Thursday, 7 December 2017

#47 A book by an Indian author

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard  Kiran Desai

This is acclaimed author Kiran Desai’s debut novel. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable read, sprinkled with equal doses of humour, satire and a host of eccentric characters.  It also won the  Betty Trask award in 1998 (for first novels written by authors under the age of 35, who reside in a current or former Commonwealth nation).

Set in the tiny town of Shahkot, this is the tale of Sampath who is born during the time of a disastrous drought to a woman named Kulfi, whose family line has a long history of madness. After many years of failure as a student and at pretty much everything he does, Sampath finally gets a job at the post office. He spends most of his time reading the letters that he is supposed to dispatch, only because he really has nothing else to do. His sister Pinky, his father Mr. Chawla and his  sole staunch supporter his grandmother complete his family.

What happens next may not be easily believable but just go with it for the sheer fantasy mixed with a sharp scrutiny of the society. One fine day Sampath, to climb a tree in the Guava Orchard to be alone, to clear his thoughts, a deed that, unfortunately for Sampath, has quite the opposite effect. Convinced he is a hermit, people gather to hear his thoughts:  this sets in motion events that will affect not only Sampath and his family, but the people of the district, the Chief Medical Officer, the Superintendent of Police, the Army Brigadier, the University researcher, the District Collector and even a spy from the Atheist Society.

Sampath believes he is truly better off up in a tree, but he only starts feeling comfortable and at ease when his family comes to support his new lifestyle; they lift up his food, make him a hammock, fix him a parasol etc.

His mother Kulfi's obsession with food, is reawakened after the family moves to the guava orchard. Her brilliant, unorthodox cooking leads to some highly interesting recipes:
"[...] Kulfi sliced and pounded, ground and smashed, cut and chopped in a chaos of ingredients and dishes. 'Cumin, quail, mustard seeds, pomelo rind,' she muttered as she cooked, 'Fennel, coriander, sour mango. Pandanus flour, lichen and perfumed kewra. Colocassia leaves, custard apple, winter melon, bitter gourd. Khas root, sandalwood, ash gourd, fenugreek greens. Snake-gourd, banana flowers, spider leaf, lotus root...'
She was producing meals so intricate, they were cooked sometimes with a hundred ingredients, balanced precariously within a complicated and delicate mesh of spices - marvelous triumphs of the complex and delicate art of seasoning.”

The characters are all quirky and everything is topsy-turvy in the ensuing ‘hullabaloo’ that follows Sampath’s decision to climb up a guava tree and never come down. It satirizes the gullibility of the public, hints at the influence of humans on the natural environment and vice versa and does it all with a certain light-heartedness. 

It’s ending is a bit chaotic, and decidedly a little ambiguous. However, it still is a highly enjoyable, but certainly not frivolous in its humour.

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