Study Guide

Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai Essay - Critical Essays

Desai, Kiran

Introduction

Kiran Desai Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

Desai is an Indian novelist.

Desai's first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), is set in Shahkot, a small town in northern India that is home to the novel's protagonist, Sampath Chawla. On the day of his birth, two favorable omens convince Sampath's family that he is destined for greatness; however, as he grows into manhood he becomes disillusioned with his ordinary life. Ultimately, an embarrassing incident that takes place while Sampath is drunk at the wedding of his employer's daughter causes him to lose his job at the post office—where he spent the majority of his time reading his neighbors' mail—and Sampath flees to a nearby orchard, where he intends to spend the rest of his days perched in a guava tree engaged in quiet contemplation. A number of factors intervene to hinder Sampath's ambition, including a group of alcoholic monkeys who join him in his retreat, a police superintendent, and even Sampath's family, who quickly decide to capitalize on the situation when several residents of Shahkot become convinced that Sampath is a holy man. Sampath's new-found identity as the "Tree Baba" is partly due to his decision to live as a hermit, but is largely based upon his uncanny ability to discern the townspeople's private thoughts, which he learned while reading their letters. The comic narrative delineates the furor that surrounds Sampath and his "followers," and eventually ends in an unexpected and imaginative fashion. Critics applauded Desai's vivid characterizations, noting especially the hilarity evoked by Sampath's food-obsessed mother and entrepreneurial father, as well as his love-crazed sister Pinky, who bites a member of the Atheist Society threatening to reveal Sampath as an impostor. Critics noted similarities between Desai's novel and the works of such authors as Salman Rushdie, Jerzy Kosinski, Virginia Woolf, and R. K. Narayan; most commentators affirmed that Desai, born in 1971 to celebrated author Anita Desai, has inherited her mother's literary talents. A Kirkus Reviews contributor declared: "It's a pleasure to report that this particular fruit of a distinguished literary lineage, having fallen rather far from the tree, is producing bountiful and delicious results." Other aspects of the novel singled out for praise by critics include Desai's richly-drawn, detailed settings, her satirical commentary on such topics as family dynamics, small-town life, Indian society, and entrepreneurialism, and her witty, genuine dialogue. Zia Jaffrey concluded: "Desai creates a whole tableau—like a medieval tapestry in which all the people and animals start moving and speaking—affectionately describing a village atmosphere and the familial relationships within it."

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1998, pp. 354-55.

[The following is a favorable review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.]

This enchanting first novel [Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard], set in the Indian village of Shakhot, details the agreeable chaos that ensues from its underachieving protagonist's decision to abandon the workaday world and live in a tree.

That protagonist is Sampath Chawla, a child born during an insufferably hot summer (when "The bees flew drunk on nectar that had turned alcoholic") at the precise moment that a Red Cross plane delivering supplies to "famine camps" inadvertently showered its bounty on grateful Shakhot. This wry allusion to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is only one of numerous grace notes in a beguiling narrative that displays its character's eccentricities abundantly while never reducing them to caricatures. Sampath, at 20 having become a morose failure as a postal employee, attains widespread celebrity when his matter-of-fact revelations, delivered from the guava tree where he's taken residence, show a deep knowledge of his neighbors' secrets (he's gained it from secretly reading their mail), convincing all and sundry that "the Hermit of Shakhot" is "one of an unusual spiritual nature, his childlike ways being coupled with unfathomable wisdom." Things grow more complicated when a passel of "cinema monkeys" (so named for their harassment of female moviegoers) join Sampath in his tree, the Atheist Society arranges surveillance of his "activity," and a research scientist, a retired Brigadier, a police superintendent, and other suspicious citizens lock horns with a hastily assembled Monkey Protection Society. Desai's affectionate scrutiny of her maladroit protagonist is further sweetened, as it were, by deft comic portraits of Sampath's family, including most memorably his food-fixated mother Kulfi and his desperate father, a "practical" martinet who laments: "What good is it to be the head of a family when you had a son who ran and sat in a tree?"

Kiran Desai is the daughter of highly praised novelist Anita Desai. It's a pleasure to report that this particular fruit of a distinguished literary lineage, having fallen rather far from the tree, is producing bountiful and delicious results.

Publishers Weekly (review date 23 March 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1998, p. 77.

[In the following review, the critic offers a largely laudatory assessment of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.]

