jewelry and gems, lights a candle and looks at himself in a mirror. He feels transported. He had always been attracted to beauty and imaginative stories and thus, failed his examinations and his job. He goes out and dances up and down in front of the marriage tent. His boss and the crowd stare at him, but Sampath is floating in his own world. He jumps into the fountain and disrobes, singing, as the audience shrieks. He is fired on the spot, and his father is furious, saying he will have to find another job. Sampath feels trapped in a life he hates. Looking at a guava, he wishes he could have its quiet beauty. The guava fills him with sweetness, and he dreams of freedom.
When his family is gone the next day, Sampath runs away, catching a bus. He rides past the outskirts of town. When an old woman on the bus insists on talking to him, he jumps from the bus. The passengers see him race to an old orchard on a hill. Sampath runs until he finds an old tree that looks inviting. He climbs it and settles in. It is a guava orchard, part of the university research reserve. Sampath feels peaceful. Life is sweet and uncomplicated. He feels at home and falls asleep in the branches.
The Chawla family go to the police to search for their son, and the whole town makes the most of the drama. The watchman of the university forest reserve bicycles into Shahkot and announces there is a man in a guava tree who won't come down. Mr. Chawla feels sure it is Sampath, and the family catches the bus and gets off at the old orchard. They find Sampath in the tree, eating a guava. Sampath thinks of excuses, but in the end says nothing. His mother alone seems to understand why he is in the tree. The family calls in Dr. Banerjee from the bazaar clinic, who tries to get Sampath to come down, but Sampath is afraid of being locked up for being insane. Dr. Banerjee hoists himself into the tree with his stethoscope and pronounces Sampath indeed crazy. The family tries all kinds of remedies that don't work. Then they visit a holy man, who says Sampath just needs to get married.
The Chawlas can only find an ugly girl for Sampath. The girl arrives with her family on the bus, which is full of pilgrims singing. The bride, her family, and the pilgrims arrive at the tree. While Sampath has romantic fantasies about beautiful women, he is horrified by the ugly girl, as the pilgrims lift her into the tree in her billowing sari. When she tries to touch Sampath's feet in devotion, he yells, and she falls out of the tree. He wants to shout to the people to leave him alone, but instead, he calls out to Mr. Singh, whose letters he has read in the post office. He asks if his jewelry is still hidden beneath the tulsi plant? Then he asks Mrs. Chopra about the lump in her throat. Sampath goes on revealing the secrets he has read in letters, and the people assume he has divine powers. Soon a newspaper article proclaims him to be a holy man in a tree.
Mr. Chawla suddenly realizes that Sampath might make the family rich. People no longer laugh at his son; they arrive in growing numbers to consult him. The Chawlas take over the watchman's shed and move to the orchard to manage Sampath. They make him comfortable with food, a cot, and an umbrella. Sampath delivers his Sermon in the Guava Tree to all the pilgrims who come to the orchard. He answers their questions with witty and nonsensical aphorisms. Among the first to arrive are his old co-workers, Miss Jyotsna and Mr. Gupta. Sampath enjoys his new position of power, and is in great humor. When he is tired of the questions, Sampath goes to sleep in his tree. His simplicity and directness are counted great spiritual virtues. Kulfi, totally inspired by her son, begins cooking masterpieces in the orchard in her outdoor kitchen. She too likes the freedom of being in the forest. Sampath grows fat, nourished by the exotic food cooked only for him.
Pinky is worried that her life is being disrupted by her family's orchard life. She is reduced to once a week trips into the bazaar for supplies. Mr. Chawla is on leave from his regular job and has plans of getting rich managing the pilgrim trade to his son's tree. Pinky feels alone, with no family to support her social ambition. She has to plan her own elaborate outfits and overdresses for the market, as though she is a movie star. She insists that she is being followed by men in the street. Mr. Chawla believes she invents situations because she is starved for drama, and he makes her go to the market in plain dress. On a trip to town to buy Ammaji new dentures, Pinky and Ammaji are attacked by the Cinema Monkey while buying ice cream after seeing a movie. When Ammaji takes a bite of ice cream, her dentures stick in the cone, the cone drops, and the monkey runs off with it. The Kwality Hungry Hop Ice Cream boy frightens off the monkey and recovers the dentures. Having been rescued in front of a cheering crowd by the Hungry Hop boy lights a flame in Pinky's romantic heart. She had thought the boy unremarkable before, but suddenly, he is a hero.
Mr. Chawla has made the watchman's shed comfortable, with electricity and running water. Mr. Chawla opens a bank account for a proposed temple to which the devotees could donate. He approaches merchants to put up ads in the orchard. Buses make detours so passengers can visit the new Baba in the tree. Ammaji operates a tea stall. Mr. Chawla sells garlands and fruit to pilgrims, then collects them and sells them again.
Sampath is charmed by the visitors who ask him questions on the nature of life. One is a spy from the Atheist Society and Branch to Uncover Fraudulent Holy Men (BUFHM). Some of Sampath's answers make sense and some don't, but they have the ring of truth, so the pilgrims are satisfied. The spy takes notes in a notebook; he writes that Sampath avoids questioning by pretending to be otherworldly. Sampath's rejection of a bride is the final proof to the crowd that he is a true hermit. Miss Jyotsna sings a hymn, and Sampath thinks how pretty she is. He sings with her, and the people join in. The spy wonders how he can fool the people. He plans his investigation into Sampath's life.
Kulfi searches the forest for exotic things to cook for her son. She kills game found in traps. She is completely exhilarated by the outdoors, fearlessly rounding up the ingredients, and coming back muddy from her forays. Tough from all the exercise, she cuts up the game herself in her outdoor kitchen, in ecstasy. The smells drive the pilgrims mad. Sampath is filled with desire for her food. The spy tries to collect a specimen of Sampath's food in a bottle to see if he is being drugged, but Kulfi hits him on the head with a broom. Mr. Chawla decides to limit visiting hours, and Sampath becomes even more popular.
Then the monkeys arrive. The Cinema Monkey follows Pinky to the orchard and brings his friends. Sampath is delighted with the monkeys that are a nuisance to everyone else. He plays with them, acting like a monkey himself. They become his bodyguard, sleeping and eating with him in the tree. Now all food has to be locked up, for they are thieves. When her family is distracted, Pinky dresses up and escapes to town, with the spy following her. When he takes the bus with her, she jabs him with a hairpin, and he has to see a doctor. The Hungry Hop boy is slow but good humored. He does not notice Pinky's deliberate attentions, so she becomes more direct. She bites a piece of his ear off. He screams for help, and Pinky is taken to the police station. When they find out she is the Monkey Baba's sister, they escort her back to the orchard. Once a photo of Sampath is published in the Times of India, he gets enormous amounts of mail in the orchard. The spy makes a case to the BUFHM: Sampath is mad and should be locked up, but instead he is famous. It is people like this who obstruct the progress of the nation!
The monkeys eventually find some bottles of rum and become drunk. When it is discovered they are drunk, Sampath defends them with a proverb no one can understand. The monkeys become addicted to alcohol and forage for it among all the pilgrims' bags. The pilgrims are afraid of being bitten, and a war with the monkeys begins. Sampath alone is forgiving, but the monkeys have gone too far.
Mr. Chawla worries that their scheme may fail, just when his bank account was getting fat enough to buy shares in the VIP Hosiery Products company. He tells his son that he should have a proper hermitage inside a concrete structure that will keep the monkeys out. He starts to give Sampath advice on how to handle the crowds. The monkeys throw apples at him. Sampath is worried but immediately forgets his trouble by watching the beautiful insects on the tree. When Kulfi brings him dinner, he complains about the conspiracy to get him out of the tree. She says cheerfully that they could poison everyone! Sampath feels his mother and the monkeys are the only ones who understand him. The monkeys get more and more wild, even going to the bazaar to steal alcohol. One day, they rip up everything in the orchard, and the next day Mr. Chawla goes to town to appeal to the officials about the problem.
The Chief Medical Officer is in constant fear of his ulcers flaring up. When Mr. Chawla arrives to discuss the crisis, the Chief Medical Officer realizes the trouble that could ensue if he got involved. He reminds Mr. Chawla of the sacred nature of monkeys, who were god Rama's followers. The Chief Medical Officer calls the biology department at Lady Chatterjee University to handle the problem. Verma, the head of the biology department, has his own theory he would like to test: killing the lead monkey and hanging him in view of the others. His wife tires of his theories and warns him the Hanuman Monkey Temple will be after him if he tries to interfere. In the local army post, the Brigadier picks up the phone. It is Verma, who gets him by mistake. The Brigadier watches birds through binoculars to relax. His goal is to find a green pigeon. He calls the Police Superintendent, who is not available because he is getting his shoes shined. When the Brigadier tries to call the Public Health Department, he gets several wrong numbers. The Brigadier gets in a jeep to visit the CMO. The CMO had gone with Mr. Chawla to see Verma at the university. All the officials missed each other that morning and were not able to discuss the monkey menace. In the orchard, Sampath scolds the monkeys, who have hangovers, but he forgives them.
