Once upon a time, in the West, Indian literature was represented by, or reduced to, a handful of sacred texts that exerted a profound influence on a rather select group of readers, most notably Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s writings in turn influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi more than half a century later. In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who was drawn to Tagore’s mysticism and his situation under British colonial rule.
Although India after independence was politically important to the West, literarily it was pretty much off the map. Its biggest names seemed its only names: the South Indian N. K. Narayan and the Trinidad-born, England-educated V. S. Naipaul. For all practical purposes, Indian literature was still represented in the West by the West, by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, by Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and the novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabala, and by Anita Desai and J. G. Farrell, whose The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) dealt with British colonialism in decidedly deprecating fashion. Then in 1980 came the publication of Salman Rushdie’s award-winning novel Midnight’s Children, which in a single stroke appeared to save British fiction from creeping provincialism and opened the way for a new generation of Indian writers, just as Rushdie’s way had been prepared by Edward Said’s highly influential, if controversial, study Orientalism, which treated the “East” as a Western textual and ideological construct.
After Rushdie came the deluge not only of Indian writers but also of Western interest in their work: Bharati Mukherjee (some of whose best fiction antedates Rushdie’s success), Rohinton Mistry (twice nominated for the Booker), Vikram Seth (author of the enormously long novel A Suitable Boy), Amit Chaudhuri, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. As the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence approached, Indian writing was showcased in special issues of Granta and The New Yorker, where works by Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai debuted. The enormous critical and commercial success of Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), which beat out Seamus Deane’s extraordinary Reading in the Dark for the Booker Prize and has had long runs on both hardcover and paperback best-seller lists, attests not only the novel’s strengths but also its marketability. It cashed in, so to speak, on interest in India during the country’s fiftieth year of independence and on its author’s mediagenic sex appeal. On the heels of Roy’s success comes Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard and an advertising campaign that capitalizes on its author’s exotic attractiveness in ways that Rushdie’s and Mistry’s publishers never have and never could.
The novel’s dust jacket sports a suitably Indian-style “painting” on its front by John Martinez and, along with the familiar author photo, snippets of “advance praise” on the back. “Lush and intensely imagined,” gushes Rushdie, “Welcome proof that India’s encounter with the English language continues to give birth to new children, endowed with lavish gifts.” “With this radiant novel,” Divakaruni adds, “Kiran Desai parts the waters. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard evokes a bright, brilliant world, and the warmth and generosity of her writing makes for a joyous debut.” And from Gita Mehta, the author of River Sutra (1993) and Snakes and Ladders (1997): “A hullabaloo of a debut from a vibrant, creative imagination.” How well does Desai’s novel live up to so much advance praise? Not well, although the failure may tell us less about this talented young author than it does about the hyperinflated cash value of Indian literature in English at a particular point in time.
Unlike Rushdie, whose fantastic narratives are rooted in real locales, Desai, trying to stake out a space (and style) for herself, creates a version of Narayan’s Malgudi. Shahkot is a hazily defined yet perfectly realized town, or city, not far from the Himalayan foothills. It is bustling yet sleepy, orderly yet labyrinthine, filled with self-important people yet overlooked even by the relief planes dropping supplies during a drought so severe that the butcher becomes a vegetarian and daughters turn too dark to marry. In the midst of this drought is Kulfi, newly married and pregnant, with her enormous belly, expansive imagination, and insatiable hunger. Offered parathas, she expresses a preference for pheasants and pomegranates. (Her improbable name, incidentally, refers to an Indian ice cream—a joke presumably lost on most of Desai’s non-Indian readers.) Because her son is born with a birthmark on his face and because his birth coincides with the arrival of the long overdue monsoon (and of a crate of supplies accidentally dropped from a plane that has become lost in the storm), he is given the name Sampath, “good fortune,” and is...
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