July 14, 2020
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Treetop Escapades

A hilarious and affectionate evocation of small-town India

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Treetop Escapades
Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard
By Kiran Desai
Viking India Rs 295; Pages: 209
ENDORSED by Salman Rushdie, excerpted in the New Yorker, heralded as a member of India's first literary dynasty, guided by mother Anita Desai, wooed by publishers in more than a dozen countries...26-year-old Kiran Desai's literary debut has certainly created something of a hullabaloo. Fresh and funny, perceptive and vibrant, her book is a rollicking spoof on Indian society and its narrow concerns. Written with charming mischievousness, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is imbued with an affectionate empathy for its characters without any damning, supercilious comment. As its author takes pains to emphasise, "I wanted to raise certain points, I did not want to make a point."

The central point is one that has exercised the minds of scholars and theologians alike: what goes into the making of a mystic? What happens when one is consumed by an extreme need for solitude? When the nitty-gritty of daily life gets a bit much for one's limited intellect and nonexistent ego? When one is overtaken by a mystical force to become part of something larger? Erstwhile, and extremely incompetent, Shahkot post office clerk Sampath Chawla realises drastic action is called for when he can no longer bear the thought "of Public Transport, of the Bureau of Statistics, of head massages, of socks and shoes, of interview strate-gies...of never being left alone, of being unable to sleep and of his father talking and lecturing in the room below". Accordingly, he catches a bus out of town and ensconces himself in a lush guava tree in a deserted orchard.

But does Sampath find nirvana in his treetop paradise? Oh no, for soon enough he is hailed as a powerful mystic and tales of his rare simplicity and wisdom draw most of Shahkot, and much besides. Pilgrims pour in from far and wide to seek blessings from the Tree Baba, to feel that holy foot rest for just a moment on their heads, to hear and ponder over his enigmatic though enlightening one-lined conundrums: "First a chikoo is raw, then, if you do not pick it and eat it quickly, it will soon rot and turn to alcohol."

So they come. First the family: crafty Mr Chawla who is quick to see the commercial possibilities a son in a tree offers, his eccentric wife Kulfiwho chases exotic prey to rustle up meals for her son, young Pinky who paints her eyes and dons diaphanous outfits to stalk the hapless Hungry Hop Kwality Ice Cream van boy, and old Ammaji who wrestles with loose dentures as she marshals pebble-sling-armed devotees to fight off the alcohol-loving monkeys who share Sampath's charpoy. Indeed, it is the monkeys who shatter this idyllic Shangri-la with their inebriated kerfuffles and provoke a rather anti-climactic denouement.

Desai has a sharp eye for small-town India and its ways. Middle-class aspirations (a Godrej steel cupboard and a Maruti car), matrimonial rituals, gender ties, spiritual quests, bureaucratic red tape, military discipline, scientific temper—nothing escapes her hammer and every mannerism rings true. She also has the literary skill to manage a burgeoning cast and mushrooming concerns in a tight yet unobtrusive structure as she evokes the smells and sounds of small-town India, albeit in an innocent, Wodehousian avatar.

Still, this is clearly a first novel, slightly raw in stretches. Sitting in her Delhi home, Desai, who took a year off from post-graduate studies at New York City's Columbia University to devote to her book, says Hullabaloo started with Sampath's character, with a vision of this mystic sitting in a tree and the rest followed. No wonder then that the tale doesn't really take off till Sampath scrambles up his guava tree, a quarter of the way through the book. In fact, even the writing picks up rhythm at this point as the dialogue becomes crisper and more sharp-witted and Desai's penchant for jarring similes (sample: "like a gust of wind that comes out of nowhere, rustles through the trees and melts into nothing like a ghost") gives way to more evocative prose.

Thereafter, as the writer gets under the skins of protagonists and bit players alike to explore human foibles and humdrum absurdities, a sense of playfulness is almost palpable as her chuckles resonate through all the twists and turns. As does her affection for her creations, a weakness she says renders her effort "a failed satire". It is this indulgence that almost has Hullabaloo's myopic characters turn around and shrug, "We are like this only."

What of the inevitable comparisons with mother Anita? As Desai herself notes, "Our styles are very different. She looks at things more directly, even the most horrible situations. She's more composed. I am more indirect and comic." And given Shahkot's Malgudian nuances, what about R.K. Narayan? "I admire Narayan," she admits. "But I don't think I've read enough of his work for him to be an influence, though he definitely left an impression." As for contemporary Indian writers, Desai says she made it a point not to read any during the four years she worked on Hullabaloo to make sure her voice remained authentic. And that clarity, to be sure, is the book's strength.

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