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Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Kiran Desai

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Kiran Desai
Faber & Faber
London 1998

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Set in an Indian backwater named Shahkot, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard traces the chaotic progress of the monumentally unmotivated Sampath Chawla from failed post office clerk to guava-tree-inhabiting guru. this is a novel very much in the tale-telling mould. Desai unravels the narrative in a series of gossipy asides and sub plots, almost imperceptibly mimicking the diction of her characters. The writing shifts between passages of subtly observed dialogue and evocative lists compiled from the names of exotic fruits and birds, sari silks and the ingredients of lavish imaginary meals. The result is a thoroughly charming, funny and occasionally touching insight into the absurdities and ambiguities of life in small-town India.

The impossibly absent-minded Sampath is sacked from his dismal post-office job after committing an unspeakable outrage at the wedding feast of his employer’s daughter. Horrified at his father’s suggestion that he apply for a post at the Utterly Butterly Delicious Butter Factory, he heads for the hills and takes up residence in a guava orchard on the outskirts of town, followed by his affectionate but infuriated family. In this new context, however, Sampath’s chronic daydreaming is reinterpreted as a life of spiritual contemplation and he swiftly develops a local reputation as a holy man. For a while it seems that Sampath’s escape has been a solution to everyone’s problems as he settles happily into the life of a guru and his family embark upon a lucrative business catering for the coachloads of pilgrims and sightseers arriving to visit the ‘tree-baba’.

This pastoral idyll is shattered by the arrival of a riotous tribe of alcoholic monkeys who move into Sampath’s tree, leaving only to make smash and grab raids on local liquor stores and to harass the young women of Shahkot. Depicting the ensuing descent into anarchy Desai is in her element, cataloguing the various insane schemes proposed by the town’s leading citizens to solve the monkey problem. The comedy is tempered with a genuine pathos as Sampath helplessly watches the destruction of his paradise by his community’s endlessly baulked desire to impose order on a chaos of their own making. As events spiral ever further out of control however, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard begins increasingly to read like one of Sampath’s more obscure mystical utterances:

‘First a chikoo is raw,’ said Sampath. ‘Then if you do not pick and eat it quickly it will soon rot and turn to alcohol’. What was he saying? That the time of perfection passes, that you should eat a chikoo at the right time only, that everything is part of nature, that good becomes bad or that bad is not really bad because it is all part of the nature of a chikoo? Oh sometimes he was hard to understand.

Desai’s subtle exploration of the ambiguous nature of Sampath’s holiness is one of the novel’s major strengths. However the expanding layers of ambiguity run the risk of finally becoming as frustrating to the reader as they do to the inhabitants of Shahkot. The final descent into absurdity (metamorphosis of man into fruit!) and abrupt conclusion in the midst of chaos is disappointingly weak. The novel’s peculiar brand of mysticism works well up to this point precisely because it works within a recognisable, if somewhat bizarre framework of reality. The final collapse of this framework undermines the fragile relationship which Desai has created between a real and an imagined landscape and in so doing undermines her greatest achievement. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is an utterly charming first novel which possesses what must be one of the silliest denouements in literature.

Reviewed by Holly Yates


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