In his family's house, the Hungry Hop boy nurses his ear, bitten by Pinky Chawla for no reason that he knows. He is babied by his family of twelve women and three men. Sampath thinks the end is coming. Either the monsoon season or the monkey problem will force his removal from the tree. He loves his monkey friends, even when they behave badly. He wants to stay in the orchard to become part of its beauty. Pinky writes a note of apology to the Hungry Hop boy. She tries to deliver it, but the house is guarded by his female relatives. She sees him sitting in the bathroom window, and taking aim with the note in a stone, hits him in the jaw. He is knocked out, and when he comes to, reads the note and is confused with feelings of love. She comes every day. His family thinks he has lost his mind and decides to marry him off, sending a message to Mr. Chawla to keep his daughter at home. Mr. Chawla lectures Pinky and orders Ammaji to be her chaperone. Ammaji has to wear tennis shoes to keep up with Pinky. After a while, Ammaji gives up. Pinky continues stalking the Hungry Hop boy, bribing the milkman to carry their notes.
Sampath writes a poem, inspired by his memory of Brother John at the missionary school. He only feels close to his mother and the monkeys. The spy follows Kulfi around and begins to wonder why his mind is so full of Sampath's teachings. He feels he is being seduced. Kulfi is bored, and keeps searching for new ingredients, realizing she has never cooked monkey! The spy loses her as she climbs into the wild mountain country, daydreaming she is a royal cook conquering the world for whatever ingredient she wants.
The war with the monkeys escalates; many devotees are injured. The monkeys go freely in orchard or bazaar, and it is not safe to be out alone. There are articles on the danger of monkey bites in the papers, and the Hanuman Temple protests on behalf of the monkeys. The officials realize they are in for a severe problem. There are two camps of devotees: one that wants the monkeys destroyed, and one that wants them protected. Sampath is forgotten in the controversy. Meetings and arguments all over town disrupt the once peaceful town of Shahkot.
Verma at the university works on his plan to kill the Cinema Monkey and display its carcass. He delivers this plan to the CMO and sends a copy to the new District Collector, who has not yet arrived. Verma's wife plots a separation from him because she does not approve. The Brigadier also has a plan: a firing squad of a hundred men combing the bush and discharging rifles to scare the monkeys. The CMO suggests revoking all liquor licenses. The Superintendant of Police does nothing because he is lazy. The officials go to Sampath to get his blessings for their projects; crowds of outraged citizens go along with them. Sampath cannot understand their hysteria. He can only speak to a crowd when he is happy, so he says nothing. The ugliness of the situation makes him vomit in their midst, and they leave.
The new District Collector, who has authority from the central government, arrives from Delhi. Mr. Gupta, who used to work with Sampath in the post office, is appointed his secretary. Mr. Gupta meets the new District Collector at the train. He tries to explain the situation and takes the D.C. to his new home. The new D.C. is a young, untried civil servant, and his first posting was supposed to be easy. But suddenly, he is thrust into an emergency for which he is ill prepared.
The D.C. is engaged in meetings with all the officials. He is terrified to look out his window and see the crowds. The evening before, he had gone to the orchard to see Sampath. Sampath and the D.C. both felt equally vulnerable to the crowd and sympathetic to one another. The Monkey Protection Society puts pressure on the D.C., who makes the Brigadier stop firing on the monkeys. Then the CMO calls, followed by angry shopkeepers who do not want their liquor licenses revoked. They hear the crowd shouting Sampath's slogans. The monkeys make another raid. Mr. Chawla approaches the D.C. with an idea to catch the monkeys and truck them off to another forest. The D.C. agrees, and adds that the Baba will have to descend from the tree temporarily while they clean up the orchard. A date is set, but Sampath says he will not descend or abandon the monkeys. Kulfi gets the strange idea of cooking a monkey on this day of clean up. Everything in the orchard now looks like the town: garbage, advertisements, people. Sampath again feels caught in a trap.
The Brigadier trains his men to catch monkeys. The police are preparing the nets. In the orchard, Sampath is wondering how to escape. He is nervous and unable to sleep or eat. His mother cannot tempt him with food. On April 30, the day of the attack, she begins her great feast. Sampath stares into the mountains where there is a waterfall and no people. The monkeys play in the tree, unaware of the plotting against them.
The Hungry Hop boy is trapped in his room, guarded by his relatives, who are plotting his marriage. He gets a note to Pinky, and she sends a note back proposing they escape in the Hungry Hop van on April 30 when everyone is catching monkeys. They should meet at 5 a.m. under the tamarind tree. He agrees. Pinky packs and offers to take her brother with them, but Sampath refuses. Meanwhile, the Hungry Hop boy is introduced to his bride, who turns out to be very pretty. His family promises him a car and a television, and he begins to have doubts about Pinky. On the fateful morning, he gets in his truck, still undecided, and heads to the rendezvous but is cut off in the streets by the cars and people heading toward the orchard.
The D.C. gets up at 4 a.m. to join the army to go to the orchard where they plan to meet the police. When he tries to go out of his driveway, it is blocked by the belongings of the disgruntled cook, who is leaving his job. Just as the Brigadier is pulling out with his troops, he spots the green pigeon he has been looking for. He gets a net, but the pigeon gets away. He thinks this a bad omen. The D.C. catches up to the Brigadier, and they run into the CMO, who is trying to leave town on vacation. The D.C. wishes he had gone into computers instead of civil service. The Brigadier is warned not to go by Verma's house, for his wife is moving out. The cavalcade proceeds slowly until they all get blocked by the Hungry Hop van.
In the orchard, Kulfi sleeps near a boiling pot, ready for the day's catch. She wakes early and goes to the forest for a spice to flavor the pot, passing the spy. Sampath is awake all night watching the beauty of the orchard. The darkness is better than human company. He sits like a Buddha, holding a perfect guava in his hand. In the van, the Hungry Hop boy is still trying to make up his mind as he drives. Pinky sees the van approach, and then, it goes away. It is weaving in and out of the traffic that is trying to get to the orchard. The spy climbs the tree right over Kulfi's pot, so he can see better. In the back of the Brigadier's jeep, the Hungry Hop boy has been tied up to keep him out of the way, as the cars and trucks go to the orchard. Mr. Chawla shouts to Sampath that they are coming. The monkeys get excited, ready to escape. The soldiers get into battle formation. Pinky finds the Hungry Hop boy tied up by the army. She is scornful, for he has let her down. Mr. Chawla goes to the tree to rescue Sampath, but it is empty. Everyone crowds around, but all they see where Sampath used to be is a large guava with a mark like Sampath's birthmark on it. The Cinema Monkey picks up the guava and leaps from the tree with the other monkeys. The monkeys travel higher and higher up the mountain. In the orchard, there is the crack of a tree branch and the spy falls into the cauldron.
Ammaji is Mr. Chawla's mother and Sampath's grandmother. She takes over the duties of her son's wife, since Kulfi seems to be incompetent. She does not mind this, for she does not lose her place of power in the house. Ammaji fusses over Kulfi when she is pregnant, trying to get her to take herbs, or to sing to the baby and watch the planetary configurations. She represents the older traditional habits and lore of India, while her son is the modern trained colonial servant. She defends Sampath to the other family members, and once her son makes a business of Sampath's spiritual role, she joins in with a tea stall. She is proud of her grandson's success, which she once predicted. She is the kind of grandmother who is traditional and supportive to the younger generations, going along with her son, or granddaughter who wants to go to a movie—anything to keep the family together. In the orchard, Ammaji covers for Sampath's lapses, telling stories of his spiritual tendencies to the pilgrims.
The spy is a schoolteacher who hates his job in Shahkot and hopes to win fame as an undercover agent. Sampath Chawla is his first assignment from the Branch to Uncover Fraudulent Holy Men (BUFHM). The spy hangs around listening to Sampath's answers to questions, writing them down in his book and trying to make sense of them. He grew up in poverty and thinks he will one day win fame in the papers as an intellectual on TV. He interprets everything as a fraud because he begins in that frame of mind. He believes the country is held back by beliefs in crazy holy men, and he personally wants to champion intellectualism over religious fraud. Because he came from a poor background, he likes to identify with the upper classes. He decides to persecute Sampath because of the emptiness of his own life, but he traps himself by falling into Kulfi's cauldron while spying on her cooking.
Dr. Banerjee is the doctor from the bazaar clinic who tries to get Sampath down from the tree. He writes an article about monkey bites causing rabies, forcing the CMO to counter with an article saying that rabies is not a problem, so he will not have a crisis on his hands.
The Brigadier is head of the local army post. He sits on a western style toilet, using his binoculars for bird watching, which soothes him. His goal, more important than his job, is to spot a green pigeon. Each morning he methodically washes a different part of his body. His soldiers seem the least interesting part of his concerns, but he does enjoy shouting at them. In the crisis, he plans a firing squad to shoot in the bush and scare off the monkeys.
