Monday, March 1, 2010

'One Amazing Thing': Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's testament to storytelling

One Amazing Thing
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Voice, 220 pp., $23.99

The book invents a group of trapped earthquake survivors, who tell their life stories to each other...

From The Seattle Times
Ever since the 1980 publication of "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie's best and most celebrated novel, Indian writers have been emerging in such quantity and quality that they now defy a single classification.
Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry, for example, have created contemporary classics about the subcontinent's people and politics. Meanwhile, the Indian-American Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri has interpreted the immigrant experience for Western readers.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who was raised in India but has spent her adult life in the United States, occupies yet another place in this pantheon. Her fiction is so intimate that it often seems as if cultural context is irrelevant. Her character's dreams and disappointments are paramount.
Such is the case in her latest novel, "One Amazing Thing." As the book opens in the basement of an office building in an unnamed American city, two Indians coolly dispense visas for travel to their country while seven customers remain to be served. One of them, an Indian-American graduate student named Uma, idly observes the racial and ethnic differences among this waiting tribe and thinks they resemble "a mini UN summit."
Suddenly the sense of lassitude erupts into terror. It's as if a "giant took the building in both hands and shook it." Walls crumble, lights go out. An earthquake has locked these strangers together in pain and desperation.
With the office manager, Mr. Mangalam, too overwhelmed to respond, an African-American Vietnam vet snatches the leadership role. He levels a young Muslim man to keep him from opening the door and risking more cave-ins. He apologizes to the stunned witnesses, locates drinking water and gets them to pool their tiny food supply.
In shock, the others meekly comply. But as the hours pass and broken pipes send water inching up the walls, their fear level rises, too. The grad student Uma, nursing a broken wrist, proposes an idea: "With a little burst of excitement, because she sensed the power behind it, she said, 'We can each tell an important story from our lives.'"
This is trademark Divakaruni. The writer's belief in the healing power of storytelling goes back decades, to when she co-founded a hotline for abused Southeast Asian women in the Bay area. So, in such dire circumstances, her characters in "One Amazing Thing" turn to revelatory narratives about themselves. First up: an old Chinese woman who had planned to travel to India to see the man she didn't marry.
The situation makes for honest tellers and good listeners. When the accountant in the group looks back on his neglectful mother, Uma reflects sadly on her own, "who had watched out for her with a hawk-eyed vigilance that she had ungraciously tolerated." When the manager Mr. Mangalam describes his bad marriage, he blames himself as much as his harridan of a wife.
"Karma's wheel is intricate," he says.
"What do you mean, karma's wheel?" the accountant's wife demands — and the image sets the stage for her own tale.
The karmic energy of "One Amazing Thing" revolves around Divakaruni's gifts as a novelist. She creates a setting in which the characters' self-awareness and candor seem believable. They become a group of modern-day Scheherazades, using their own lives to stave off whatever fate is to befall them.
Divakaruni cares less about the physical rescue than the emotional one that comes from having a person know what animates his or her life. As such, "One Amazing Thing" ends with the silent question: What story would you tell under the same kind of circumstances?

From Oregon

In an unnamed U.S. city an earthquake shakes the Indian Consulate, collapsing the roof, trapping nine disparate individuals inside. The trapped have no means of contact with the outside, no way of knowing the extent of the quake or the likelihood of rescue. Tensions arise and conflicts erupt, interrupted by a young Indian woman who proposes that to calm themselves each tell "one special thing" from his or her life. "Everyone has a story," she says to their protests.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel "One Amazing Thing" starts as each obliges, as around them the building shifts, time passes and water gathers at their feet before beginning slowly to rise. What follows is not quite a 9/11 story but one that seems very much of our time, a time when the possibility of disaster is more real to citizens of this country than it has been since the posturing of the Cold War.
The stories that follow are as varied as the characters: Fariq, a devout Muslim Indian; Cameron, an African American Vietnam vet who takes charge of the situation; Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett, white bread (and white) Americans; Jiang, an elderly Chinese woman, and Lily, her punk granddaughter; Uma, a college student, born to Indian parents but largely Americanized; Mangalam, the consular official the others had arrived to see, and Malathi, his secretary.
Several of these stories comprise the strongest part of the novel, particularly Jiang's tale of her illicit romance with a Hindi man before the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and Malathi's path from docile bride-to-be to independence through Miss Lola's Lovely Ladies Salon in rural India. But Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett -- doubtless so titled to show their stiffness -- are cardboard-flat, and it is in the passages referring to them that Divakaruni's tendency to tell rather than show is strongest, weakening otherwise vivid writing. This habit of turning to the reader to present missing information (more common to 19th-century prose), along with a tendency to slalom quickly between different points of view -- sometimes within the same paragraph -- leaves an impression of carelessness or hurry. "One Amazing Thing" comes in at a little over 200 pages, adding to that impression.
Also, aspects of the story strain belief. As Divakaruni, herself responsible for paragraphs of breathless questions, might put it: Would a diverse collection of suspicious strangers so easily spill these intimate details of their lives to each other? Why do none of these nine characters trapped by the earthquake ever, once, wonder about loved ones or friends who might have been killed or trapped outside? (And why is the book titled "One Amazing Thing" when each character recounts their entire life story?)
Divakaruni's previous works include well-received novels "The Mistress of Spices" (1997) and "Sister of My Heart" (1999). She also has turned her hand to a young adult fantasy series. Compared to her earlier books, this is Divakaruni lite.


