About the Author
Kiran Desai was born in 1971, in India where she spent her childhood before moving to England at the age of 14 along with her family. After spending a year in England, they moved to the USA. Most of the early years in America were spent Massachusetts were she completed her schooling. She went on to study at the Bennington College at Hollins University and Columbia University. It was while she was at the Columbia University that went on a sabbatical to write Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.
She was first noticed as a writer when her Strange Happenings in the Guava Orchard was included in the anthology edited by Salman Rushdie marking fifty years of Indian writing was published in the New Yorker and in Mirrorwork. In the writing of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard Kiran Desai spent four years and when it was published, it received good reviews. It is deeply influenced by her early life in India memories of which she feared she would lose as time went by.
The Inheritance of Loss was published in 2006 to great acclaim, going on to win the Booker prize in 2006. Talking about this book Kiran Desai says that while the character that populate her book are all fictional, the experiences they go through and the journeys they make are influenced by those of her family. Her own move from the East to the West also finds echoes in The Inheritance of Loss.
The plot is based on the life of Sampath, a young man who lives in a small town in North India, close to the foot hills. He longs for a little silence and some for himself, both of which are difficult to come by in a small Indian town. He seems of out of touch with reality going on these wild day dreams just like his mother Kulfi did when she was young. Sampath has a job as a sorter in a post office but most of the time he just reads other people’s letters and knows many of their secrets. Things comes to a head when at his boss’s daughter’s wedding, Sampath after first cross dressing in the bride’s clothe, disrobes himself at the fountain dances, wiggling his bottom in happy abandon. Several things happen in quick succession after that. Sampath loses his job, loses all touch with reality, runs away to an orchard within the university campus, takes refuge in a guava tree, his mother’s neuroses heightens and the family as a whole is distraught and face ostracism.
The town is attacked by a troop of alcoholic monkeys that attacks liquor vends in search of their tipple and terrorizes the people. Sampath strikes a chord with them and controls them all seated on the tree. He soon metamorphosises into a Godman, who gives answers to life’s vexatious problems. Information he had gleaned from reading the townspeople’s post comes in handy here. The town becomes a pilgrimage centre and Sampath’s father sees a business opportunity here. For the administration all this is a worry and they go about dealing with it in their bumbling ways. The last we see of Sampath is of him being carried aloft by his monkey friends across the high mountains where no one can pursue them.
The story charts the life and times Sampath Chawla part village idiot, part simpleton, part crooked God man. His erratic behavior is obviously inherited from his mother. His mother Kulfi had driven her husband’s family and the whole town to distraction with her enormous appetite when she was pregnant. She had rather strange ways that the family did not understand. There were rumours too that her family had got her married fast as she was rather eccentric and they did not want her on their hands.
Sampath has only one champion, his grandmother; she had visions of a glorious future for her grandchild – a prediction that came true though not in the way she may have expected. Sampath is a never-do-well who just about managed to complete his schooling. His father has got him a lowly placed job in the post office where he spends his time reading other people’s letters and learning their secrets. The turning point comes during the wedding the boss’s daughter’s wedding where Sampath had gone to help. The sight of the richly coloured clothes affects him powerfully and he puts them on. Then there is no stopping him. Clad in those sensuous silks, he is transported into another world where his mind breaks free. He jumps into the fountain and dances wildly but not before taking off his clothes.
His horrified family keeps him home for some time but one day when he is alone he escapes and runs away to the orchard that is part of the university research garden. Here he finds congenial surroundings far from those who he feels trouble him. He climbs a guava tree and goes off to sleep no longer troubled by the snores of his family. His family catches up with him soon and they begin persuading him to come down. But Sampath having known some peace amidst the greenery refuses. The townspeople and his family feels he is finally completely insane but Sampath startles them by revealing some of the secrets he had gleaned by reading the mail while in the post office. So they think he now has divine powers. Word spreads about the new Godman who can answer all questions.