Kulfi is the eccentric mother of the main character, Sampath. She is beautiful but comes from a crazy or eccentric family and appears to be mentally unstable herself. Mr. Chawla's mother, worried that her son would not have a wife, was responsible for the match. Kulfi had been married off in a hurry when young so her family would not be left with a mad woman. She had begun sleepwalking while eating melons and fruit. Kulfi's family marries her quickly to the Chawlas, who are a lower class. Mr. Chawla resisted the marriage at first, but his mother liked Kulfi and the dowry that would enable them to buy a refrigerator. Kulfi's hunger while pregnant is enormous and does not abate, even after she gives birth. She has dark passionate eyes, but people are uneasy looking at her. Kulfi's obsession with food, oddly enough, does not lead to her cooking or doing anything around the house. She seems bored with domestic life and sits by the window, as though she is in a cage and would like to escape. She lets Ammaji run the house. She rarely cooks; only wild and exotic food will satisfy her. She is a sort of food artist. In watching her son's retreat to the orchard, she remembers her own youth when she felt the need to escape. She knows why he is sitting in a tree; Kulfi and Sampath are the only ones in the family who understand one another. Inspired by what she takes to be Sampath's wisdom, she begins finally to cook the masterpieces that have been in her mind. Her early attempts had been foiled when she tried to steal and cook pheasants from the zoo, but in the orchard, her creativity is unleashed and she is a wild woman when she rounds up the ingredients, such as seeds, eggs, and animals. While the forest pacifies Sampath, Kulfi is stimulated and ignores warnings about snakes and scorpions. She daydreams of being a royal cook. Mr. Chawla thinks her crazy and would like to have her committed but does not do so to protect the family name. When he threatens to build a cement hermitage for Sampath, Kulfi confides her idea to Sampath that all of them could be poisoned! Sampath suspects that she once purposely made him sick on her food to get him out of school. She cooks one of every kind of creature in the forest and has to search harder and harder for new ingredients; finally, she comes up with one ingredient she has never used before: monkey!
Pinky, the younger sister of Sampath, is a rather empty-headed teen Indian girl interested in clothes, appearances, and romance. She is embarrassed by her brother initially and only gradually feels sympathy for him. She is pretty and likes to get her own way; she is not afraid to ride the bus and stab aggressive men with her hairpin. She resents living in the orchard with her family because she cannot be part of the social scene in town. She is a dramatic and emotional young woman who insists that men follow her around. After she is rescued from the Cinema Monkey by the Hungry Hop ice cream vendor, she has more sympathy for Sampath, thinking they are both victims of life. She luxuriates in her romantic despair under Sampath's tree. She pursues the Hungry Hop boy, not sure in her adolescent confusion whether she likes him or not. She bites through his ear but is not arrested because she is the Baba's sister. She pursues the Hungry Hop boy until he agrees to run away with her but scorns him when he is unable to live up to her demands.
Mr. R. K. Chawla
Mr. R. K. Chawla is Sampath's prosaic father; he has the opposite personality of Sampath or Kulfi. He is a finicky and exact bureaucrat, the head clerk of the Reserve Bank of Shahkot. He does not like irregularities in life, so he hardly knows what to make of his wild wife and son. He gives advice to his pregnant wife, who ignores him. He has a slight build but feels a need to throw around his authority. He does everything by the clock and by the book; he is a modern Indian bureaucrat. Early on, he gives up trying to influence his crazy wife and tries to mold Sampath, which proves equally impossible. Once Sampath moves into the guava orchard, Mr. Chawla first tries to get his son healed or married, then gives up and makes a business out of the orchard holy man. He sees only the materialistic aspect of the situation, yet he believes himself to be honest. For instance, he tells himself that the bank account for his son's temple would not be for embezzling, and yet later it turns out he has been using it for personal investments. He becomes desperate when the monkeys invade and his son starts to withdraw after he proposes a cement hermitage. Mr. Chawla feels vulnerable in all the hullabaloo and comes up with the final plan to catch the monkeys.
The son born to Kulfi and Mr. Chawla during the monsoon is the main character. He is born with a brown birthmark on his cheek and, because he came with the rains, he is called Sampath—Good Fortune. Kulfi is soothed by him. He grows up a strange boy, imaginative, and attracted, like his mother, to sensuous beauty. Also like her, he seems to get lost in the objects of his perception, becoming one with them. Thus, at the wedding of his boss's daughter, he takes the colors and textures of the wedding clothes into himself until he is drunk on the beauty and sings naked in the fountain. He could be seen either as mad or as an ecstatic mystic. Thus, in a key moment while eating a guava, he becomes the guava's sweetness and has the desire to run away. He cannot make himself do the tiresome tasks of the world any more and has little control or social sense. He climbs and stays in the guava tree in the orchard as a bid for freedom and feels this is the way life should be, peaceful and beautiful. However, soon his family and neighbors arrive to get him down. His inspired trick of telling all the people their secrets, found out from the letters he has read in the post office, leads to his being pronounced a clairvoyant holy man. People arrive to ask questions of the so-called Monkey Baba, and he obliges with aphoristic riddles that don't make complete sense but leave people satisfied with the profound wisdom. Sampath is suddenly turned around from a fool to a respected wise man, and he can't help enjoying it at first. He prefers the monkeys who settle in his tree, however, as more his type. His taming of the monkeys is seen as another miracle, for monkeys are dangerous and can wound or kill a person. When the monkeys become a drunken nuisance, everyone wants to get rid of them except for Sampath. He thinks to himself that the only people who make sense are his mad mother, the wild monkeys, and himself. He seems part monkey himself, enjoying naughty pranks and spontaneous behavior. He feels the tree in the orchard represents the first time he has truly seen life as it is—he is at one with its beauty. If he could only stay long enough, he could melt into it. As the people converge on the orchard in a moment of maximum chaos, Sampath apparently disappears as he holds a guava; like a Buddha, he is absorbed into its life force. The fruit bears a mark exactly like Sampath's birthmark.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Shahkot
The Chief Medical Officer is a hypochondriac, worried about his ulcers. When they flare up, he drinks onion juice. He does not want to deal with the monkey crisis and passes it off to the biology department at the university. He is a satire on the Indian civil servant, more concerned with his own benefits than with helping the public. He wants to get promoted to get out of Shahkot, and proposes to solve the monkey problem by revoking all liquor licenses, which is a very unpopular move.
The D.C., or District Collector, comes from Delhi to the backwater of Shahkot as his first posting. He is quiet and firm in his ideals, and is still young to government service. He is thin and weak. His father is influential in the Indian Administrative Service. He is afraid of getting a black mark on his record if he doesn't handle the crisis in Shahkot carefully without offending any group. Each official pushes his own plan to get rid of the monkeys in hopes of winning glory. Mr. Gupta from the post office becomes his secretary. It doesn't look hopeful for him; the first thing that happens is he offends his old cook, who resigns because the D.C. won't eat British chops.
Mr. D.P.S. is the head of the post office and is Sampath's boss. He fires Sampath during his daughter's wedding, when Sampath drops his pants in the fountain in front of the wedding guests.
Mr. Gupta works in the post office with Sampath, and is sympathetic to Sampath when Sampath is fired. He later becomes secretary to the new District Collector, advising him on the tense situation in Shahkot.
Hungry Hop Ice Cream Boy
The Hungry Hop boy sells Kwality ice cream from a cart in front of the cinema and rescues Pinky Chawla and her grandmother from the Cinema Monkey. He is described as slow but good natured, so he doesn't understand Pinky's romantic attentions until she bites his ear in frustration. He recuperates at home, guarded by his female relatives. Pinky manages to deliver notes to him and kindle a romantic attachment. They plan to run away together, but his family tries to bribe him by marrying him off to a pretty girl. He is confused because, if he stays, life will be simple for him, but Pinky is exciting and forbidden. He sneaks out to the rendezvous with Pinky, only to be sabotaged by the forces marching on the orchard to capture the monkeys. Pinky gives up on him in disgust because he doesn't know how to play his part as the hero.
Sampath remembers this missionary teacher of literature as his favorite teacher, dismissed for pinching the bottom of a sweeper woman. He gave Sampath his only good experience at the school by reading beautiful poetry with passion. Sampath loves the words in the poem Brother John read, and thus writes his own poem.
Miss Jyotsna is the pretty employee in the post office with Sampath. He was always attracted to her beauty and liked to watch her flirt. He knew from the contents of her purse how much she owed stores and used this knowledge when telling the secrets of the townspeople. Believing he is clairvoyant, she becomes a devotee of the Monkey Baba, singing hymns and telling stories of his post office days to the other devotees. She delivers his fan mail to the orchard. In the controversy over the monkeys, she sides with protecting the monkeys and hits the atheist spy with her purse.
Superintendant of Police
The Superintendant of Police loves Shahkot and accepts it as it is. He is lazy and likes to associate with his town cronies and his sexy wife, rather than wasting time in dealing with the monkeys.
Verma is the head of the Biology Department at Lady Chatterjee University, who has theories on everything, including how to solve the monkey problem by killing the leader to frighten off the others. His theories usually fail, such as the time he tried to feed sleeping pills to the monkeys, and the street urchins ate the food instead. His wife decides to leave him because she is fed up with his self-importance and his useless theories.
