Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai – Book Review

I’ve resolved not to buy any more clothes from the second-hand stores to prevent the wardrobe explosion, but I can’t stop buying really cheap books! I very much enjoyed this charming, off-kilter first novel from the Indian author who later won the 2006 Man Booker Prize with The Inheritance of Loss, about a young morose slacker who leaves his home town to take up residence in a guava tree, and becomes an accidental guru. Hilarity and chaos ensue.

In a small Indian town of Shahkot, Sampath Chawla is born in remarkable circumstances at the end of a scorching summer; 20 years later he’s an indifferent postal employee and an overall disappointment to his family. After he loses his job, Sampath takes a wander in the countryside and, sick and tired of the human bustle and craving peace, he feels a pull towards a guava tree, which becomes his home.

This eccentric behaviour attracts much attention from the locals, who believe Sampath to be a holy man, especially when he shows intimate knowledge of his neighbours’ secrets, which he had gathered from reading their mail. Everyone is in awe of Sampath’s childlike simplicity and “wise” sayings, while his family, after some initial shock, are happy to go along with the whole lucrative guru thing. There are some funny subplots involving Sampath’s mother’s crazy cooking experiments, the complicated love life of his sister Pinky, a spy from an atheist society intent on exposing Sampath as a fraud, and a gang of rambunctious drunken monkeys who cause havoc. I wasn’t really sure whether all of these side stories came together in an overall satisfying way, but the ending didn’t really detract from my enjoyment.

Some books you read for the plot and some books are more enjoyable purely for the prose, and Hullabaloo I felt definitely belonged in the latter category, with its vivid sense of place and eccentric characters. Desai has a wonderful grasp of language and the comedic tone; there’s a slight mystical sense of magical realism to the novel though there are no otherworldly elements as such until the very end. She also has fun sending up the guru cult and amiably mocking the aspects of life in rural India, including incompetent officials and marriage customs. The satirical tone is however never condemning or mean-spirited and there’s a clear affection for this small community with all its foibles and follies.

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