Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

by Kiran Desai

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Themes and Characters

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The main character in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is Sampath Chawla, a young Indian man who is caught in the wrath of a family married to the social mores of a bureaucratically shackled family. Sampath is incapable of organizing his thoughts and his life within the confines of the bureaucratic wheel, and he flows from station to station in life, failing at everything he attempts. Sampath works as a sorter in the mailroom at the post office in his hometown of Shahkot, in India, and he performs his menial job with as much rote and thoughtlessness as possible.

From the outset of the novel, Sampath's mother, Kulfi, is depicted in magical terms. Throughout the novel, she expresses a sense of vague longing, that lonely sensation one has when it is clear that there exists some purpose or plan for one's life but the plan is not at all clear. Kulfi's house "was small for her big desire." At first, that desire takes the shape of food; she is famished throughout her pregnancy and becomes obsessed with food. Despite the drought engulfing Shahkot, Kulfi is determined to feed her insatiable desire. She bribes the vegetable and meat sellers at the bazaar, always driven by a fierce hunger she cannot stem. In the same way, when she begins to feel the movements of the baby inside of her, and with her hunger ever-increasing, Kulfi reacts by drawing pictures of eating scenes and pictures of food all over the walls of the Chawla family's home "in desperation for another landscape."

As her pregnancy advances, she does not simply become heavy and uncomfortable, but rather, "she seemed to be claiming all the earth's energy for herself, sapping it dry, leaving it withered, shriveled and yellow." Kulfi represents the incarnate desire for meaning in life beyond the daily drudgery of going to work and returning home again, of going through the motions of a well-meaning life. Kulfi leaves the townspeople to their own doings, never integrating herself into the life of the bazaar or ingratiating herself to any of the people in town who hold positions of relative power, as was the norm with the other wives of the town. Rather, she keeps to herself, chin set straight ahead, mind clearly focused on "a point invisible to everybody but herself."

The novel jumps ahead to the point at which Sampath is on the verge of leaving his job and a kind of truce has occurred between Kulfi and the other family members. She roams around in her own way, not heeding the rest of the townswomen, and the family will grudgingly accept her state of mind as normal for her. They ritualize the act of complaining about her habits, but they do not try to change her.

However, Kulfi's restlessness finds its nest soon after Sampath climbs the guava tree to escape the claustrophobia of the city, and Kulfi, too, finds her way to freedom in the guava orchard. She takes to tending to her son's meals, and in doing so, she comes back round to the insatiability and joy she once experienced in seeking food for herself while pregnant with Sampath. She cooks everything and anything; the next meal stands as a constant joy to her, and she ends up discovering in the orchard and neighboring forests all manner of weeds and berries and stems to keep Sampath not only nutritionally sated but also a little intoxicated. Kulfi discovers that drugging her son keeps him happy and subdued, two characteristics which allow him to function as a placid, wise guru for the people...

(This entire section contains 1553 words.)

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of Shahkot and all who throughout India go on pilgrimage to hear him speak. Kulfi is the defining factor in Sampath's journey toward a more simpler lifestyle. From his very beginning, he is influenced by a kind of other-worldliness, a carelessness of thought that is typified by constant dreaming and disconnectedness with and inability to function within civilization's norms. Both characters represent a hyperbole of the extreme desire to stand alone, to have one's way on one's own terms.

In contrast to Kulfi, Sampath's father, Mr. Chawla, is a man for whom "oddness, like aches and pains, fits of tears and lethargy" is a source of discomfort; he fears "these uncontrollable, messy puddles of life, the sticky humanness of things." This distaste for sticky humanness proves problematic for Mr. Chawla when his son becomes a young man full of feeling and very little common sense or ambition. When Sampath runs away and climbs the guava tree, Mr. Chawla is initially horrified at the dishonor it may bring to his family name from the other townspeople, but soon he realizes that his son is a possible source of family stature and begins to find ways to capitalize, both socially and monetary, on his son's growing fame as a guru. Mr. Chawla is a main force in bringing the city to nature, of imposing all the creeds and contrivances of city life upon the free will of nature in the guava orchard. He hires a photographer to take Sampath's photo and then proceeds to sell the photos for profit.

When the monkeys descend upon the scene in the guava orchard and begin to steal alcohol from the town and grow increasingly unruly, it is Mr. Chawla who discovers how to rid the area of monkeys, a solution that the District Collector finally agrees to implement. He never bothers to ask his son what he would like to do; he decides what is best for his family name and, disregarding everything else, decides to get rid of the monkeys. He is smart and stupid at the same time—Mr. Chawla is a man of the city, constantly craning his neck for a better view of his stature within the city class system, absorbed with his own best interests. As such, he fails to look around and see a larger picture and so is constantly making unwise choices. When Sampath is first in the tree, Mr. Chawla does not ask him his reason but immediately seeks a way to get him to come down. He consults with a doctor and decides to find Sampath a wife. This, of course, leads to nothing but disaster: the bride-to-be tries to climb Sampath's tree, but she falls down and runs away. It is not at all clear that Mr. Chawla will ever learn from his own experience; he Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard 231 is a foil to Sampath's awakening, and despite all the extraordinary things that happen to his family, he remains, to the end, unmoved.

Sampath's sister, Pinky, goes through a transformation and then returns to her original state of thought. She is transformed by love, but when that love goes awry, the thoughts ingrained in her head by her father and grandmother about class and society immediately return. She is swept away when, one day in the bazaar, she falls in love with the ice cream seller. However, she falls in love with him while wearing a drab uniform her father had forced her to wear, and upon returning home, she bursts into tears: "her awful, awful father, who sent her out like a servant when other fathers went to all sorts of efforts to make sure their daughters looked well cared for and were properly dressed. Her horrible grandmother, who had added to her humiliation. Her terrible, terrible family, who would no doubt ruin all her chances of love forever."

Against the odds, then, she goes on a rabid pursuit of the ice cream boy's affections, and the two youths engage in a secret love affair that is to culminate in an elopement. During this time, Pinky does not so much change her personality or mode of thought as she does alter her very determined mind. Rather than dress up to impress the men and women in town, she presses all of her energies into winning the Hungry Hop ice cream boy. Throughout this pursuit, Pinky finds a certain kinship with her brother. Whereas before she held only disdain for him, she begins to see that, although he is in her eyes a fraud as a guru, he is earnest in his efforts to make a life for himself. She takes a fresh consideration of Sampath's plight, and "she too understood the dreadfulness of life, recognized the need to be by herself with sadness, and from this moment of realization onward, she spent hours sitting under Sampath's tree, in a private cocoon within which she indulged her every thought." When the drunk monkeys begin to mess up the orchard and the city officials are on the verge of forcing Sampath out of his tree, Pinky begs Sampath to escape the city with her and the Hungry Hop boy. However, though Pinky's feelings for her brother grow more amiable, in the end it is more because she does not want to be lonely than that she wishes to help her brother find peace and escape the mayhem. And when her Hungry Hop boy is caught in the nets of the officers who are going to try to capture the drunk monkeys, Pinky dispenses with her plan of escape and immediately sets her sights on the brigadier, placing her squarely back in the middle of societal gain and desire.




Critical Essays