Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
by Kiran Desai
Published by Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0571193366 (hardcover), 0385493703 (softcover)
There are probably some spoilers contained herein, and I can't guarantee you'll get a concise idea of the plot - this is a study, not a review. You want a review, here ya go: this book is extremely odd and wonderfully fantastic. It will make you laugh out loud. Read it.
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Some novels manage to seamlessly combine the strictly logical and the utterly fantastic. It's not a simple process for the author or, for that matter, the reader - when one is accustomed to a strict progression of things, a completely nonsensical turn of events leaves one confused and shaken. Much like in film, where the first five minutes of visuals sets up a matrix for the entire movie, a novelist creates a universe from the first paragraph.
Breaking this form can be a dangerous proposition, a fifty-fifty shot - either the sudden change of narrative voice thrills and exhilarates the reader, or it leaves them feeling lost, thinking 'Hey, where did the book I was reading go?' The most effective (and least disconcerting) way to turn a book on its head in this manner is to introduce small examples of illogical development throughout the narrative, foreshadowing and paving the way for the major surprise. Surprises are all well and good for birthdays and roses, but in literature it's best to be forewarned. Equally paradoxically, it is best that the ultimate literary jolt, while obviously being unexpected in the particular and looked for in the specific, is something that makes sense in regards to the flow of the narrative.
Kiran Desai's "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard" follows these guidelines wonderfully. It's perfectly clear from the first page that illogical human responses are to spring from logical events. The monsoon is late in coming, and a slew of scientists, both professional and amateur, volunteer their explanations and solutions. Flutes, giant fans and magnetic rays that would be perfectly comfortable in a B-movie are proposed.
While sounding rather insane, these musings serve a concrete purpose - they distract from the heat and pass time until the rains come. The oddness of events is rationalized by the situation and passed off as normal, lulling the reader into a false sense of normality that is systematically destroyed as the novel progresses.
The monsoon finally comes, and with it comes Sampath's birth. The child, like most of his family, is touched with a hint of insanity himself. From the writer's perspective, what could be more fitting - a slightly twisted protagonist automatically lends itself to a slightly twisted plot and is one more thing to skew the story to the surreal.
Pinky is atypical as well, even for a confused teenage girl. Her emotional outbursts produce some incredibly wild results - she bites off Hungry Hop's ear in a spontaneous fit of something like love. This is the only truly violent episode in the novel, and it is deftly contorted from that to humor - Hungry Hop (which is, by the way, the only name he has in the novel) keeps the remains of his ear packed into a gallon of ice cream until it can be reattached.
Desai skillfully side-stepped a difficult stereotype with this one - surrealistic fantasy
is often paired with violence (as in William S. Burroughs' fabled 'William Tell Routine' in "Naked Lunch") but in this case the author is making fun of the violence, using it to tell a joke instead.
Sampath's mother is obsessed and slightly crazy, but she has a clearly defined purpose. She takes care of her son to the exclusion of everybody else. She finds solace in foraging for ingredients for his increasingly complicated meals. Sampath is truly his mother's son - his eventual metamorphosis puts him in contact with the natural elements his mother spends her time collecting for him. As she searches the hills for his dinner, she's really bringing herself closer to him in more way that satisfying his appetites.
Mr. Chalwa is an exception to the general insanity he is surrounded with at home. He acts as a foil to the rest of his family - he is the voice of reason, the impartial, scientific mind. But once Sampath starts preaching from his tree, even Mr. Chalwa's logic falls short in convincing his family that his son is still as lazy and stubborn as he always was. Instead of continuing as an objector, Mr. Chalwa works out how to turn a
profit out of his son's hold over people.
His character is a return to normalcy after the rest of the Chalwa clan, but he is so
well defined it begs the question: how normal is he? Is his focus on money so blind that he suffers from the same obsessive tendencies that his family does? The answer is an unsettling 'probably.' All of Desai's secondary characters are sketched, not drawn, with a predominant driving trait that mostly serves to hold a mirror up to Sampath, to provide a necessary contrast. Each of her character's major points are personality facets not found in Sampath.
Sampath's transformation is the end result of all this, the pinnacle the rest of the story's events were foreshadowing and leading up to. His becoming a Guava ties the story up nicely, but it does more than that - it justifies the illogical turns of events that have preceded it. While being obviously impossible and supernatural, his metamorphosis is completely reasonable - it fulfills Sampath's urges to escape, it ties him to his mother and her food gathering expeditions, it brings him closer to the monkeys whose behavior only he really understands.