Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

by Kiran Desai

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Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

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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...

(This entire section contains 2080 words.)

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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 said to be “destined for great things.”

From the celebration of his birth—by candlelight, of course, because there has been a power failure—the novel leaps ahead twenty years. Now the age that Kulfi was when she married, Sampath embodies his mother’s hunger for something more than traditional Indian life with middle-class respectability, but he does so in accordance with Karl Marx’s well-known addition to the words of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that history indeed occurs twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Sampath is farcical in part because he lacks his mother’s manic imagination and energy, which is to say that he is also his father’s son. Mr. Chawla, his father, is the head clerk in a local bank, an officious little man, “the head of a family and he liked it that way,” or he would have liked it that way had it not been for his crazy wife and the shame of having a son like Sampath. Unlike his father, who takes pride in his drab existence in provincial Shahkot, Sampath is drawn to vivid colors and the faraway places he learns about at the post office, where he steams open and reads his neighbors’ mail. At the wedding of his supervisor’s daughter, he wanders into a bedroom, dresses up in women’s clothing, and returns to the celebration to perform an impromptu striptease before the startled guests, which he ends by thrusting “his brown behind up into the air and wriggl[ing] it wildly in an ecstatic appreciation of the evening entertainment he had just provided.”

At once pariah and prisoner, Sampath escapes Shahkot and ends up in a tree in a guava orchard where he hopes to “exchange his life for this luxury of stillness.” Instead of stillness, this Chaplinesque little fellow, or Siddhartha as played by Buster Keaton, finds his father ordering him down while a mob of pilgrims mistake the knowledge of their private lives which he gained from perusing their mail for evidence of spiritual powers. Suddenly, the young man who was always too timid to speak becomes renowned for his sermons in the Guava Tree to an attentive, absurdly adoring audience. Unable to beat them (or his stubborn son), Mr. Chawla joins them, devoting himself to what Rushdie has called India’s other religion, business.

Worthless before, Sampath now proves a highly marketable (though no more marriageable) commodity. Business booms—souvenirs are sold, kickbacks from transportation wallahs taken, improvements planned, and donation schemes arranged. Even the monkeys play their part. Leaving Shahkot, they take up residence alongside Sampath, where, because of their association with the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, seem to authenticate his supposedly spiritual nature. (Never mind that what draws the monkeys is the abundance of free food laid at his feet by his followers.) Unfortunately for all—all but author and reader, that is—the monkeys soon develop a taste for alcohol and begin to create a hullabaloo in the guava orchard. A debate on the best way to rid the orchard-turned- shrine of the monkeys ensues, creating a hullabaloo of its own that quickly spreads across the district and the entire nation.

Not surprisingly, Sampath yearns for something quite different. Longing to escape the orchard that has become for him just another Shahkot, he seeks what amounts to a comic variation on the Hindu theme of release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. His sister Pinky, meanwhile, wonders how she and the ice cream vendor with whom she has fallen in love can live as happily ever after as the lovers do in the formulaic Hindi film she has recently seen. Then there is the novice spy from the Atheist Society who longs to make his mark by exposing Sampath as a fraud. Desai weaves these and a number of other plots together in the novel’s hilariously complicated, obstacle-strewn conclusion, in which Sampath at least gets what he wants. Transformed into his favorite fruit, he is carried out of the guava orchard into the Himalayas by the faithful, hungry monkeys.

In this tale of the man who became a guava, Kiran Desai, daughter of the novelist Anita Desai, adopts the faux- naïve style of the literary folktale to create a novel in the form of a comic strip that for all the broad strokes bears a surprising resemblance to the amazingly detailed Indian paintings of the Mughal period. Desai combines studied naïveté, lighthearted satire, excess of a strangely abstract kind, cartoon- like distortion, deadpan delivery, numerous lists (both long and short), endless similes, and characters who are by design caricatures, walking eccentricities. Their two-dimensionality contributes significantly not only to the novel’s cartoonishness but to the flatness of perspective that is characteristic of so much Indian art.

Desai’s lengthy list of all that a prospective Hindu bride should and should not be is one of the novel’s high points. Another is the grand finale, in which her juggling act grows steadily wilder and funnier. Overall, however, the novel unfolds a bit too leisurely—at times even tediously—so much so that the reader begins to wonder whether Desai really has enough material here for a novel, even a relatively short one. Worse, when the narrative momentum slackens, the reader, confronting Desai’s writing head-on, begins to question whether her considerable talent amounts to anything more than a number of slightly annoying stylistic tics (those lists and similes in particular).