Freedom from the Mundane
The primary motivation of the main character, Sampath, is to be free of the forced and false manners of life. He hates his job in the post office and goofs off, unable to make himself focus on things he doesn't like. When he loses his job for his indecent and high spirited antics at his boss's daughter's wedding, his father angrily says he will have to find him another job. Mr. Chawla is an ambitious civil servant and has no idea what ails his son or why his son is such a failure. Sampath feels everyone is conspiring to keep him in a net. "It was a prison he had been born into." He wants a natural and free life: "He wanted open spaces. And he wanted them in large swathes, in days that were clear stretches he could fill with as little as he wished."
Many of the characters have similar urges, for instance, Kulfi, Sampath's half mad and repressed mother. From the moment she is made to marry, Kulfi refuses to cooperate or perform her duties unless she wants to. As sensuously aware as Sampath, she loves color, texture, taste, and paints the walls of the house while pregnant. She imagines and cooks sumptuous dishes once she is set free from the house and can live in the forest near Sampath.
Kulfi and Sampath seem extreme in their need to be free, but other characters have needs as well. The Chief Medical Officer wants to get out of Shahkot, so he can have peace and quiet. The wife of Verma leaves him to be free of his domineering theories. The Hungry Hop boy wants to be free of his female relatives, and Pinky wants to run away from boredom.
The most freedom loving creatures are the monkeys, that come and go as they will, and create havoc, for they cannot be caught or tamed. Sampath sees them as a symbol of his own joy, swearing he will not live without them. Sampath represents the human urge to be free of constraint, without social conformity. The two conflicting urges of freedom and conformity have to be kept in balance by most adults. Sampath, however, lacks any social sense, like the monkeys. He finally runs away from home when he tastes the sweetness of a guava and feels its wildness within, thus shedding his last social conditioning. He takes up his home in a guava tree as the most natural home for him: "This was the way of riches and this was a king's life, he thought."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the influence of English colonization in India. In terms of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, give a class presentation in which you discuss examples of the English legacy that can be found in the town of Shahkot.
- Research the role of women and marriage customs in ancient India. Write a paper showing how ancient ideas about women are still evident in modern India and how those roles are changing. Discuss this topic in terms of the female characters in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. Focus particularly on Pinky, Kulfi, and Ammaji, three generations of Indian women.
- Have different class members report on the various religions of India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Discuss the conflicts in Indian life due to religious differences, as well as the religious concepts and customs brought up or implied in the book. How do these concepts of worship and devotion differ from Western ideas? Compile a group paper on the topic.
- Write a paper on the Independence Movement in India under Mahatma Gandhi. Are any of Gandhi's values of peaceful civil disobedience innocently reflected in Sampath's behavior? Give examples from the book.
- Watch one or more of the films from Satyajit Ray's masterpiece, the "Apu Trilogy," such as Pather Panchali. Write an essay in which you comment on the issues of Indian life shown in the films, comparing them to those that are also mentioned in Desai's novel.
The narrative shows the forces civilization uses to keep people from having such freedom: religion, family, economics, social beliefs, and politics. Sampath simply walks away from it all. Only two kinds of people are bold enough to do this: a madman or a holy man. It is a matter of debate which one he truly is.
The Joys and Sorrows of the Imagination
Both Kulfi and Sampath suffer because they have too much imagination for the ordinary world. They find that, to get along, they have to suppress their extraordinary sensibilities, for they are aware in ways that others are asleep. Sampath has the perception of a poet or artist. He gets lost in his studies, distracted by the sound of words, or the shapes of maps.
Kulfi processes the world through taste and cooking. She is a culinary artist, searching each day for new herbs and spices, driving everyone in the orchard mad for her delicately flavored dishes. In the orchard, she alone understands Sampath's urge to live in a tree. For it is in the outdoors that her own imagination is set free: "She felt she was on the brink of something enormous." She daydreams of being a royal cook who could command the world to supply her with endless ingredients.
By contrast we have Mr. Chawla, who knows nothing in an orchard but how to make money from his son's career as a holy man. The Hungry Hop ice cream boy is similarly ignorant of the romantic interests of Pinky Chawla, who he thinks hates him when she bites his ear. She has to become the aggressor in the romance, for he does not have the imagination to keep up with her. Most of the townsfolk are interested in mere advancement in life, like the civil servants, who have their own comforts in mind and cannot see farther than their noses.
Tradition versus Modernity
The many layered life of India provides the setting of the story. The grandmother, Ammaji, is pushing traditional remedies and astrological lore on Sampath, while the father, proud of his modern banking career, and a product of the English system, castigates his mother's ignorance. He performs yoga exercises at home, then puts on Western manners and goes to work. Pinky is a teenager caught between old and new images of marriage. She wants to look like the Indian movie stars she sees on screen, and have a romantic affair, but her father wants her to be secluded, modest, and shy, like the ideal Indian woman. He cannot decide whether he wants her to go to business school or stay home. She has her own ideas; she rides the bus and pokes men who pinch her, and pursues the Hungry Hop boy.
The small town of Shahkot, like much of rural India, has electricity intermittently and an antiquated phone system that rings the wrong numbers. The barbed wire fence around the post office is vandalized and used by people who scrounge for what they need. The town moves slowly in its ways, though it has its modern face with movie house, buses, cars, and a university. If the traditional desire for religious gurus makes people see Sampath as a holy man, it also produces a modern atheist who wants to debunk the fraud and save India from the dark ages. These contradictions of old India and modern India, side by side, provide much of the humorous satire.
The Limitations of Point of View
The problem of interpretation or multiple points of view becomes a comic issue in the story as everyone has a version of who Sampath is and what to do about the monkeys in the orchard. Shirley Chew, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concludes that Desai has "in hilarious and subtle ways, taught us to look again and with fresh eyes at the world we make for ourselves."
At first Mr. Chawla treats Sampath's desire to live in a tree as a sickness or madness, and he calls in a doctor, then tries Tibetan medicine, homeopathy, Ayurveda, and finally tries to marry his son off. As soon as Sampath is pronounced a holy man, Mr. Chawla changes his tune, seeing his son as a success and the orchard a commercially lucrative shrine. Miss Jyotsna, a former post office employee with Sampath, suddenly becomes Sampath's devotee; she sings hymns under his tree, and begins believing in his proverbs. By contrast, the atheist spy tries to gather evidence of a hoax. There is Pinky's point of view of her brother as a fellow sufferer in life, and the mother's and grandmother's maternal sympathy. The bureaucrats in town have different points of view on how to rid the orchard of the monkey problem, from military attack to poisoning. Sampath, on the other hand, views the monkeys as his only friends, the only creatures that make sense to him. The narrator concludes: "Sampath himself was forgotten in the fray, although his name was bounced back and forth between the warring factions like a Ping-Pong ball."
The point is that no one can comprehend the wild and free life that Sampath and the monkeys represent, because they see it from their own narrow perspective. Desai makes clashing points of view funny and demonstrative of the postcolonial
condition of India; at the same time, she shows it is a universal trait of the human condition.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard has some characteristics of folklore, part of the long tradition of oral literature that was passed from generation to generation before stories were written down. Folklore includes folk tales, fairy tales, fables, proverbs and legends. A fable is a short narrative, often with animal characters, or of a fantastic nature, that teaches morals or ethics. Examples are Aesop's fables, which contains familiar tales such as the Tortoise and the Hare (the race is not always won by the swift). India has a rich legacy of folklore and fables in the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales, for instance. The Panchatantra of Bidpai is set in a framework as lessons in the art of politics for princes but includes animal characters to illustrate the points. Similarly, the Jataka Tales teach Buddhist ethics through animal characters, like the greedy crow. Desai's novel is set in modern India but feels like a fable with fantastic characters, the monkeys, and the hero turning into a guava. Sampath teaches in proverbs from his tree, and some of the sayings play on platitudes familiar to an Indian audience.
Satire and Folly Literature
Satire is a kind of literature using absurdity, fantasy, and nonsense to criticize society. The fool is a character who, through lack of virtue or balance, reveals the vices of society. In European tradition, the novel The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brandt (1494) presents society as a collection of fools, each with a different vice. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) and Candide by Voltaire (1759) are works in the same vein. Desai, familiar with both eastern and western literature, uses this kind of narrative to create a string of fools. The administrators and citizens of the town of Shahkot, such as the Brigadier, the CMO, Verma, the biologist, the chief of police, the Hungry Hop boy, Mr. Gupta, and Sampath's father and sister all have eccentricities deemed in the normal range by society, whereas Sampath's desire to live in a tree is judged extreme. One of Desai's Indian predecessors is R.K. Narayan, who had written novels about humorous local characters in a fictional town called Malgudi, a model for Shahkot. Sampath is the name of one of Narayan's characters in his 1949 book Mr. Sampath, A Printer of Malgudi.
