A Reading Of Kiran Desai's ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard’
In this age of television and information explosion, as in the past, much is being said and written about the glory, beauty and the spirit of India. We perpetually mention and refer to the wonder of Vedic Myths, the incredible Ayurvedic cures and our centuries old 'Yoga' system'. We tend to get euphoric about India's greatness. We also tend to get oblivious of our weaknesses.
The novel, ‘Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard’ may come as a shock to the reader lost to such euphoria. It brings the readers down to earth. The novel can best be described as a catechizing process for the Indian reader. It compels us to face the social realities of our land.
The story and the plot are simple and straight forward. The reader is transported to the town of Shahkot. Shahkot stands for an average Indian town with its bazaars, schools, a degree college, government offices, banks and its inhabitants. The protagonist Sampath Chawla is an eccentric youth who works in a post office. His job is dreary and boring. He fills the monotonous hours by reading the letters of other and enjoying his afternoon siestas. But then, fate has something else in store for this erratic boy. One day, on account of behaving wildly at the marriage of his boss's daughter, he loses his job at the post-office. Life gets hellish for him. Though in his heart of hearts he is glad to be free from the dull job, he continues to be tortured by his father's cynical remarks.
One day, to escape the painful persuasion of his father for searching a new job, this suffering soul climbs on top of a tree in a guava orchard in the outskirts of Shahkot. When people come to cajole him, he mischievously leaks out personal details of the lives of some of the visitors. Obviously this knowledge has come to him from his unethical habit of reading letters addressed to others at his previous work place i.e. the post-office. But these ill-mannered mutterings are taken as the visions of a god man. His cowardly escape is considered to be his lack of interest in 'maya,' this worldly web. Before anyone can grasp the developments, the whimsical lad has been transformed into a 'Baba,' a 'Guru,' a Sanyasi.' Sampath's father, the practical Mr. Chawla smells a great business opportunity in this. He effectively advertises the newly-thrust spirituality of his son. He himself is not at all deceived about the reality of Sampath. He knows that his son is the same old moron. But the senior Chawla is more than glad about the change in the perception of others regarding his son. His good-for-nothing son has made it as a 'god man.' It is a happy time for the Chawla family. There is money. There is fame. There is power. There is respect for them all around. Sampath is called 'Monkey-Baba.' as monkeys also dwell in that orchard.
Sampath answers the questions of his devotees in a mindless manner. But then he is no more Sampath; he is Monkey-Baba with an aura around him. His each word is thought to be loaded with deep meanings and suggestions. Whenever anyone asks him a question, the Baba replies symbolically. For example, a lady is worried about the bad company of her son. She asks Sampath the solution. Sampath begins to reply by saying, ‘Add lemons to milk and it will go sour.’ An answer like this is only following the great Indian tradition of symbolical discourse in religion. He keeps on pronouncing crazy sentences like 'one mouse is different from the other’ or ‘one can digest fish' or 'more will go to the lantern' etc. Symbolism is a great asset to Sampath as it curtains his mental deficiency in layers of mystery. People spin their heads in getting at the meaning and the Monkey-Baba is regarded as a great mystic.
‘Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard’ is an ironical novel satirizing Indian mentality. It openly makes fun of our sense of propriety and logic. The major satire of the novel is the Indian sense of religiosity. Anything sells in the name of religion. I am reminded of Pascal who once said "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." Different 'Babas' and their followers are growing each day all round us like a swelling ocean. Just like population or acts of crime, the god men are also on an uncontrollable rise. Every region, city, township or even locality has to its credit some kind of spirituality personified.
While going through this novel, what strikes home is the absurdity of blind faith and fanatic beliefs. These god men have the power, but they are not accountable to anyone. Their authority, therefore, stands unchallenged. They bathe in milk, eat rich food and maintain hefty bank accounts. They can occupy government land and use all official facilities free of cost. Kiran Desai has skillfully brought out the modus operandi of the making of a saint. There are business tricks involved in the trade. It is just a trade like any other trade. Production, advertisement, and selling arts are in operation. One feels that 'spirituality" is the most lucrative business in India.
There is one character in the novel who is an atheist. He is a member of an atheist society. He is sent to Shahkot to make inquiries regarding Monkey-Baba. He is a pathetic lonely figure in the novel. While the mob is in the trance of spiritual waves, this poor fellow is portrayed as a ridiculous loner who is trying to gather facts against the fraud. His condition is wretched. He follows Sampath's mother, Kulfi when she goes to the nearby forest to gather herbs and spices. He is convinced that she mixes some intoxicants in Sampath's food. He keeps a vigil at nights. He makes his logical notes. But, lo and behold, what happens to him at the end of the novel? His curiosity takes him to a tree just above the huge cooking pot of Kulfi. Wren there is the final hullabaloo in the guava orchard, he falls inside the boiling cooking pot and the pot is covered by Kulfi. The meaning of this incident is deep (much beyond what our inquisitive journalists try to unravel). Reason and rational thinking in India are boiled to death in the cauldron of frenzy and fanaticism.
Apart from the above outlined theme of satirizing the Indian sense of religiosity, the novel has innumerable other ironical comments. From endless transfers of civil servants to the repetitiveness of Indian schooling environment, to our frequent illegal arrangements of an electricity supply or water supply, nothing eludes the author's eyes. Everything is captured so flowingly, realistically and naturally.
But Kiran Desai is not hostile. She is not bitter while writing all these details. She only narrates a funny tale recounting the corruption, the mess and the rule of chaos as necessary details. For example, describing the post-office where Sampath worked, she writes about the barbed wire fencing-"Naturally the barbed wire fence was not entirely intact," because the people of Shahkot, on seeing the wire, were reminded of its need in and around their houses. Similarly when it rains, "Ammaji placed buckets outside to catch rain water and brought out candles and kerosene lanterns in preparation for the inevitable breakdown of electricity." It is a foregone conclusion that if it is raining heavily, the electricity supply would be cut off. As it starts raining, preparations for the inevitable darkness are on.
This is how the novel moves. The minute delineation of common Indian habits forms the bulk of this novel. Government service and afternoon naps are totally interlinked to each other.
Come elections and all the leaders get ready to take the residents of Shahkot to the 2lst century. Our patriarchal set-up, the edge the boys enjoy in matrimonial settlements, the way the gods are appeased for a male child, or the recurrent wrong numbers on Indian phone system are well written. Everything is accepted by the novelist. There is no sermonizing. This is just how things stand in Shahkot. The novel is an inundating illustration of India. Indians predict weather in a final tone. If the wind is blowing from west to east, it will rain or if the atmosphere is still, storm is on the cards. If a lady gets pregnant, the predicament regarding the sex of the child picks up momentum. Relatives, friends, neighbors, all are engrossed in thinking, 'Boy or girl'? The breath of the mother is "released happy and full of relief if the baby was a boy, released full of disappointment and resentment if it wasn't."
Over-population, stink, dust, lack of space in Indian homes and the obsession of taking bath with Lifebuoy soap are touched in such a way that one cannot resist laughter. At times, the novelist reaches subtlety. Our frequent elections, election-promises and slogans have become a laughing stock: "Not one of the street lights worked and they wouldn't work, everyone knew until the next election. Then there would be flurry of excitement. With five-and ten-points plans to send Shahkot and its residents bounding into the twenty-first century."
‘Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard’ is a welcome change for a reader of novels. It changes the mood entirely. A practical novel with pragmatic subjects and characters is refreshing. It also makes us think. Loving our own selves is easy. But analyzing, criticizing and accepting our weaknesses is a difficult task. This task is well achieved by Kiran Desai.