There is the question of “tradition and individual talent.” Like it or not, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard exists in the shadow of the very work that made its publication possible. Part of the achievement of Midnight’s Children is the way Rushdie was able to deal so successfully with what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence, drawing extensively on the work of his predecessors—from the Indian epic the Mahabharata to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, Rushdie made the appropriated works seem entirely his own.

Desai is up to something similar, as her bow to Narayan’s 1949 novel Mr. Sampath demonstrates, but the effect is rather different, less playfully parodistic, more youthfully derivative. Desai’s magic realism makes the reader think wistfully of Garcia Marquez’s; her monkeys remind one of Rushdie’s; Sampath’s specialness evokes memories of Midnight’s Children, his situation Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, and his sage advice the deadlier humor of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There.

In a sense, comparisons such as these, although certainly merited, are nonetheless unfair. They merely try to compensate for the overblown “advance praise” that is sure to arouse in prospective readers false expections about a novel that is, to use one of Desai’s own lines, nothing less than “endearing in [its] naughtiness.” Not just endearing; important too. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is sure to help keep Western interest focused on the growing body of Indian writing and to offer, as a bonus, to an audience used to the far blander fare of Anglo-American realism, a spicy bit of fabulation from a young writer well worth watching.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXXI, June, 1998, p. 113.

Booklist. XCIV, April 15, 1998, p. 1427.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLXI, April 30, 1998, p. 56.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 1, 1998, p. 136.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 19, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, January 12, 1998, p. 32.

The Spectator. CCLXXX, May 30, 1998, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 15, 1998, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal. May 1, 1998, p. W4.


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Desai juxtaposes two main settings in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard to play off the ordinary and magical elements of her characters' lives. At the same time, the author intertwines the elements of setting and character in such a way that the two interact and animate one another.

The story begins in the city of Shahkot, in India. From the start, the town embodies the hearts of the people: it is high summer, and the town is suffering from the longest drought in recent history. Against the backdrop of the drought's "murky yellow haze," Kulfi Chawla, a young woman of twentyone years, is heavy with child. As her pregnancy advances, the drought grows worse; as the famine spreads, Kulfi's hunger becomes increasingly ravenous. Desai intertwines the setting and the characters right from the start of the novel, as displayed by her depiction of Kulfi's pregnancy: "Kulfi, in these months, was so enormously large, she seemed to be claiming all the earth's energy for herself, sapping it dry, leaving it withered, shriveled and yellow." In this withered setting, the people descry the state of their poverty and scorn Kulfi and her insatiable appetite.

The town of Shahkot is a microcosm of governmental bureaucracy and a symbol or emblem of the infringement of the group on individuals' free will. This infringement is best exemplified by the central location within Shahkot of the bazaar or the meeting place for merchants and shoppers. As the center of the town, the bazaar serves as the de facto jury of manners and class standing. This is a very public community, in large part because people must make their purchases and go about their daily business in this central shopping place, where gossip is the normal conversation, and it is socially acceptable for people to ask point-blank questions about other people's family's affairs. Pinky Chawla, the daughter of the Chawla family, is constantly obsessed with what the townspeople will think of her and is emotionally distraught when her father insists that her behavior in dressing to show off and then complaining of people noticing her is unacceptable. He consequently forces her to dress plainly when going to the bazaar, which, as a young lady, mortifies her. She is convinced, as many people of the town are, that one's social standing is determined by one's outward appearances.

In the center of town is the post office, "like so many government buildings, painted yellow." Sampath Chawla has worked for a while at the post office, and he rides his bike to work everyday, passing under the barbedwire fence that the government had erected to surround the postal building and give it a sense of official duty.

Naturally, the barbed-wire fence is not entirely intact, for the residents of Shahkot, never ones to respect such foolish efforts, had set to work as quickly as they could to dismantle this unfortunate obstruction. All about their own houses and in their gardens and courtyards, they discovered a sudden need for wire.