The Religious Quest
Indian literature is full of characters who leave home, like the Buddha, in search of enlightenment. In this tradition, Sampath's running away to the forest is a familiar motif, for the Indian pilgrim would renounce the world and seek a teacher or retreat. In the great Indian epic, The Ramayana, the prince Rama is banished to the forest to live as an ascetic for a certain number of years. In the forest, Rama and his wife meet many holy men who impart wisdom and blessings. When a demon abducts Rama's wife from their hermitage, Rama seeks help from the monkeys. Hanuman, a monkey general who is a god in disguise, helps him win a war against the demons with an army of monkeys. Once the war is won, the monkeys get drunk and tear up the forest. Hanuman is forever the sworn and devoted friend of Rama. This universally known and loved story of India has some humorous echoes in Desai's novel, with the bond between Sampath and the monkeys, and his excusing their drunken rampages. Sampath's quest for freedom ends in a sort of symbolic enlightenment as he becomes one with all life by turning into a guava. The poetry and rich appeals to the senses in traditional Indian literature are delightfully adapted by Desai in her style.
The Indian Novel in English
There is a long tradition of English writing from Indian authors, and a very rich heritage of vernacular literature as well in India's beautiful languages, such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, and Tamil. Since India gained its independence in 1947, however, its writers have used the novel in English more extensively as an artistic vehicle to express the contemporary condition of their country. English, the language of their former oppressor, Great Britain, has the advantage of being a common second language for India's millions. Through the vehicle of a novel written in English, writers from diverse backgrounds, languages, and styles have been able to share their vision and memory of India. In particular, Salman Rushdie in 1981, with the publication of Midnight's Children, for which he won the Booker Prize, announced a new international awareness for the secular, Indian postcolonial novel. The name of his novel refers to the children born after midnight on the day of Indian independence into a different world than the old India, and it has stuck as a name for a whole generation of writers and their way of seeing the past through critical and personal lenses. This type of novel has been used by many famous authors since the 1980s and includes such works as Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1996) and Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting (1999).
These novels have in common that they are in English, and though they use traditional references, they are secular in emphasis (without a particular religious bias), and they speak mostly of colonial or postcolonial (after independence in 1947) events. They probe the political, psychological, and historical confusion of a people who are both traditional and modern at the same time. Rushdie made famous a nonlinear style of magical realism (a blend of realism and fantasy) that could imitate the large and mythic canvas of the traditional Indian epic, while peppered with the incongruities of modern life. Other novelists use other styles, and Desai, though her tale is mythic in nature, eschews the label magical realism being applied to her work. Kiran Desai's younger generation of Indian writers is sometimes dubbed as Midnight's Grandchildren because they are a later generation than Rushdie's. This group has not only Indian tradition to draw from, but also earlier models in the Indian-English novel, from such authors as Rushdie and Kiran's mother, Anita Desai. The town of Shahkot, though made humorous with fantastic characters, still clearly exhibits the clashing values of postcolonial India.
India contains remnants of the oldest civilizations on earth; an example is, the Indus Valley Civilization dating to approximately 3,000 b.c.e. in Northern India and Pakistan, in the valley of the Indus River. It was a sophisticated urban trading culture (Harappa and Mahenjo-daro were notable cities), with developed agriculture, arts, and science. This was followed by the Vedic period when the major Hindu religious texts, the Vedas, were composed in Vedic Sanskrit during the second and first millennia b.c.e. The Vedic civilization centered around the Ganges River and the northern plains of India, producing the most familiar cultural practices of India today. Society was divided into four groups: Brahmins, or religious priests; the Kshatriyas, rulers and warriors; the Vaishyas or citizens; and the laborers or Shudras. Modern India has abolished the caste system, but there are plenty of references in Desai's novel to the lingering class distinctions. For instance, Mr. Chawla does not want his daughter Pinky to associate with the Hungry Hop boy, as he is beneath her. Kulfi was married to someone beneath her station because she was considered mad and hard to marry off.
In traditional India, the desire for the soul's liberation from its earthly rounds of reincarnation led pilgrims to renounce the world as a trap and seek a religious teacher, as the citizens of Shahkot believe Sampath to be. Such historical religious teachers as the Buddha who founded Buddhism, or Mahavira, a major figure in Jainism, are deeply revered models of non-attachment to the material world. Sitting at the feet of an enlightened teacher was considered a way to come out of suffering, and the pithy proverbs of great masters in the collection known as Upanishads are the familiar background for Sampath's clichés and platitudes in the guava orchard (as in the Sermon in the Guava Tree, Chapter 8).
This ancient India is still very alive in India today and pictured in the novel in the marriage customs, the family and traditional feasts, the religious beliefs, and the holy men that can still be seen everywhere, sitting under trees, by rivers, or begging for their food. The Society for the Protection of Monkeys in the novel is a humorous hit at a fundamentalism that would claim all monkeys as divine because the god Hanuman was. The ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, depicts the gods coming down from heaven in the form of monkeys to help the hero Rama win a war against evil. The monkey god Hanuman was a friend of Rama's, and Hanuman is still worshipped in India today, so monkeys, like cows, could have a religious significance for some Hindus. Buddha was also said to have had an incarnation as a monkey.
The British East India Company was given permission by a Mughal emperor in 1617 to trade in India. In protecting its trading interests, Britain used more and more military force, until it took over large areas of India and its administration, with the cooperation of local rulers. The British used the policy of Divide and Rule, thus playing off the local enmities of individual Indian states against each other, to gain a foothold. In 1857, after the rebellious Indian Mutiny, the English Crown took over the country, adding India to its empire. The British ruled in India with many trained Indians as part of their administrative staff. The upper classes of India lost their traditional power, and in order to gain advancement in the new system, Indians had to have an English education and training to get positions in the British Raj.
From the 1920s, leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi sought to rouse the Indian people from their colonial stupor. Gandhi taught the people to boycott English products and to make their own cloth and salt. He used the principle of nonviolence to protest the presence of the British and gained a following of millions. He was miraculously able to unify all the religious factions of India, particularly the Hindus and Muslims, who were rivals. Independence was granted in 1947, with the partition of the country into largely Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. India today retains its many religions and cultures but is a secular state, a parliamentary democratic republic modeled on the British system.
Desai's novel takes place in contemporary India as a postcolonial nation. Postcolonialism has a special meaning for the former territories of European nations. All of the countries in Africa, Asia, or the Americas that were held by European powers were drastically changed by the dominant and foreign culture. The Indian Civil Service, for example, is a remnant of the British Administrative System, and is subject to Desai's satire. The British system of administration is often seen as completely unsuitable, rigid, and laughable when applied to Indian life. All of the officials in Shahkot are ridiculous and incompetent, retaining the air and mannerisms of British lackeys. There is a chain of command, from the Police Commissioner to the District Collector, who arrives from Delhi to straighten out the hopeless mess of the locals.
The postcolonial nations often exhibit symptoms of displacement, shock, and mixed values,
amounting to a modern identity crisis. Because of the globalized western economy, they cannot go back to the way things were, and they cannot forget their origins. Mr. Chawla is on one side, for instance, with his Western business values, and the atheist spy is part of the secular group in India who wants to drop the old religion and be part of the modern world. The Hanuman Temple Group, on the other hand, is part of an older religious view, and the people who want to worship Sampath as a guru hark back to their sacred roots. These confusions of the old and new are made fun of in this novel. In her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss Desai spells out the tragic cost of fractured values to millions of postcolonial people today.
There was a good deal of advance publicity for Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard because of Kiran Desai's literary connections. Part of the novel was pre-published in the New Yorker and in Salman Rushdie's anthology of Indian writing in English, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997 (1997). Rushdie's pronouncement in the introduction to that anthology, that the forthcoming book was "lush and intensely imagined," set the tone for reviews when the book came out in 1998.
Zia Jaffrey, writing in the New York Times, was, like many, disappointed in the linear plot and ending. Nevertheless, she states that the "characters are juicy morsels" in this layered parable of India that feels like "a medieval tapestry." A reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly calls the author "a masterful satirist of human foibles, vanities and self-delusions." While the reviewer agrees that the plot fizzles out at the end, the critic praises Desai as "an impeccable stylist." Indeed, Desai's prose is universally admired for its beauty and sensuous detail.
Many critics cannot decide how to categorize Desai in the tradition of the Indian novel—whether she is closer to her mother, Anita Desai, or to R.K. Narayan, to Salman Rushdie, to Arundhati Roy, or whether she is a writer whose work exists apart from that of her cultural peers. Matt Condon, writing in the Sun Herald claims the reader may start by "groan[ing] with the familiarity" of the motifs, but that later on, the book "takes flight into often ludicrous fancy and becomes something unique." Nurjehan Aziz, writing in the Globe and Mail, agrees that the book presents a romantic picture of India, but the critic likens "the fabulist nature of the story and its clean lines" to R. K. Narayan's novels. Regardless, critics generally appreciate the Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard's funny and imaginative treatment of India.
Andersen holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature and writing. In this essay on Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, she discusses the main character of the novel as an example of a literary device, that of the wise fool.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard highlights all sorts of foolish characters in Desai's satirical look at a small town in contemporary North India. Everyone from the Brigadier to Pinky Chawla represents some sort of human illusion or folly. Sampath Chawla is also a fool, yet he is a wise fool. In his naïveté, his thoughts and actions are unwittingly clever. Sampath shows, through his innocent bid for freedom, how unnecessarily binding the constraints of society truly are. He is the touchstone that reveals the hypocrisy of his culture.
