Can anyone understand the emotional turmoil of parents whose children don’t want to go to schools, more than the Myanmar refugee couple who allegedly put chains on the feet of their son to prevent him from running away from the Madrasa in Bhatindi, on the outskirts of Jammu city?
This happening incident of the eleven year old who had made two failed attempts at running away earlier from the state government school, his mother chaining him and giving the keys to a teacher, reminded me of Sampath Chawla, the hero of Kiran Desai’s ‘Hallabaloo in the Guava Orchard’.
When Sampath kicked from inside his mother Kulfi’s stomach, the water broke coinciding with the clouds breaking to fill the earth relieving it from a severe drought.
Sampath’s birth then appeared to not only coincide with nature’s bounty but also with man’s generosity when crates of Red Cross supplies got dropped at Shahkot by a Swedish relief plane.
Suddenly enjoyment as if came in as a triplet; the baby, the monsoon and the food! The birth of a male child has always been a moment of glory in India, ‘...he was triumphantly and indisputably male’.
Sampath though, like the eleven year old from Jammu, had a different mind. Surely our world is big enough for everyone and has different matters for different minds in it. There was something in Sampath that longed for freedom, but probably he misunderstood that emotional need when he stripped bare at a wedding, embarrassing all around him. Poor Sampath failed to understand the failure of understanding when it came to the opinions of people.
When the urge failed to let him rest, he finally found contentment overtake him in the branches of a Guava tree. ‘Oh, if he could exchange his life for this luxury of stillness,...’ So finally, he did find ‘the right place at last’.
Sampath’s father though initially appeared very disturbed with his son’s behaviour, gradually began to think of making the best of the opportunity. Sampath’s new tree residence, he began to imagine, could help him build a family fortune. ‘What an opportunity has risen out of nowhere!’ Now Sampath’s father became a smart man of the world who took notice of this opportunity and believed that it had to be tapped and exploited.
The wisdom found here is that, ‘The thing is to make do with what you have, even if it is nothing.’
May be, the eleven years old from Jammu, was also looking out for some such ‘right place’ outside the confines of the government school.
The reader wouldn’t be wrong to take Kiran Desai’s Sampath, as representing the youth of today; most disturbed with the cacophony of the jargon of education. Often he would go away into ‘a hallowed silence’ which ‘became uncomfortable with the quiet so loud and so big’. It is really only his old Ammaji who appears to have some understanding of the boys state of mind; ‘sometimes his mind leaves the earthly plane’.
His sister Pinky representing the herd of adjustment is the one who moves with the flock of the practical world and wonders if her brother turned hermit, is a fake, or if really some transformation has happened. A question one can ask many a babas of today could be, ‘Are they really realized men or just work shirkers?’ Her brother Sampath has failed in all practicality. ‘Fail in Hindi, fail in Sanskrit, fail in mathematics, fail in history. Never could he concentrate on his studies’. The girl stands to wonder if her brother was truly not made for ‘mundane matters’, could it really be okay to simply sit for hours ‘looking at a flower, staring at the sky....’?
To the amusement of the reader, the rustic simpleton soon becomes the hermit of Shahkot to whom the educated and the highly placed (but tied in webs of complications), come to listen to words of ‘rare simplicity’ and ‘profound wisdom’.
Sampath now gets the title of the ‘tree baba’ who gives common sense one liners to the devotees who line up to hear him; ‘If you do not weed, your tomato plant will not flower’, ‘If you talk to young girl as she stands in front of a mirror, it is like talking to a deaf person’, ‘Once you have broken the bottle you can no longer distinguish the air inside from the air outside’.
Not so strangely then, the monkeys in the forest line up to gather around him; making the reader wonder if they are imitating his devotees or the devotees are copying the simians.
Certainly, Desai has offered her reader a very clever and haunting parable expressing the joys of simplicity away from the world of pains of a comedy called education; a world in which the educated need solace in the wisdom of the uneducated.
The little eleven year old boy in Jammu is one of the many Sampaths of today, who try to run away from the world of stress, but the world like his parents, tie his feet up in chains of loud and disturbing text book education, locking him away from the silent and peaceful teachings of nature. A silent whisper asks me, ‘Who will use the key to the locked chain which his mother gave to his teacher, and set him free?’