By Carol Howard
The summer months pass slowly in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is monsoon season, yet the cooling wind and rains have not arrived. The residents of the city of Shahkot stagger under the heat and dust. Famine brought on by drought is serious enough that Red Cross planes drop packages of dried fruit and powdered milk across the region, but they miss this corner of Punjab. No matter, though: the austere food supplies would hardly satisfy the cravings of Kulfi, a pregnant woman who wanders the streets of Shahkot dreaming of fresh fish kebabs, mangoes, coconuts and mushrooms. On the auspicious day when the long-awaited monsoon finally arrives, a belated relief box lands outside the house where Kulfi is giving birth to her first child, a boy named Sampath.
The misadventures of Kulfi’s son Sampath drive the plot of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, the 1998 debut novel by Indian expatriate writer Kiran Desai. (Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.) Despite the backdrop of drought conditions and a dysfunctional society in which the forces of tradition and modernity are constantly at odds, Hullabaloo is actually a comic and satirical blend of Walden, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the picaresque rogue-hero quest in the tradition of Don Quixote.
Sampath grows into a delinquent, shiftless young man who escapes the boredom of his post-office job by steaming open and reading people’s mail. Just as he becomes completely fed up with his squabbling family, the sweltering heat and his tedious existence, he has a mystical encounter with an exploding guava fruit on the rooftop of his family’s home. The epiphany gives him a spiritual purpose. He wants nature, solitude, open spaces, freedom. That very day, he runs away to an old guava orchard to live in a tree.
Word spreads of a hermit with transcendental gifts who blesses pilgrims and dispenses wisdom from a guava tree. Visitors are amazed at Sampath’s ability to intuit the salient details of their lives. What they don’t know is that he has gleaned this information from their private letters at his old post-office job. The secret of his past, though, does not mean that Sampath is a fake prophet. Nor is he a hypocrite just because he allows his family to spoil him with the comforts of home or because he does not object when his father undertakes a marketing scheme to exploit his son’s fame as “the tree baba.”
Desai based her story on a news report in India of a man who escaped constant bickering at home by moving into a forest tree for fifteen years. Her fictional narrative, however, takes readers beyond the mere escapades of a tree hermit toward a wry look at the common human impulse to escape modern life. The irony in her refashioning of the news story is that Sampath does turn out to be a wise man of sorts, one whose proverbs inspire reflection among his followers. Like Thoreau before him, he reads the ancient Vedic scriptures and seeks a simple life in the woods. Eventually, Sampath’s quest comes to an end. Faced with eviction from his tree, he literally becomes one with nature, as he is magically transformed into a large guava fruit that is spirited away into the depths of the forest by a band of drunken monkeys.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.