Sampath’s father sees a business opportunity here and begins milking the situation. Sampath sister chooses to add to the drama by falling in love with the salesman in the ice cream parlour. So smitten is she by him that in a fit of passion, she bits off a part of his ear. Soon after, they elope perhaps to get married. Coinciding with all this is an invasion by a large troop of monkeys that terrorize the town. Sampath is able to control some of them, a feat which gives him the name “Monkey Baba”. The administration makes its usual ham-handed efforts which only worsen the situation. Kulfi in her strange way is wandering around cooking the most unusual ingredients. But what she wants to do most is to capture and cook a monkey. The combined efforts of the police and a battalion of soldiers disturb Sampath. The ending is straight out of fantasy; the monkeys carry him aloft and walk into the sunset over the mountains.
Sampath Chawla does not do anything much for first couple of decades of life but suddenly he has greatness thrust on him. Sampath is a classic never-do-well day dreamer who feels lost in his family and the noisy town in which he lives. He longs for space and silence which is difficult to achieve in the noisy household and noisier town in which he lives. He has vague longings for all things beautiful which is what starts off his troubles.
At home, his only champion is his Grandmother Ammaji, who thinks that he is destined for great things, a prophecy that comes true but perhaps not quite in the way she thought it would. His father views him with varying levels of exasperation. He would have liked Sampath to be financial success but the position of a lowly mail sorter is all that he achieves. Even this job he does not do well. Instead of sorting the mail, all he does all day is clandestinely read other people’s mail, garnering information that comes in handy during his Godman avatar. All day long he also eavesdrops on the office romance that goes on.
Sampath does not quite what he is letting loose in the town by disporting in the fountain with any clothes on during the occasion of his boss’s daughter’s wedding. The town is scandalized and Sampath loses his job and he is kept within the house which does nothing much to his mental state. When he finds the opportunity, Sampath flees the town, travelling by in the direction of the university research garden where the verdant surroundings beckon him. Here there is the silence and space that he has longed for all his life. He climbs up a large old guava tree, wraps his limbs around it and goes off to sleep.
When the family and the townsfolk request him to come down, he only climbs up further. Then is the classic Indian remedy of a marriage that is said to cure all ills. But the girl chosen offends Sampath’s ideas of beauty. His Godly status is achieved when he starts calling out the inside information that he had gleaned while working in the post office. His rapport with the drunken monkeys only further reinforces this. At the end when the monkeys bear him away, we are left wondering whether this was fantasy or real. Where did Sampath go?
Sampath has inherited his mental condition from his mother Kulfi who behaves strangely right through the story. When pregnant, her insatiable hunger drove the village to distraction. It was a year when food was in short supply and the rains had failed. The family tried hard to feed Kulfi but she was never satisfied. When she couldn’t get enough to eat, she took to doodles on the walls of the house until there was no place left. She would dream of food all the time, cooking up dishes in her mind made of mysterious esoteric ingredients. The crash landing of the Swedish plane with relief supplies puts an end to her and the family’s misery.
Even the birth of the two children, she continues to be unusual in her behavior, so much so that Ammaji has to take over the day to day running of the house. The family accepts that she will never be like one of them and they leave her well alone. The mother and the son are on the same wavelength mentally but that does not translate into an emotional bonding. When Sampath is tucked away on the tree, Kulfi’s imagination goes wild, dreaming up mysterious dishes with the most way-out ingredients. Her ultimate dream is to catch and cook a monkey, an ambition she, thankfully, is not able to fulfill. Throughout her son’s stay on the tree, she cooks strange dishes with ingredients culled from the forest and the orchard that keeps him in a happy state of mind that is essential for a Guru who has to answer questions regarding life.