Sampath's flight from his society to a guava tree is humorously treated by Desai, yet there is a serious core to it that puts Sampath in the company of other wise fools. The tradition of the spiritual quest is both parodied and taken seriously, for it has much in common with the artist's quest. Furthermore, Sampath is certainly a religious humbug (as the spy from the Atheist Society tries to show), though the role of a holy man has been forced upon him. Sampath prefers to be left alone. He articulates a genuine human aspiration for freedom and joy, as well as simplicity in life and the ability to live in the present moment.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (2nd edition; 2002), by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, has chapters defining postcolonial literature (a term applying to literature produced by the citizens or former citizens of countries that were once colonized by the British) and proposing models for cross-cultural criticism. It includes discussion of postcolonial works, such as those by V. S. Naipaul and R. K. Narayan.
- Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (2000), a Booker Prize finalist, is a novel by Kiran's mother about the process of self-understanding. It is set in India and tells the story of four children in the Das family who have grown up and grown apart.
- Kiran Desai's second novel, The Inheritance of Loss (2006), won the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction. It is set in both New York and Nepal in the 1980s, and it follows the lives of characters who immigrate to New York, as well as those who stay in their volatile homeland of Nepal.
- Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1970) portrays Chance, the simpleton gardener who is reminiscent of Sampath. Chance's gardening advice is seen by other characters as profound wisdom.
- R. K. Narayan's The Guide (1958) is a predecessor for Shahkot's hullabaloo. The novel portrays Raju, a corrupt Indian tourist guide who has just been released from prison. Raju is mistaken by a peasant for a holy man, thus obliging him to play the part.
Sampath's yearning to be rid of the distractions of life is interpreted variously as religion, rebellion, madness, or illness by the other characters. Indeed, Sampath's interactions in the village of Shahkot present a humorous critique of many Indian institutions. All the contradictions of religious and social boundaries that keep the people, as Sampath feels, in a prison, are rejected by him: "He thought of how he was leaving the world, a world that made its endless revolutions towards nothing." Because of this, Sampath is perceived as either a holy man or a lunatic. The pronouncement of his holiness depends on a series of funny misunderstandings, including the assumption that he is celibate when in reality he merely feels that the woman foisted on him for a wife is repulsive. His true malady is totally missed by everyone except Kulfi, who suffers from the same claustrophobia as her son.
Kulfi's protest against her own stifled life is simply to withdraw. She does not participate in the household chores but leaves them to the grandmother, Ammaji. Sampath, however, reaches a crisis in which he must do something more, for he cannot bear another job after he gets fired. Kulfi tries to soothe him by offering to make him an egg. Sampath replies: "I do not want an egg … I want my freedom." After Kulfi has put a guava in his hand, "he wished he could absorb all its coolness, all its quiet and stillness into him." And then in a fantastic moment, he gets his wish and begins to expand "with a cool greenness" and "wild sweetness." This is his inspiration to run off to the guava orchard.
There, his quest to become a part of beauty continues, as he sits in his tree, despite the hullabaloo with his family, the pilgrims, and the monkeys below. Though none of the characters are seen as evil, most are petty and unimaginative. There are, for example, the town officials who come up with lame schemes to get rid of the monkeys, and the Hungry Hop boy, who can think of nothing more than selling ice cream or having a TV set and a new car. Sampath, however, is the fool who wants the freedom to become a guava, a feat which he accomplishes in the last scene.
From Sampath's point of view, his quest to become one with beauty is fulfilled. In his tree "he felt weightless … rocked by this lambent light." He is more and more thirsty for the world's loveliness, but the more he reaches for it, the more it escapes from him. He decides it must "reach out and claim him instead." And it finally does. In the last night in the orchard, Sampath seems to have what might be called Buddha's experience of samadhi, or oneness with the universe. He is the Buddha in the tree, instead of beneath the tree: "He could let all [the dark's] whisperings, all its shades of violet, float into him. This impersonal darkness could be comforting as no human attention ever was." Then he picks a guava with a "Perfect Buddha shape." In the morning, he is gone, and only the guava bearing Sampath's birthmark remains. Is Sampath's transformation simply a foolish parody, or the echo of ancient Indian stories?
Sampath's proverbial non sequiturs highlight his role as a wise fool. When a pilgrim asks about the best way to realize God, Sampath answers: "Some people can only digest fish cooked in a light curry. Others are of a sour disposition." The people accept his sayings as allegorical truth, but they puzzle over the interpretation of such difficult maxims as "first a chikoo is raw … if you do not pick and eat it quickly, it will soon rot and turn to alcohol." The narrator records the confusion: "What was he saying? That the time of perfection passes, that you should eat a chikoo at the right time only?" In addition, Sampath's protection of the monkeys is seen by the religious fanatics as support for the divinity of monkeys. On the other hand, the atheist spy, hoping to prove that Sampath is a fraud, can only repeat Sampath's wacky sayings, thus appearing to be foolish himself. Sampath sits serenely in the middle of the hullabaloo while those around him self-destruct in their own illusions. In this way, he is truly a wise fool.
The contrast of Sampath's world of imagination and the petty ugliness of modern Indian life becomes more and more glaring as the orchard is turned into a commercial nightmare with ads, blaring PA systems, busloads of visitors, drunken monkeys, and the constant interruption by people asking Sampath questions about their lives. Chapter 19 goes back and forth between Sampath as he looks at the precious objects in his tin can—a spider, feathers, seeds, a moth—and the soldiers and officials who surround the orchard in this perceived crisis, one which has been created by their own folly. Sampath is part monkey, part guava; he is a fool, but he is wiser than the fools he leaves behind.
Source: Susan Andersen, Critical Essay on Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Kumar discusses Desai's Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard in the context of other well-known Indian writers.
Paul Theroux once complained that in V. S. Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), "There is no smell, no heat or dust, no sweating men, no lisping saris, no honking traffic, nothing except the sound of yakking Indians." There are by now nearly one billion of those "yakking Indians" in the world—although Theroux's long, entertaining, damning book about Naipaul is hardly the best place to hear them.
In Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998), Indians utter charming phrases like, "I am not knowing, sir"; I don't recall a single Indian from Theroux's book who didn't speak in funny, babu English. While Naipaul often wrote about intriguing and sophisticated people like Mallika, the Muslim widow of the Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, Theroux seems to think that India is best glimpsed in endless descriptions of urban clamor. In fact, Theroux rarely bothers to talk with the Indians he meets, and his conclusions about them always have to do with caste. He follows this rule with everyone; Naipaul himself is no more exempt than the Brahman beggar by the roadside. In a passage that would shame even the colonial anthropologist of a bygone era, Theroux—undaunted by the nuances of personality, or even culture—perceives an essential Indian identity in his literary hero. "It had taken me a long time to understand that Vidia was not in any sense English, not even Anglicized, but Indian to the core—caste conscious, race conscious, a food fanatic, precious in his fears from worrying about his body being ‘tainted.’"
Theroux's cartoonish visions of India stay with him no matter how far he journeys from the subcontinent. In London, his erstwhile mentor seems suddenly pathetic:
Vidia on a London street was less likely a Nobel Prize candidate than a shopkeeper, the very dukawallah he despaired of: a London newsagent hurrying from the bank back to his shop, where he hawked cigarettes, chewing gum, and the daily newspapers, keeping the tit-and-bum magazines an the top shelf. That place was now a national institution, known throughout Britain as "the Paki shop."
By forcefully recreating the well-known British stereotype of the indian shopkeeper, Theroux shows his sympathy for Naipaul's troubled encounter with the West. But this seemingly compassionate description conceals an ambiguous insult: in sketching the portrait of an anonymous Indian scuttling along, is Theroux bringing down the writer or the shopkeeper? Or both?
Theroux's brand of casually chauvinistic insight is actually a sign of willful and obstinate ignorance. It's almost enough to make the reader nostalgic for Naipaul's arrogant knowingness: even in his most uncharitable moments, Naipaul has never presumed to speak for anyone else. In one passage from Sir Vidia's Shadow, Naipaul expresses his contempt for the writer who would try to serve as a spokesman. "He is just bringing news," Naipaul says. "That is what he does. Brings news from Nottingham, from working-class people. It's not writing, really. It's news. Don't be that sort of writer, bringing news."
That's not bad advice. Many writers would do well to take it to heart—especially the new generation of Indian writers whose faces are so resolutely turned toward the West. In simply bringing news, these writers produce bad books. Worse still, forgetting the manners taught in the English-language convent schools that they all no doubt attended, these writers reveal their distaste for the poor and weak around whom they cannot help but wrap the eight arms of their narratives.
In the summer of 1998, India—and then Pakistan—suddenly exploded on the front pages of the newspapers around the world. The nuclear bomb tests were the culmination of a heady season of self-assertion, a year during which the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence came to life in a flurry of literary acclaim. By December, it was clear that South Asia's literary stable was even more fearsome than its atomic arsenal. Breathless, magazines like the New Republic almost begged for mercy:
Macaulay, who said that "a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India," has been paid back for his ignorant denigration of Indian literature: he has been pelted with masterpieces. His punishment has taken a form which he could not have imagined, the vivid prosperity of an Indian literature, and a Pakistani literature, written in Macaulay's own language.
