Review: Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Kiran Desai
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY 1998

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — May 28, 1998, 8:30pm

When I began reading Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai, I was expecting Rohinton Mistry. Or Salman Rushdie. Maybe I had this mis-preconception because all of these authors are Indian. The fact that Salman Rushdie gave this book "Advance Praise" on its back cover probably helped me make this error. Whatever the reason, I quickly awoke from this dream and landed directly in the middle of another one.

Indeed, Hullabaloo can be accurately described as a vivid dream, a dream you suddenly enter and in which you are at once completely lost. Colorful words fly all around you. The events, though sometimes ridiculous, are usually not miraculous or completely unbelievable. Yet something is strange; something makes you feel uncomfortable, and you never know why.

The language keeps flowing and you cannot stop it. Beautiful words, descriptive words, going well together (on paper, as it were) — yet why do they strike you as harsh and meaningless? Why do you want to skim over them and move quickly, run, fly away from this odd world, much as Sampath wants to escape his earthly world. It almost makes one want to climb a tree.

Hullabaloo recreates in our minds a world that, although pleasing to the eye and sometimes quite normal in general respects, can suddenly become an irritation and a confusion. We have all at one time or another become fed up with everything and everyone around us and wanted to escape. Unlike Sampath, we probably did not climb a tree.

Alerting us to the fact that this is Kiran Desai’s first novel ("A hullabaloo of a debut," says Gita Mehta) and that Desai is of such a young age can create biases. I didn’t know if the novel would be brilliant or lackluster, but after reading the jacket I "knew" that I should be able to identify something different about it. This probably hindered my enjoyment of the book somewhat, and left me with different conclusions than I might have made otherwise.

In any case, whether purposely depicting a din of subconscious confusion or inadvertently indicating rigid methods acquired in writing class, the prose of Hullabaloo somehow uses beautiful words that knock roughly against the senses. At times it seems as if every paragraph were stamped from the same cookie cutter and follows the same pattern: two or three short sentences (each of which is so complete that it could be the subject sentence of the paragraph), followed by two or three more longer sentences that mercifully pound you with lists — exquisite, articulate lists that bewilder and annoy.

Yet again, this is the exact feeling that the world has given Sampath. It is quite likely that Sampath, whether awake or asleep, is actually dreaming the events of the story. Lending support to this hypothesis, the events begin to spin out of control toward the end of the book, faster and faster, until no one is in control of anything. Like dreams (and nightmares), the last few pages begin to blend realism with fantasy, the laws of physics are suddenly defied, and nothing makes sense anymore. Sampath turns into a guava, the monkeys escape, and something falls into Kulfi’s cooking pot. We never find out what this object is, because as everyone peers into bubbling stew the dream ends. Following my speculation, Sampath either awakes, or finally drifts off into another stage of sleep.

Some parts of the book were thought-provoking. The tongue-in-cheek list of necessary qualities of a daughter-in-law (57) were both entertaining and satirical. It would be interesting to compare this humorous section to the list of female qualities held in high esteem in the Kama Sutra and also in the Biblical book of Proverbs. Other sections seem to poke fun at other gurus and their eccentricities: "It is a terrible picture," said Pinky. "He has not even combed his hair... And he is wearing nothing but his undershorts" (118).

Neither Mistry nor Rushdie, Desai writes in a style which you may enjoy but I’m still wondering about. While I had no trouble reaching the end of the book, it wasn’t as if I were all that anxious to get there and find out what was waiting. None the less bewildered at it all, I nevertheless plodded along despite the rather frequent unexplainable irritations. If Desai’s art imitates life, she does a good job of showing just what a Hullabaloo life can sometimes be.