Mr. Chawla is a man who is comfortable only when proceeds at an even keel, something that is difficult with two characters like Sampath and Kulfi in it. He hates emotional outbreaks and the tears that accompany it. He has been burdened with Kulfi and now he has Sampath to worry about. The lack of intelligence and initiative that Sampath displays disappoints him hugely especially as he is industrious and toils away at his job in the Reserve Bank of Shahkot. After the ‘naked dance at the fountain’ incident Chawla’s main concern is “what will the people think?” When Sampath is discovered in the tree in the university research area, his first thought is to bring him down. A man for quick fixes, Chawla consults a priest cum astrologer who prescribes marriage as the cure for ills of this kind. A girl is hastily found who in no way confirms to Sampath’s delicate sense of beauty.
Once Sampath becomes a Godman and people flock to his side to seek his blessings and get the benefit of his inner knowledge (thanks to all those letters he has read on the sly), Chawla recognizes a business opportunity. He has his son photographed atop the tree and hawks these pictures. He regulates the traffic to his son’s abode charging money from the pilgrims. He calculates how much his son’s godly status will help to improve his family’s image which had been dented following the ‘fountain dance’ incident. Chawla is a resourceful man whose ideas to get rid of the monkeys find many takers. He is constantly trying to improve his family’s social standing. Chawla with his ordinariness is a foil to his son’s strange and unworldly actions.
Pinky is a like a character that one comes across in many novels that are based in India. She is filled with vague longings for love and fulfillment and searches for them everywhere. Her bête noire is her father who gets her to wear drab clothes so that she does not attract any unwanted attention. All this repression finds sudden outlet in the fancy she takes to the ice cream salesman. So wrought is she emotionally that she bites off a part of his ear and then blames it on her love for him. All her life she has been indoctrinated by father to consider her family’s reputation and not to do anything that can tarnish it in any way. So she breaks off relations with the ice cream sales man and sets her sight instead on the Brigadier who is old enough to be her father.
There is no special emotional bonding with her brother. She spends her time below the tree where Sampath stays but she has no idea why he is up there. She makes no attempt at understanding him; in this she is like the rest of her family. In the initial stages, she was intensely embarrassed by her brother’s antics. Later she wonders why no one sympathizes with him.
Almost all the characters in the novel Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard are dissatisfied or looking for that elusive satisfaction. Sampath is of course, the one who is the most dissatisfied. He finds no satisfaction in his house. It is too cramped, it is too noisy with everyone snoring at night and there is nothing much to do all day long. He is not satisfied with his job nor does he try to make it any more interesting. He finds pleasure in reading other people’s post and buries the information in the recesses of his brain to be brought out later when there is use for them. Sampath lives in the fringes of everyone’s consciousness. People take no great interest in him until he does his naked dance act at the wedding of his boss’s daughter. He finds satisfaction when he surrounded by beautiful diaphanous things. But they affect him powerfully causing him to do strange things.
Kulfi is also not satisfied in life. First was food that she could not get to her satisfaction. She kept ferreting for it until the rest of family thought they would go crazy if it went on. To satisfy the craving for food, she took to doodling on the walls until there was no space left. The family left her to her devices realizing she was different. It is when Sampath moves to the orchard that she comes into her own cooking with strange ingredients that keeps him lulled and happy all the time.
Pinky is also seeking satisfaction all the time whether it is romance or clothes. The brief romance with the ice cream boy gives her satisfaction for sometime but then the charm palls. Mr. Chawla, the father is also seeking satisfaction: sometimes it is recognition in Shahkot, sometimes it is money.
The perspectives vary according to the characters. Sampath considers his family dysfunctional, they are noisy, they don’t let him sleep and he considered himself normal. The townsfolk think that Sampath has issues with his mental stability, the doctor thinks he needs to be treated and the astrologer thinks he needs to marry a girl with a particular horoscope to bring normalcy in his life. In Mr. Chawla’s perspective, Sampath is a failure; he does not do well in school, shows no interest in his studies, is lethargic and lacks initiative. This perspective changes with time and he considers Sampath a golden goose that will lay golden eggs and lift the family out of obscurity into fame and prosperity. To this end, he makes shrewd moves marketing his son as a new Guru.
