Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

by Kiran Desai

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What are the essential themes in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard?

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Two themes that play out in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard are traditional culture versus modern culture and imagination versus reality.

Traditional versus modern culture

India provides the perfect backdrop for the theme of sticking with traditional culture and customs versus entering the modern world. Ammaji is a traditional Indian woman who uses traditional remedies and astrology and folklore to solve problems. She has firm roots in this and wants the same for her family. In contrast, Sampath's father is a very proud bank employee. He wants to follow more modern Western culture and looks down upon his mother for her traditional values. In some ways, he is caught between the two worlds: at home he does yoga, but at work, he has Western manners. He wants to be a Western banker, but he wants his daughter to be an ideal Indian woman, instead of being like the movie stars she wishes to emulate. The town itself represents the contrast between traditional and modern ways of life. On the one hand, people scrounge for what they need, the electricity doesn't always work, and traditional religious practices are followed. In contrast, they have a modern movie theater, busses, cars, and a university.

Imagination versus reality

Kulfi and Sampath would like to spend much of their time in their imagination. Sampath, especially, has an artist's mind. He spends his time reading and finding beauty in words and shapes. This is further illustrated when he goes through rooms of the house smelling different smells and getting drunk on perfume and other various scents. He is "transported." This frequent transportation into his dream world causes him to fail his exams and get fired from his job.

Kulfi prefers to spend her time being a culinary artist. She spends her time finding herbs and spices to put into her dishes. She finds life a little boring and is almost obsessed with cooking something new and exciting, like a monkey. They both daydream about their future instead of spending time in the present. However, they learn that in order to be successful members of society, they have to suppress some of their imagination and live in the here and now.

In this society, most people do not spend their time dreaming of how things could be. They spend their energy worrying about their current position and how they can advance it. This can be seen by Mr. Chawla spending most of his energy figuring out ways to make money from his son's religious career. It is also seen when the ice cream boy is so busy thinking about himself that he doesn't realize Pinky has a crush on him.
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One of the novel's themes is that nature affords freedom to certain individuals. Sampath is very much a free spirit, but in the town he cannot be himself, cannot express his true self. He feels constrained and restricted by society's petty rules and customs. It is only by going back to nature, as it were, by seeking refuge in the guava orchard, that Sampath can experience the freedom to be who he wants to be.

In the town, Sampath is a nobody, a humble worker toiling away at a menial job he cordially loathes. But in the guava orchard, it's a different story. Here, he's the center of attention, a local celebrity, someone whose apparent guru-like wisdom is much sought after. It says a lot about the petty-mindedness of the local townsfolk that Sampath had to take off to the guava orchard to achieve this exalted status.

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One critical theme in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is the theme of conformity.  Conformist notions of the good impact characters in the story in different ways.  For example, Sampath cannot embrace the conformity and social expectations that are demanded from him.  This becomes part of the motivating factor in his ascent to the tree in the first place.  Kulfi also represents the theme of conformity and its impact on the individual. The metaphor of Kulfi's insatiable appetite is symbolic of her desire to strive for something more that socially prescribed elements of being in the world.  Her "desperation for another landscape" and desire to see  the freedom potential in food are aspects of her being that causes her to embrace a non- conformist mode of being in the world, another version of Sampath fleeing to the tree.

The flip side to this coin would be the father and sister of the family.  Mr. Chawla perceives oddness and a lack of conformity to be akin to "aches and pains, fits of tears and lethargy."  He is constantly driven to advance his own name, as seen in his initial repulsion towards Sampath climbing the tree and then recognizing that his perceived status as a guru can advance his own name.  Pinky is another example of the conformist structure guiding individual choice and perception.  While she experiences what might be a liberating notion of love with the ice cream boy, she ends up recalibrating this momentary distraction in moving her eyes on the brigadier and the notion of "societal gain" advancing her own desire.  

How individuals deal with the conformist aspect of being is a critical theme in the novel.  Through this, the themes of material advancement and spiritual identity, gender notions of identity, and the relationship between individuals and authority are all illuminated.  The critical theme of social conformity impacts all of the main characters in the narrative.  Their responses to it help to define much of their trajectory and the arc of their development.

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