This sudden attention was certainly not unwelcome. In the ice-cream parlors of New Delhi, a lot of Indians were happy to receive so much notice in the pages of the New Republic, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic. The literary magazine Granta even saw fit to send a reporter to my own little-noticed hometown, Patna. There, an intrepid Brit found Mistah Kurtz in the figure of our chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav. Apparently, "Laloo" took Granta's emissary for a walk through his vegetable garden and offered friendly dietary information: "‘This is satthu,’ he said. ‘Very good for wind.’"
Such characters also appeared in the Indian fiction that appeared in the same magazines at around the same time. As these magazines are all published in English, the Western reader could be forgiven for believing that Indians write only in English. In fact, some Indians seem to believe this, too: Salman Rushdie added grist to the anglophone mill with his infamous claim that Indian literature in English far exceeds in quality Indian literature in all other languages. He has admitted that he doesn't know those other languages, and that there have been problems with translation, but none of this troubles him overmuch. Rushdie fervently believes "that India's encounter with the English language continues to give birth to new children," and as proof he offers Kiran Desai's debut novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998). Her book has lots of heat and dust, sweating men, lisping saris, and honking traffic, as well as plenty of yakking Indians. Too many, perhaps: in order to escape them, Sampath—the novel's verbose, daydreaming hero—climbs up a tree and finds himself suddenly transformed into a holy man. Salman Rushdie, meet Deepak Chopra.
Sampath wants to escape the "ugly sea of humanity" and find refuge in a world "where there was not a trace of civilization." He offers mindless platitudes, some of which were culled by the author from Bhargava's Standard Illustrated Dictionary of the Hindi Language: "Dab your mouth with honey and you will get plenty of flies… Sweep before your own door… Many a pickle makes a mickle … Talk of chalk and hear about cheese." Eccentrics are numerous in the novel, and all events remain odd but harmless. Like the reporter from Granta visiting Patna, Desai offers the reader a comforting assortment of quaint folks: no poets or historians, union leaders, female doctors, teachers, people filled with purpose. Desai's characters lead sheltered lives, far removed from the unsightly world of GATT debates and nuclear bombs. Mainly inoffensive and mildly cretinous, the Indians in her novel pose no threat to anyone, least of all to the West.
Even before she published the novel, Desai (along with her mother, Anita, and, of course, Salman Rushdie) was among the eleven writers tagged as "India's leading novelists" in a group portrait in the New Yorker's 1997 Indian Fiction issue. Now that we have the book, we may well ask: Where's the hullabaloo? Indeed, there is nothing in her novel that exceeds the mannered fabulism of R. K. Narayan, a style that charmed readers for decades before Rushdie gave it the poison of history to drink and—overnight!—it grew a tail and claws. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard never quite escapes this monstrous moral economy of the pleasant.
In spite of her Narayan-like fascination with the pastoral, Desai—like Rushdie—seems most interested in social dysfunction. She zeroes in on Sampath's mother, Kulfi, who is suffocating beneath flowering neuroses and private grief. The novel even offers a couple of remarkable passages on the institution of marriage and the demands it can make on women in India; on the two or three best pages of her novel, Desai mocks both Jane Austen and the Manu Smriti, the antiquated Hindu code of law. At this point, the reader might eagerly anticipate a moving story about the perils of gender in India. But Desai—like Rushdie—lacks any sense of social engagement, and she is quick to pathologize Kulfi's nonconformity. Like Sufiya Zenobia Shakil in Rushdie's Shame (1983), Kulfi is quickly condemned to murderous zeal and madness. It is soon revealed that Kulfi's whole family is plagued by mental illness; the narrative finally tames her by giving her a stove of her own. Don't worry, cook curry.
Desai also borrows Rushdie's unease about the people who inhabit the subcontinent: in The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), Rushdie portrayed a rural populace thirsty for blood. In his strange, dreadful India, anyone who lives outside the city's civilizing walls is condemned to a life of barbarity. Indian villagers are portrayed as zealous Hindus who worship the god Ram, even though all the recent riots in India have taken place in urban areas:
In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram. And they say Ishwar and Allah is your name but they don't mean it, they mean only Ram himself, king of Raghu clan, purifier of sinners along with Sita. In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.
This can only be understood as the dismay and ignorance of a distant cosmopolitan. Desai, on the other hand, avoids this problem by evading the issue entirely: Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is too serene to touch, on riots or anything else more raucous than a tamasha caused by drunken monkeys on a rampage. If Rushdie's fantasies betray his fears, Desai's novel is a bit too sanitized not to raise suspicion. Where have all the people gone?
With the masses missing in action, can language itself—delicate and lyrical, filling a cupboard with spices and fauna—provide safe haven from the rough forces of social upheaval? Desai's language, in any case, is not quite up to the task; her characters seem asphyxiated in their unlikely, pretty, empty India. When he feels cornered at the novel's end, Sampath pukes on his cot. And, then, like the fabled Indian performing his rope trick, he vanishes into thin air. His mother Kulfi keeps on cooking, bent on completing her quest to find a monkey to put in her pot. The one person who remains skeptical of Sampath is identified only as "the atheist." At the novel's conclusion, he meets his end by accidentally falling into Kulfi's simmering vindaloo. The critic, in effect, is shown to be a monkey.
This was the only lesson I could retrieve from Desai's novel: when it comes to deciding the fate of critics, even genteel plots can take a surprisingly chilling, brutal turn.
… Last summer, I watched Farhad Asghar perform at the Papp Public Theater with South Asian youth from Elmhurst, Queens. Asghar's skit was about the Number Seven Train in New York City, a train that "starts out in Flushing, Queens, a very Asian community, picking up more Asians and other people of color along the way … My trips on the train," Asghar says, "showed … me how the city was segregated." In "The Seven Right before Seven," Asghar treats us to a kind of travel narrative that is strikingly different from Paul Theroux's concoctions:
We stand here waiting for a train to take us somewhere where we can make someone else rich, the physical manifestation of the Marxist argument, I see brown, yellow, black and even a little white … waiting … for this metaphorical train to take us into the fulfillment of the American dream … Knowing all too well we'll just be coming back nine, twelve, sixteen hours later, too tired to dream at all.
In words like these, literature that has its history in the Indian subcontinent comes into its own, even when describing something as alien to those distant origins as the New York City subway. Unlike so much Indian writing in the West, "The Seven Right before Seven" asserts its links with the Safdar Hashmis and Paul Gomras of the Indian subcontinent—both murdered on the highway, going somewhere else.
I've been told that in postcolonial writing, as in real estate, location is everything. In both cases, the aphorism holds true, but only insofar as your location determines your neighbors. It's not so much whether you are writing in New Delhi or New York; it's for whom and with whom you are writing that truly matters. One of my favorite parts of Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow was an account of Naipaul talking about himself and his brother, the late Shiva Naipaul:
If we were addressing audiences of people like ourselves, we would have been different writers. I am always aware of writing in a vacuum, almost always for myself, and almost not having an audience. That wonderful relationship that I felt an American writer would always have with his American readers, or a French writer with his French readers—I was always writing for people who were indifferent to my material.
Ah, readers … to think that a literate critical mass could have saved us from the truth of those words, however disingenuous they may be. To think that an audience of "people like ourselves" could have made Theroux's easy disdain for yakking Indians so much more superfluous! Perhaps only an audience of "ourselves" can relieve us from the shopworn mannerisms—and from the desperate yearning for authenticity—that characterizes so much of what passes for Indian writing in the West.
Source: Amitava Kumar, "Louder Than Bombs," in Transition, Vol. 79, 1999, pp. 80-101.
In the following article, Anita and Kiran Desai are interviewed as they prepare for a joint reading oftheir novels in Toronto. Marchand also provides biographical detail on Kiran Desai and discusses Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard.
Literary history is full of father-son novelist pairings, and various combinations of siblings who wrote novels. So far, however, there have been few cases of a mother and a daughter who both happen to be novelists.
Certainly the appearance of novelist Anita Desai and her daughter Kiran Desai tonight at 8 at the Brigantine Room, 235 Queens Quay W. is a first for the Harbourfront Reading Series.
Relations between father and son novelists—Kingsley and Martin Amis are an instance—are usually coloured with at least a hint of Oedipal rivalry. Anita and Kiran Desai, however, seem completely comfortable appearing together. The soft-spoken Anita Desai, 60, one of India's foremost novelists writing in English, gives new meaning, in fact, to the over-used words "nurturing" and "supportive."
She encouraged her daughter, who initially was a science major at Bennington College in Vermont, to venture into literature. "I've been telling her for years that she wrote so well, and that she should take up writing, but she wasn't interested at all," she says. That disinterest ended when Kiran took a creative writing course at Bennington— "just as a change," Kiran says—and discovered she really did love literature.
On her part, Kiran Desai, 26, author of the recently published novel, Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard (Publishers Group), not only feels no pressure being the daughter of a famous writer, but candidly admits the family name was a help getting published. "In some ways, it's been easier for me because of the connection," she says. People know the name."