Escaping the pressures of a family urging him to become somebody, a young man, fired from his postal-clerk job, climbs up a guava tree, stays there, shouts down platitudes to well-wishers and is proclaimed a guru—a situation his father eagerly exploits for its money-making potential. That's the gist of the simple plot in [Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard,] Desai's vibrant, delightful debut novel, which soars above its overworn premise (a staple of Indian literature) largely because the author, 26-year-old daughter of novelist Anita Desai, is a masterful satirist of human foibles, vanities and self-delusions. Ensconced in his orchard bower, Sampath Chawla—who's not a charlatan, just a muddle-headed kid seeking a clearer perspective on life—has a welter of problems. His eccentric mother, obsessed with cooking porcupines and mongoose, seems half-mad; his headstrong sister Pinky, determined to elope with an ice-cream vendor, bites a spy from the Atheist Society who's trying to expose Sampath as a fraud; meanwhile, a horde of drunken monkeys call down the townspeople's wrath, threatening the serenity of Sampath's arboreal retreat. Although Desai doesn't fully exploit the comic possibilities inherent in these situations (the first third of the novel is terrific fun, but then it fizzles out), she is an impeccable stylist, full of deliriously amusing, irreverent observations on India's rampant religiosity, self-involved families, monumental inefficiencies, stiff relations between the sexes and life's toe-stubbing limitations.

Rebecca A. Stuhr (review date 1 May 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Library Journal, May 1, 1998, p. 136.

[In the following review, Stuhr offers praise for Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.]

Desai's first novel is a wild, sad, humorous story about the oldest son of an eccentric family in a small Indian village. Born at the moment a crash of thunder signals the end of a long, hot drought, Sampath grows into a disappointing young man. After he loses a job, Sampath's mother attempts to comfort him with a guava, but it explodes as Sampath is admiring its green coolness, compelling him to flee his family and village to an abandoned orchard, climb into a guava tree, and stay there. He quickly becomes known as the tree baba. The rest of the family moves to the orchard with Sampath's ambitious father, who is determined to exploit the economic possibilities of the newly proclaimed baba. Desai's novel is full of wonderfully portrayed characters and beautifully vivid descriptions of animals, plant life, and the dusty environs of the village. An unqualified pleasure to read, this novel is highly recommended for all libraries.

Donna Seaman (review date 15 May 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, in Booklist, May 15, 1998, p. 1427.

[The following is Seaman's favorable review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.]

Desai joins Arundhati Roy and other young, lyric, and original Indian writers engaged in transforming fiction with [Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard,] this wily tale of a holy man and the havoc he inadvertently wreaks. In a novel redolent of myth, reminiscent in its food-related sensuality of Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and echoing, in the cryptic utterances and preposterous predicament of its hero, Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1971). Desai charts the mysterious life of Sampath Chawla. Sampath's mother is an enigma, and her grown son is dreamy, reticent, and shy. Caring little for the world of appearances and things, he aggravates his ambitious father no end, and finally flees the claustrophobia of his home and post office job to live in peace in a tree in a guava orchard. His family is loving and loyal, however, and they rush out to care for him. Soon Sampath, now the Tree Baba, is surrounded by followers asking for his blessing. Witty and wise, Desai doesn't miss a trick in this romp of a satire.

Simon Carnell (review date 30 May 1998)

SOURCE: "Out on a Limb in India," in The Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 8860, May 30, 1998, p. 34.

[In the following review, Carnell offers a largely positive assessment of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.]

Reclined beneath a rickety electric ceiling fan, in his stifling family home in the northern Indian town of Shahkot, Sampath Chawla suddenly fears that it might fall, 'smashing his face as flat as a child's drawing'. Kiran Desai's fable-like first novel [Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard] is based humorously on the extraordinary attempt made by this dreamily indolent and reluctant young post office clerk to emerge, as it were, into a more three-dimensional space than...

(The entire section is 801 words.)

Christina Patterson (review date 31 May 1998)

SOURCE: "He's Doing Quite Well. Then the Drunk Monkeys Arrive," in The Observer (London), No. 10781, May 31, 1998, p. 16.

[In the following review, Patterson applauds Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, calling it both an "impressive debut" and an "amazingly assured debut."]

Sampath Chawla, the young man at the heart of Kieran Desai's impressive debut, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, wins the prize for the most eccentric form of protest. It has taken his father a year to find his disappointing son a job at the back desk in the Shakhot post office. 'If it wasn't for me,' he remarks bitterly, 'Sampath would be silting in a special museum for people who are a...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Zia Jaffrey (review date 19 July 1998)

SOURCE: "The Prophet in the Tree," in The New York Times, Vol. 147, July 12, 1998, p. E45.

[In the following review of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Jaffrey praises Desai's "huge imagination," and declares the author's work "a dizzying Hindi film of a novel."]

A voice, and a huge imagination, leap from the pages of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, a dizzying Hindi film of a novel by the 27-year-old Kiran Desai, daughter of the fiction writer Anita Desai. Like mother, like daughter—which is not to say that Kiran Desai hasn't charted a territory of her own, as indebted to Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf as to Salman Rushdie or her mother.

...

(The entire section is 702 words.)