The city environment juxtaposes the officious, self-referential manner of the Indian government with the inertia of human nature: whatever is set up shall soon be put down. Whatever disrupts the normal flow of life for the citizens will soon be battered into its rightful place in the hierarchy, far below the day-to-day needs of the citizens. At the end of the novel, the government officer, the CMO, has assigned himself a "much needed" vacation and organizes to leave, with a train of cars and luggage, from Shahkot on the very same day that two other governmental officers, the District Collector and the Brigadier, have commandeered troops to catch the drunken monkeys disrupting the townspeople. All of these people, along with several bystanders, get caught up in the winding streets of the town and they are not able to achieve the goals they set out to accomplish. The very stricture of the rules of the governmental bodies backfires, and the claustrophobia of the city streets magnifies their inability to plan with any kind of strategy or success.

In polarity to the city setting is Desai's depiction of the guava orchard, and, specifically, the guava tree which Sampath Chawla climbs in an effort to escape the sitting. It is lush, ripe with fruit, and perfect for perching on in peace. Sampath wittingly went toward this tree and, in fleeing civilization, he landed in a fruit-bearing, sheltering tree that gave Sampath a newfound sense of peace and simplicity. All the bureaucratic inessentials of the city faded away, at least until the city came to the foot of the tree.

How beautiful it was here, how exactly as it should be. This orchard matched something he had imagined all his life: myriad green-skinned globes growing sweet-sour and marvelous upon a hillside with enough trees to fill the eye and enough fruit to scent the air. ... And these trees were not so big, or so thick with leaves, or so crowded together, as to obscure the sky, which showed clean through the branches.

So unlike the claustrophobia of the post office and the city streets, the guava orchard offers a perfect harmony of shade and openness, of prosperity and simplicity. However, after only a few days of peace, Sampath's family marches under the tree to demand his return to town and, quickly, the crowds began to gather. As Sampath becomes known as "Baba"—as a guru— pilgrims begin to march into the orchard and settle down to listen to Sampath's words of wisdom. A makeshift town builds up, complete with a bargaining atmosphere, heaps of trash, and bickering. It is not long before the government intercedes, and soon the orchard looks rather like a city. As the orchard city burgeons, peace disappears, and eventually, Sampath flees the orchard altogether, leaving in his place a ripe, extended guava fruit.

Literary Qualities

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The most notable literary quality that Desai employs is hyperbole. Desai makes each event that occurs in the novel far grander, by adding an almost magical description. A lost boy, frustrated by the indentured state of his life with a strictly structured society, runs away. But rather than running to a new city, he climbs a guava tree and decides to stay. His stay evolves into a state of sainthood, all because he read people's mail while working at the post office and thus can speak to the people about their private affairs. When Kulfi is pregnant with Sampath, she is not just hungry, she is ravenous, totally obsessed by the idea of food. So much so that, when she can no longer bribe the market sellers for adequate food supplies, she begins to draw the food she desires all over the walls of her house.

When monkeys arrive on the scene in the guava orchard, instead of becoming part of the scene, they overtake all, discovering a stash of rum and immediately becoming insatiable alcoholics, bent on finding and imbibing every last drop of liquor in the area.

The absurdity of the scenes takes the reader out of a realist frame of reference, and with each passing event the suspension of belief is renewed. This device allows Desai to play with dream images and to truly allow anything to transpire in the text. At times, the marked absurdity, the very unpredictability of the story, caves in on itself and makes the story actually quite predictable. Because even the most absurd happenstance becomes common, Desai risks allowing the magical occurrences to almost predict themselves. For instance, when the reader learns that the spy from the Atheist Society is creeping closer to the pot in which Kulfi is preparing to catch and cook a monkey, it becomes obvious that he is going to wind up in the pot himself. And so, when he does, it is grotesque to imagine, but not at all a surprise.

However, for the most part, the magical imagery allows the reader to loosen the strictures of what is allowed to happen in the course of the book's events, and it adds a powerful element to her writing.

Desai is a masterful dialogue writer, and she uses this skill to great effect in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. She infuses the dialogue with local idioms and paints a vivid portrait of life in a small city in India. The hypocrisy of social expectations and the absurdity of bureaucratic red tape show themselves through the language and conversations of the people.

After Sampath's grandmother, Ammaji, purchases her new dentures, she gets an ice cream cone and immediately lodges her teeth into the frozen cream. The Circus Monkey who hangs around the bazaar mistakes them for a bag of peanuts and runs away with them. Ammaji chases angrily after the monkey, yelling:

"Give them back. They're of no use to you, you stupid donkey."

"Stupid monkey, maji," said Hungry Hop, stopping in mid-track, stunned at her mistaking such vastly different animals for each other. "He's a monkey, not a donkey."