Kulfi’s perspective is so esoteric that we find it difficult to find its boundaries. Food figures prominently in her thoughts and she cannot have enough of it. Her initial preoccupation with food that had been suppressed following the birth of her children finds expression when Sampath moves into the orchard.
Pinky’s perspective if more humdrum; she wants attention, romance and good clothes, none of which in her present existence she can find. Her thirst for love and romance propels her towards the Hungry Hop Ice cream shop boy. In a fit of passion, she bites off a part of his ear and later blames it on her love for him.
The town’s perspective changes rapidly as Sampath assumes the mantle of a spiritual Guru. To begin with he is labeled a wasted life, then insane and finally a Godman. Life’s vexing questions get a quick reply which they often cannot understand. They consider these profound truths which their undeveloped intellect cannot grasp.
It is only Mr. Chawla and his mother Ammaji who are free from eccentricities in the Chawla household. Kulfi, the mother exists in the fringes, completely lost in her day dreams that revolve around food. Pinky inhabits a world where romance and excitement play an important part. And what can one say about Sampath. He hates the noise and squalor but does very little about it. He lacks intelligence and initiative and when he comes in contact with beauty, behaves in the most unpredictable fashion. The town has its own code of conduct, moving from outright censure to worship and reverence. Mr. Gupta and Jyotsna who are the fringe characters behave like bored office staff does pepping their bureaucratic existence with some flirting. Sampath’s behavior from the night of the boss’s daughter’s wedding onwards is strange. He takes refuge in the orchard where the greenery and quiet and space calms him. He decides never to come down from the tree. Sampath is a mixture of shrewdness and stupidity. He knows what to say to whom but not what to do. Pinky his sister has her own brand of strange behavior. She considers it acceptable to bite off someone’s ear as a gesture off love and explains it away in a letter. Kulfi is as strange as her son with her insatiable craving for food and when she cannot have enough f it scribbles images of food all over the walls of the house. When the opportunity presents itself, she cooks the most outlandish dishes for her son that leaves him drugged and peacefully happy.
Expectations are a recurring motif in the novel. Each character has his or her expectations but they rarely have common ones. Kulfi’s expectations are food, strange and esoteric made of unusual and strange ingredients. Pinky wants romance and excitement and Mr. Chawla wants society’s approval and prosperity. What Sampath wants is more difficult to gauge. Initially he wants just silence and space. We also know that he loves green surroundings and beauty. But when he gets them he behaves in such strange fashion. The town and its people have their own expectations and the bureaucracy has their own. Some want fame and success followed by promotion and the Brigadier wants to be left alone to do his bird watching.
The people of the town want answers to their questions regarding life and its vexing problems that they feel someone like Sampath can provide them. They are so desperate for answers that they truly believe he can deliver them.
Something snaps in Sampath due to the pressure on him to make something of himself. Sampath is by nature lethargic and dull. He is not characterized by even flashes of brilliance. His father expects him to be responsible and take the family ahead as is the norm in all patriarchal societies. But Sampath shows no inclination. His father gets him a job that Sampath finds no joy in doing. He makes his life interesting by snooping into other people’s mail and gets some feeling of power by knowing their secrets.
Pinky feels peer pressure and wants to be attractively dressed like all the other young women in the town. Probably influenced by movies, she searches for love and romance and finds it temporarily in the Hungry Hop ice cream parlour boy. Kulfi has shirked social pressure and familial pressure by being completely immersed in her own thoughts which go around food most of the time. The bureaucracy has its own pressure to handle. They have to control the menace of the alcoholic monkeys and the influx of pilgrims to the small town.
The peace that Sampath feels when he arrives at the orchard is complete freedom from all forms of pressure. Here there is no one to question and no answers need to be given. But that state does not last long and social pressure comes back on in many forms.
Originally posted 2017-07-10 23:54:52.