Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
This is the first time I've read anything by Kiran Desai and I'm impressed. Apparently this was her first book, written while she took a year off from a post-graduate American creative writing programme. It's beautifully written - rich in word-pictures that capture the odours, the colours, the tastes of India as well as its totally over-the-top, sensual overload effect. She's quoted as saying: 'I think my first book was filled with all that I loved most about India and knew I was in the inevitable process of losing. It was also very much a book that came from the happiness of realizing how much I loved to write.' That really does come off the page. I loved the characters, particularly the enigmatic, self-absorbed Kulfi, whose culinary witchcraft is the creative force of the novel.
'She was producing meals so intricate, they were cooked sometimes with a hundred ingredients, balanced precariously within a complicated and delicate mesh of spices - marvellous triumphs of the complex and delicate art of seasoning ...... The meats were beaten to silk, so spiced and fragrant they clouded the senses; the sauces were full of strange hints and dark undercurrents, leaving you on firm ground one moment, dragging you under the next. There were dishes with an aftertaste that exploded upon you and left you gasping a whole half-hour after you'd eaten them. Some that were delicate, with a haunting flavour that teased like the memory of something you'd once known but could no longer put your finger on. Pickled limes stuffed with cardamom and cumin, crepuscular creatures simmered upon the wood of a scented tree, small river fish baked in green coconuts, rice steamed with nasturtium flowers in the pale hollow of a bamboo stem ...... Desire filled Sampath as he waited for his meals.'
The novel is also funny - the revelations of Kulfi's son Sampath in the Guava tree, the antics of a plague of alcoholic monkeys, the formation of the Monkey Protection Society, and the romantic dilemmas of the Hungry Hop ice cream man. The ultimate chaos of the resolution, where the army and the police mount a dawn raid to banish the monkeys, is classic farce. The minimalist ending of the book is beautifully done, leaving the reader plenty of space for their own imagination. I can quote it, without giving anything away.
'Despite themselves, they drew their attention from the mountain top. Above Kulfi's enormous cooking pot hung a broken branch. In the pot were spices and seasonings, herbs and fruit, a delicious gravy.
And something else.
Gingerly, they approached the bubbling cauldron.'