"Monkey-dunkey," shouted Ammaji. "Don't just stand there. Go after him."

And off Hungry Hop runs, remembering his duty, and recovers the dentures from the monkey.

Bureaucratic idiocy comes to the fore at the end of the novel, when various departments are set into motion in the early hours of the morning that the Brigadier and District Collector have planned to capture the drunk monkeys. The Brigadier commandeers his troops to march through the city to the orchard, and they smack straight into a pile of suitcases and bedrolls spread along the street. Seeing the Chief Medical Officer amongst the bags and bedding, the Brigadier shouts:

"What are you doing, fatso?" . . .

The CMO turned pale. "Are you referring to me?" he asked with dignity. "If so, I think you should keep your words to yourself until you know the state of my health!"

"Move," shouted the Brigadier. "Move, move, move yourself and your bloody belongings. Now!" . . .

"Due to health problems, I have been forced to take vacation leave in Dasauli. Every now and then you know, in times of stress—"

"Just move," shouted the Brigadier in purple rage. "Move your hundreds of damn suitcases."

"Oh dear," said the DC, watching the ensuing hullabaloo, "and I myself signed that vacation leave. I suppose it was my fault."

Even the governmental entities working together cannot seem to make their agendas and schedules coincide. Hullabaloo seems to be the only reigning state of affairs in Shahkot.

Colorful description also imbues the novel with rich texture. The Brigadier is "dark as a monsoon cloud." When Kulfi is cooking meals for Sampath, her rapture carries over into the process of cooking itself.

A single grain of one thing, a bud of another, a moist fingertip dipped lightly into a small vial and then in to the bubbling pot; a thimble full, a matchbox full, a coconut shell full of dark crimson and deep violet, of dusty yellow spice, the entire concoction simmered sometimes for a day or two . . . The meats were beaten to silk, so spiced and fragrant they clouded the senses; the sauces were full of strange hints and dark undercurrents, leaving you on firm ground one moment, dragging you under the next.

When describing the town, Desai's writing edges toward the poetic. In the night, a car passes through the streets:

A passing car sent its searchlight-glare crazy and liquid over the sides of the buildings and into the trees, revealing not the colors, the daylight solidity of things, but a world of dark gaps cut from an empty skin of light.

Then, as daylight ascends, the writing turns more critical:

Sampath watched as the shadows retreated, as Shahkot was offered up once again, whole and intact, with its overflowing rubbish heaps and its maze of streets. Bit by bit he saw the jumble of wires spilling out at the top of the electricity pole and the dirty, stained walls of the houses that rose high all about him, with their complications of rooftops and verandas; their clutter of television aerials, watching lines and courtyards filled with bicycles and raggedy plants and all the paraphernalia of large and loud families.

Social Sensitivity

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The main issue Desai confronts in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is that of nature versus civilization. As mentioned in the setting, Desai makes strong statements throughout the book regarding the problems inherent in man's encroachment upon the natural order of things. At the start of the book, the newspaper from which Mr. Chawla reads aloud reports all manner of explanations for the drought that Shahkot is experiencing. The monsoons have not yet come, and the people fear for their crops and their livelihoods and so seek solace in dreaming up reasons for the monsoons' absence. They look for something or someone to blame, to fill up the space of worry they have created in the face of a natural, inexplicable force.

Likewise, when Sampath runs away to the guava orchard, at first there is a sense of jubilation and freedom in his thoughts and responses to people's questions. He feels unfettered by man's tendency to categorize and process, and even the unruly monkeys are calmed as they sit in the tree. But nature cannot escape man's encroachment for long, and as the throngs of pilgrims grow, and the orchard begins to resemble a city, the monkeys return to their malicious ways, rummaging for alcohol and terrorizing the pilgrims and even Sampath. It is as though the monkeys represent the wrath of nature in the face of the people's defacement of it. Nature has come full circle, and man must face the consequences of his autocratic treatment of nature.

For Further Reference

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Rushdie, S., and E. West, eds. The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: 1947-1997. London: Vintage, 1997. This book is a collection of writings by Indian writers and writers of Indian descent.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993. This critical work describes the rise and sustenance of imperialism and its effect on Indian culture.

Related Web Sites
Dixon, Marton. "Pure Fiction Reviews Interviews . . . Kiran Desai." http://www. desai.htm Accessed October 21, 2002. Dixon talks with Desai about her literary influences and approach to the art of writing.


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