Indeed they do. The novels of the elder Desai, including Cry, The Peacock and The Clear Light Of Day, were among the first to show readers outside India the inhabitants of that country from the point of view of someone who was not a part of a dying British Raj. Desai's female characters were particularly vivid, and something of the mother's feminism informs Kiran's novel, as well—there are numerous reminders in the story of the country's cultural bias in favour of males.
But Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard is a comedy and not a polemic. Its hapless hero, one Sampath Chawla, climbs a guava tree one day in search of a quiet retreat, and immediately gains a reputation as a holy man. Crowds flock to hear his wisdom. A member of the national Atheist Society attempts to expose him as a charlatan.
The novel sides neither with the religious seekers nor the would-be debunker. "I wanted to show as many angles as I could, to allow everyone his or her own voice," Kiran says. "It's such a complex business. I don't have any right answer or any kind of simple answer. I certainly don't want to come out with a statement at the end of it all. I don't want to write a moral tale."
Many critics have used the label "magic realism" to describe the narrative, and there is something akin to the mythic, larger than life touches of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez in many of the characters and incidents. Kiran concedes that she likes the work of Marquez, but avoids the magic realist label—if there is a connection between her novel and the works of Marquez, it is the link between the cultures of India and Marquez's Colombia. Both are permeated with the supernatural and the preternatural. "The novel isn't as surreal or bizarre a book as it seems to western readers," Kiran says. "I think a lot of it is taken from reality."
"It's very realistic," her mother points out. There was a real hermit who sat in a tree in India. People used to go to him from all over. He would put his foot on their heads as a form of blessing."
Kiran laughs incredulously. "He put his dirty feet on their heads?"
"Even Indira Gandhi went to him," Anita says.
"One time a man was going to ask him a blessing, and he was in a bad mood, he wanted to be left alone, and he just opened his mouth and let out a stream of filthy abuse."
"That's in the (Hindu) tradition, too," Kiran adds.
"There's a temple in India you can go to, not to pray, but to abuse and curse the gods."
Although the Desais keep a home in Delhi, India, and travel on an Indian passport, both mother and daughter are thoroughly cosmopolitan.
Anita Desai, whose mother was German, teaches a creative writing course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kiran, who was raised in India, has also studied abroad since she was an adolescent, returning to her native country during school vacations.
Currently she is finishing a master's degree in creative writing at Columbia University in New York City—Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard is the equivalent of her master's thesis.
This has contributed to a sense, on the part of both mother and daughter, of being of an outsider in their native India—a sense that is often an essential part of a writer's equipment.
Certainly Kiran feels that her distance from India helped her to write the novel.
"I think it freed up my imagination," she says.
"The reality of life in India can be very overwhelming."
Source: Philip Marchand, "Writer Inspired by Mom," in Toronto Star, June 10, 1998, 2 pp.
In the following interview and profile, mother and daughter novelists Anita and Kiran Desai converse about characteristics of India and Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard.
On a busy street in downtown Toronto, vendors peddle small bits of India—mehndi skin-painting kits, ornate silver earrings—to liven up the drab Western palette.
Inside a nearby restaurant sits the real thing. Two women wrapped in glowing saris—teacher and student, mother and daughter, novelists both—are discussing the exotic allure of their homeland. Or, more precisely, their homeland doesn't seem very glamorous at all when viewed through the lens of long acquaintance.
"What's exotic here is not exotic in India," says Kiren [sic, et al] Desai, 26, who has just produced her first novel, Hulabaloo in the Guava Orchard. "People might think, ‘Oh, a guava is so exotic.’ But in India it's nothing. You eat it all the time."
Next to her, listening carefully to every word, sits her mother, novelist and teacher Anita Desai. Anita published her first book, Cry, the Peacock, when she was 25, long before Kiren was born. Now, at 62, she has four children, nine novels, two Booker Prize nominations, one professorship in creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and no advice for her daughter.
"Oh no, no," she says in her silk-quiet voice, when asked if she gave Kiren the benefit of her professional wisdom. "She went around asking how she should end the book. We said all the most predictable, banal things. But her ending was something specific to her. It took me completely by surprise."
The ending of Hullabaloo, a satirical fable about religious devotion and domestic strife, will take most people by surprise—unless they read the piece in The Wall Street Journal proclaiming it one of the must-read books of the summer. (The article gives away the surreal ending.)
Kiren has not heard that she's been lauded in the pages of the foremost business paper in the United States, but it is only the latest turn in the great publicity wheel on which she hopes she won't be broken.
"I'm not a natural performer," she says with a sigh as she contemplates having to read publicly tonight. "It's so totally different from the writing life. I feel sometimes as if I'm in a whole different incarnation. When you're writing you live so quietly, like a mouse."
Anita, watching her daughter, nods: "It's two different worlds that you have to live in—the completely private, almost secret one, when you're writing, then this public one. It can be quite against the grain."
Especially for these two, as shy and soft-spoken as they are. Kiren, who interrupted her studies in creative writing at Columbia University in New York to finish her novel, is somewhat more giggly and vocal, and vibrant in her silver earrings and emerald sari.
They have never read together before: tonight's performance at Harbourfront in Toronto will be their first. "I am so terrified of reading," Kiren says. She gets little consolation from her mother, who adds, "so am I." When it's suggested that perhaps they can provide comfort for each other, Anita raises one eloquently skeptical eyebrow.
Anita will read from her 1997 novel, A Journey to Ithaca, the tale of a mismatched young European couple on a thwarted quest for enlightenment in India. The spiritual journey, the overwhelming need to believe—even in its most fraudulent form—is also at the heart of Kiren's novel, though hers is told with a more surreal, comic bent.
It's a preoccupation that can't be avoided in India, says Kiren, even in an non-religious household like the Desais' (both mother and daughter split their time between the United States and Delhi). "My family isn't religious," says Kiren, the youngest of four. "That's very unusual in India, so I think I was always very aware of this big secret I was not part of."
Adds her mother, "There's such feeling that if you're writing about India, about contemporary India, you have to tackle contemporary themes like politics. But really, every move you make in India is based on religion and philosophy."
Also, apparently, on the fantastic, otherworldly nature of much of Indian folklore and literature. Kiren's novel draws heavily on this tradition, although she swears that the some of the novel's most absurd passages—like the pack of monkeys who become alcoholics and rampage through the countryside—are absolutely true. There appears to be some debate between mother and daughter about whether the drunken mammals were in reality monkeys or elephants—although the debate itself sets them laughing.
Says Anita, "There was an elephant tribe that was notorious because it got very addicted to alcohol. They would go to the army barracks, break into the bar and drink their rum."
During the writing, the young novelist was far removed from the lush guava orchard in which her first novel is set. Kiren, who is single, wrote much of her book at her mother's kitchen table in Boston; Anita's early writing years were squeezed into the few hours when her four children were at school. "When you have so little time, it's precious. I wrote much more in those years than I do now." She smiles at her daughter. "Now the urgency is gone."
When Anita set out to hook a publisher, she had to cast her line as far as Britain, because "there weren't Indian publishers interested in what we were doing… They weren't interested in finding Indian writers. Now, there are so many publishers." Indian literature has become so hot, Kiren laughs, that everyone she talks to in Delhi claims to be writing a book.
Source: Elizabeth Renzetti, "‘Like Mother, Like Daughter In Person,’" in Globe and Mail, June 10, 1998, p. E3.
Anandan, Prathima, Review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 8, No. 3, November 1999, pp. 386-87.
Aziz, Nurjehan, Review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in the Globe and Mail, June 13, 1998, p. D14.
Chaudhuri, Amit, Introduction, in The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, Picador, 2001, pp. XVII-XXXI.
Chew, Shirley, "The Wise Man Sitting in a Tree," in Times Literary Supplement, May 15, 1998, p. 21.
Condon, Matt, Review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in the Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia), September 5, 1999, p. 31.
Desai, Kiran, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
Jaffrey, Zia, "The Prophet in the Tree," in the New York Times, July 19, 1998.
Marchand, Philip, "Writer Inspired by Mom," in the Toronto Star, June 10, 1998, p. E1.
Review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1998, p. 77.
Rushdie, Salman, Introduction, in Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997, edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Henry Holt, 1997, p. XX.
Smith, Dinitia, "Kiran Desai's India and Its Great Divides," in the International Herald Tribune, October 25, 2006, p. 9.
Stevenson, Helen, Review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in the Guardian, June 6, 1998, p. 10.
Buck, William, Ramayana: King Rama's Way: Valmiki's Ramayana Told in English Prose, University of California Press, 1974.
This very readable novel version of the most famous story in India is about the exile of King Rama and his alliance with the monkeys against the forces of evil.
Gandhi, Mahatma, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, edited by Louis Fischer, Vintage, 2002.
The philosophy of peaceful resistance to tyranny is both wise and foolish, like Sampath's protest. Nonviolent resistance was so powerful in Gandhi's hands that it helped India gain its independence in 1947 and later inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s course of action during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna, ed., The Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Permanent Black Publishing, 2003.
This book contains a discussion of major authors and periods, bringing a great deal of perspective to Indian writing in English.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore, eds., A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1967.
Along with explanatory notes, this collection provides an overview of the ancient Hindu ideas that inform Desai's novel.
"Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/hullabaloo-guava-orchard
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