Desai, Kiran 1971-
DESAI, Kiran 1971-
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Atlantic Monthly Press, 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
AWARDS, HONORS: Woolrich fellowship.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor to Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing, edited by Salman Rushdie; contributor to the New Yorker.
SIDELIGHTS: Kiran Desai was still a student at Columbia University when her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was published in 1998. Hailed as a promising new literary figure in the English-language literature of contemporary India, Desai enjoyed both the pedigree of her mother, acclaimed novelist Anita Desai, and Salman Rushdie's conviction in her talents; Rushdie, best remembered as the Indian emigre writer who went into hiding for a time in the 1990s when Islamic fundamentalists called for his death, included a story of Desai's in Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing. Her work has also appeared in the New Yorker.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard centers around the small Indian town of Shahkot and the Chawla family's son, Sampath. Since he was born at the end of a monsoon (their underdeveloped town's only claim to fame has been, to date, its bad weather), his family believes his destiny to be a great one. As he grows into young adulthood, though, Sampath seems unlikely to fulfill even modest hopes of success. In fact, Sampath is disinterested in going to school, establishing a career, and even becoming an ordinary person who leads an ordinary life. Instead, he prefers to daydream, a tendency that confounds his father, a status-conscious schemer; only his wise grandmother has faith in Sampath's seeming lack of direction. His father obtains a job for him in the local post office—a secure position for life—but Sampath drinks too much at his boss's daughter's wedding and moons the guests. He then flees, knowing his career is over, and finds a peaceful guava orchard. He spots a tree, and climbs up it in order to contemplate his future, or apparent lack of it, and lives in the tree.
In a Random House interview, Desai explained that the character Sampath stemmed from an article she read in the London Times about "a man who was a very famous hermit in India who really did climb up a tree." The man lived in the tree "for many, many years until he died," elaborated Desai. Desai explained that the book "started really with that character, and then the story built up around it."
While Sampath is in the tree, Desai's plot saves him from actually having to decide upon anything. Villagers find him, and decide that anyone insane enough to sit in a tree must be a prophet. Sampath begins to fulfill this mission by offering advice that astounds the villagers—he knows their secrets, and seems to foresee the future. But Sampath has learned much of what he knows at his post-office job, since he whiled away his hours steaming open letters and reading them for fun. Soon hundreds are flocking to hear his wisdom, his father devises tie-ins that begin to enrich the family, and a band of monkeys sets up camp at the bottom of his tree.
Critics praised Desai's plot, which IndiaStar reviewer Sonoo Singh described as "something of a rollercoaster ride." Desai shifts from event to event using what Richmond Review critic Holly Yates described as "a series of gossipy asides and subplots almost imperceptibly mimicking the diction of her characters." Yates explained that Desai's writing switches "from evocative lists compiled from the names of exotic fruits and birds, sari silks and the ingredients of lavish imaginary meals." Desai said that, when she was writing the novel, the plot "sort of gathered momentum and drew me along." She admitted that her process of writing was "very messy" and that she "had to throw out many pages."
Desai has also been lauded for her characterization. New York Times reviewer Zia Jaffrey observed that Desai "drops her characters like juicy morsels." "These bumbling characters may teeter on the edge of caricature," observed Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "but the author delineates them with such wit and bemused affection that they insinuate themselves insidiously in our minds." Jaffrey noted that Sampath is "indeed an idiot savant" who descended from "a long line of eccentrics." Yates suggested that "Desai's subtle exploration of the ambiguous nature of Sampath's holiness is one of the novel's strengths." "Equally engaging are other characters," concluded Singh. Sampath's sister, Pinky, shows her affection to a man by biting off his ear. Sampath's mother, Kulfi, devotes her life to feeding her son exotic meals. Sampath's grandmother prefers to wear her dentures "a little loose." Jaffrey noted that even the alcoholic monkeys who invade Sampath's orchard "are beautifully evoked." "The only stereotypical character in the novel is the father, Mr. Chawla," reflected Singh. "Reminiscent of middle-class fathers, he is a government employee, who exercises regularly, shows his concern for his children's future, but remains aloof from the extraordinary oddities of life around him."
Critics expressed mixed reviews concerning the novel's ending. Yates described the conclusion as "abrupt" and declared that "in the midst of chaos" it is "disappointingly weak." In a review for Rambles, Elizabeth Badurina described the climax as "anticlimactic," but explained that "it sticks with you, making more sense as you mull it over."
Writing for the Hindu, Suchitra Behal used effusive words to describe the novel. "At one level this seems like a magical tale in a world gone awry," Behal wrote. "But at another, Desai through her imagination and apt words has conveyed the essence of Indian society at large." Singh declared that "leafing through Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is like sipping cool, tangy lemonade in the sweltering summer sun."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Booklist, May 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 1427.
Hindu, June 7, 1998.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1998, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, pp. 345-355.
Library Journal, May 1, 1998, Rebecca A. Stuhr, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 136.
New York Times, July 12, 1998, Zia Jaffrey, "The Prophet in the Tree," p. E45.
New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1999, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 28.
Observer, May 31, 1998, Christina Patterson, "He's Doing Quite Well. Then the Drunk Monkeys Arrive," p. 16; May 16, 1999, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1998, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 77.
Spectator, May 30, 1998, Simon Carnell, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 34.
Wall Street Journal, May 1, 1998, p. W4.
World Literature Today, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, p. 213.
IndiaStar,http://www.indiastar.com/ (October 21, 2003), Sonoo Singh, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.
Rambles,http://www.rambles.net/ (October 21, 2003), Elizabeth Badurina, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (October 21, 2003), "An Interview with Kiran Desai."
Richmond Review,http://www.richmondreview.com.co.uk/ (October 21, 2003), Holly Yates, review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.*