Kiran Desai Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Kiran Desai Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

Desai is an Indian novelist.

Desai's first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), is set in Shahkot, a small town in northern India that is home to the novel's protagonist, Sampath Chawla. On the day of his birth, two favorable omens convince Sampath's family that he is destined for greatness; however, as he grows into manhood he becomes disillusioned with his ordinary life. Ultimately, an embarrassing incident that takes place while Sampath is drunk at the wedding of his employer's daughter causes him to lose his job at the post office—where he spent the majority of his time reading his neighbors' mail—and Sampath flees to a nearby orchard, where he intends to spend the rest of his days perched in a guava tree engaged in quiet contemplation. A number of factors intervene to hinder Sampath's ambition, including a group of alcoholic monkeys who join him in his retreat, a police superintendent, and even Sampath's family, who quickly decide to capitalize on the situation when several residents of Shahkot become convinced that Sampath is a holy man. Sampath's new-found identity as the "Tree Baba" is partly due to his decision to live as a hermit, but is largely based upon his uncanny ability to discern the townspeople's private thoughts, which he learned while reading their letters. The comic narrative delineates the furor that surrounds Sampath and his "followers," and eventually ends in an unexpected and imaginative fashion. Critics applauded Desai's vivid characterizations, noting especially the hilarity evoked by Sampath's food-obsessed mother and entrepreneurial father, as well as his love-crazed sister Pinky, who bites a member of the Atheist Society threatening to reveal Sampath as an impostor. Critics noted similarities between Desai's novel and the works of such authors as Salman Rushdie, Jerzy Kosinski, Virginia Woolf, and R. K. Narayan; most commentators affirmed that Desai, born in 1971 to celebrated author Anita Desai, has inherited her mother's literary talents. A Kirkus Reviews contributor declared: "It's a pleasure to report that this particular fruit of a distinguished literary lineage, having fallen rather far from the tree, is producing bountiful and delicious results." Other aspects of the novel singled out for praise by critics include Desai's richly-drawn, detailed settings, her satirical commentary on such topics as family dynamics, small-town life, Indian society, and entrepreneurialism, and her witty, genuine dialogue. Zia Jaffrey concluded: "Desai creates a whole tableau—like a medieval tapestry in which all the people and animals start moving and speaking—affectionately describing a village atmosphere and the familial relationships within it."