29 April 2010

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Pages: 224
Price: 450
Publishers: Hamish Hamilton (Peguin Imprint)

Expatriate writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who is best known for her award-winning short story collection, Arranged Marriage and novels, Sister Of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices (adapted into a film, the Aishwarya Rai starrer) released her new book, One Amazing Thing recently. This was my first introduction to her work and while I mostly enjoyed the novel and found it a breezy read, I couldn't help feeling that the sum of the story wasn't at all greater than the parts.

One Amazing Thing is about a group of six-seven people of different nationalities who get trapped at the Indian consulate office in US after a major earthquake strikes. As food runs out and the building starts collapsing, the characters find the boundaries between them starting to crumble down, literally and otherwise. To keep sane and avoid panicking, one of the characters suggests to the others that each one of them should reveal one amazing thing that has happened to them. Among those trapped are an elderly white couple going through a difficult time in their marriage; an Indian-Muslim man, Tariq who is disillusioned and angry with the new US; a Chinese-Indian, Jiang, who loved and lost a man in her youth; her talented grand-daughter, Lily; a middle-aged army officer haunted by his guilt; Two visa officers – Malathi and her boss, Mangalam on the verge of an extra-marital affair; an India-American student, who is confused by her parents' decision to return to Kolkata after living in US for over 20 years.

As uncertainty builds over whether they will make it alive or not, the characters pour their hearts out in stories that seek to unburden them from a certain baggage of their past, and offer hope for the future. Divakurani sets the stage well and you are acquainted with atleast three of the characters before the earthquake strikes, so that later, their's are the stories you are most interested to know about. Among the rest, Jiang's story is easily the most affecting and haunting one. Her story dates back to the time when she was a smart, young Chinese girl living with her father and brother in Kolkata. In spite of her age, she handles her father's shoe business efficiently and it is at this juncture that love strikes. Jiang falls in love with a Hindu boy and there is stiff opposition when they plan to marry. They stay determined, but not for long. The Indo-China war of 1962 endangers the life of Chinese settlers in India and Jiang is hurriedly made to board a ship to the US, along with a family friend who offers to marry her. Jiang - the strong and steadfast woman that she is - continues to live her life, but not without the wistful regret of what she lost. Divakurani narrates the story with great feeling and vividness. Also, the story gives you a sense of history about the Chinese community in India, all of which adds to its appeal.

The other very entertaining story involves Malathi and her stint as a beautician in a top beauty salon. Malathi's tale is the most light-hearted one, intended to show her adventurous, brave side. She describes a rich socialite who visits their salon often, accompanied by her servant-girl. Things are perfect in the lady's life, until she suspects that her liberal-minded son has falled for the servant. All hell breaks lose then.

The other stories are a mixed bag. The visa officer's character intrigues you the most at the start, but his story --- about his impoverished background and later getting trapped in a loveless marriage with a rich heiress... all seems straight out of a Bollywood family drama. Tariq's story is again an all too familiar one --- an Indian-American, who has lived all his life in US, feels unfairly discriminated back against for being a Muslim post 9/11 and wonders if he must goto India. The other stories are readable, but nothing stays with you.

If one wouldn't have known that Divakurani has worked with refugees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and has seen from close quarters rita Hurricain hitting Housten (the place she resides in), causing a massive evacuation, one would have been surprised aboout her bringing in an earthquake situation out of all things.
And the Indian Consulate setting seems like a forced one to bring characters of diverse backgrounds together. Very early on, Divakaruni evokes The Cantebury tales, Chauser's celebrated epic about a group of pilgrims who narrate one story each. It's one thing for characters to narrate stories on a journey, but would they do so when they are waiting to be rescued from an earthquake affected area? The whole situation is a bit contrived.

The author's intend is to show the healing power of stories, how they empower us, how they redeem us. The stories by themselves are mostly engaging, but one is never wholly convinced about the situation they are caught into. The sense of urgency doesn't come across strongly and neither is there any plausible trigger point for the characters to narrate stories.

Individually though the stories are well-told. Divakurani is a perceptive author, who succeeds in keeping the narrative simple yet elegant. The language is graceful. Her similies and metaphors are original and interesting. "Moving to live where no one knew you, shucking off your wornout life like old snakeskin"

One Amazing Thing is certainly worth a read, though it might not leave you fully satisfied.


Wendy said...

Excellent review of this book - I had very similar thoughts on it. I found the writing good, but the story just so-so.

sandhya said...

Thanks Wendy for visiting!

Shweta said...

Hi Sandhya,

Have you tried Palace of Illusions by Chitra. It's a master piece..