Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

by Kiran Desai

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What is Mr. Chawla's view on his mother in Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard?

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Indian author Kiran Desai’s 1998 award-winning novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, takes place in the village of Shahkot in the state of Punjab, India. This amusing tale was inspired by the true story of a man who for many years actually lived in a tree, represented in the novel by the character of Sampath Chawla. Sampath is the son of Mr. Chawla and his wife, Kulfi, who live with Mr. Chawla’s mother, Amma (Ammaji).

Your question about how Mr. Chawla views his mother requires a look at his own personality.

In Chapter 1, we learn that Mr. Chawla is a practical fellow who, in spite of “his young age and slight build” has a “powerful claim to authority.” The fact that the author refers to him as “Mr. Chawla” and not by his first name gives the reader the sense that he is a serious person with the airs of a man older than his years.

As an expectant father, Mr. Chawla studies facts about babies in the library, makes sure that he has collected the appropriate vitamins, instructs his wife in prenatal exercises, and enrolls the yet-to-be-born infant in Mission School. He is driven by rationality. The quote “Oddness, like aches and pains, fits of tears and lethargy, always made him uneasy and he had a fear of these uncontrollable, messy puddles of life” adeptly sums his character.

Mr. Chawla needs to have order in his life, and his mother is responsible for having selected a wife who exudes the very characteristics that make him uncomfortable. Hugely pregnant with Sampath at the beginning of the story, Kulfi is driven by a mad craving for a wide variety of food—unavailable because of drought—well beyond the daily staples of rice and lentils. She then takes a box of crayons and covers the walls with a wild landscape of foods. This behavior represents the height of unpredictability, which Mr. Chawla fears.

We get a hint early on that Mr. Chawla blames his mother for what may well turn out to be a poorly chosen wife and, heaven forbid, a child who may take after her. In an attitude that is described as “ferocious,” he asks his mother in Chapter 1, “What have you married me to, Amma?” Unlike her son, Amma makes allowances for the whims of her pregnant daughter-in-law and has an accepting outlook.

In Chapter 3, two decades have gone by and Mr. Chawla, now forty years old, is as regimented and bossy as ever. He considers himself to be the proverbial captain of a ship of fools—his family. We see an egregious example of his self-importance and outright rudeness towards his mother when she asks about his preferences for a lunch she is packing. Amma interrupts a long-winded lecture Mr. Chawla is imposing on the family and he reacts with impatience and disdain, shouting that her concerns are an irrelevant annoyance.

In short, one might conclude that Mr. Chawla’s view of his mother is not too different from the way he sees all others who do not adhere to his very strict and narrow views of what it means to lead a successful life. He sees himself as superior to others and holds everyone else to his impossible standards. This perspective, and perhaps the pressures of providing for an extended family, keep him from appreciating and being grateful for his mother’s care and for the diversity of talent and ability in others.

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