Poet, short-story writer and novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni cut her teeth listening to her grandfather tell tales from the ancient Indian epics — the Ramayana and Mahabharata — by lantern light in his Bengali village. This storytelling legacy shines brightly in her entrancing new novel, One Amazing Thing, in which nine people in the passport office in the basement of the Indian Consulate in San Francisco are yoked together by fate when an earthquakes hits.
Uma, a sharply observant graduate student awaiting a visa to visit her retired parents in "shining India," mistakes the quake's first tremor for a cable car. She notes the sour-faced young Indian woman at the reception desk, gatekeeper for the passport officer, and the others in the waiting room: a Caucasian couple in their 60s; a young man, about 25, whom she takes for Indian (Tariq is, in fact, Muslim-American, and unsettled by how he is perceived after Sept. 11); a Chinese women with her teenage granddaughter. Divakaruni writes: "It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races randomly thrown together. Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini U.N. summit."
As the quake hits with full force, Divakaruni moves effortlessly from one character to another, and across a spectrum of raw feeling: panic; pain; antagonism; selfishness. She reveals intimate details and sensual reactions so vivid you feel as if you're with each of them in the room...Read more...

From Winnipeg Free Press

The would-be travellers in Texas writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Eerily evocative of recent events in Haiti, an earthquake has trapped these nine disparate individuals in an Indian visa/passport office in an unnamed U.S. city. Instead of planning their trips to India, they're now struggling to survive. Although her plot seems a bit contrived and the characters are numerous, Divakaruni's writing is evocative and engaging, making One Amazing Thing well worth the read.
The protagonist and occasional narrator, Uma Sinha, is a medieval lit graduate student. But the cast includes: a Chinese grandmother -- who once lived a secret-life -- and her rebellious teen granddaughter; an African-American former soldier; a 70-year-old Caucasian accountant and his wife; a young Muslim-American man dealing with the fallout of 9/11 on his family; and two visa officers who recently shared a forbidden kiss.
Moments before the earthquake hits, Uma -- who has always been interested in the secrets of strangers -- thinks it looks like a mini United Nations summit in the visa office. "Whatever were all these people planning to do in India?" she wonders.
Born in India, Divakaruni left Calcutta more than 30 years ago and currently teaches creative writing in Houston. She is the author of 14 books, including The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, which have been made into movies.
She's a gifted writer, with a knack for creating compelling characters.
The novel takes flight as Uma, inspired by the copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales she has in her backpack, suggests that they each share one important story from their lives. "I don't believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing."
Much more interesting than the rationing of food, moving of tables and digging out of debris are the lives of these characters. There's forbidden love, secret worlds, defiant acts and deep disappointment in the stories.
Also, the tellers' connections to India are revealed through these very personal stories. These people possibly have only hours left to live, but their transforming tales help break down boundaries -- cultural and otherwise -- among them.
Tariq, a Muslim-American man, speaks of the impact of 9/11 on his family's once thriving janitorial business and his father's mysterious abduction by four men in suits and subsequent reappearance. "From having put up my story against the others, I can see this much: everyone suffers in different ways. Now I don't feel so alone."
The strangers bond through the powerful stories and the uncertainty of their circumstances. Will each breath be their last? Divakaruni keeps her characters, and readers, in suspense. Given Uma's love of literature, One Amazing Thing is filled with references to Chaucer, Defoe, Tolkien and others. This would be great book club material. Also, the surprise ending might make for a lively discussion.

From Washington Times

Chitra Divakaruni's "One Amazing Thing" begins with Uma reading Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" as she waits in the basement visa office of an Indian consulate in California. Uma needs a visa so she can visit her parents, who, after years of working in America, have returned to their homeland. Others wanting visas include a middle-aged white couple, a young man of Indian descent, a black American man, and a Chinese woman and her granddaughter. But things are moving slowly. The clerk, whose name turns out to be Malathi, takes her time, often making excuses to walk through the door marked Mr. V.K.S. Mangalam, to consult with her boss.
Uma, who is annoyed at her parents' departure, is irritated by the slowness of it all, and pays little attention to distant rumbles - just a passing cable car, she thinks. Then suddenly, "The rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building's foundation and roared. The floor buckled throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room toward Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm."
Uma's wrist is fractured, and she and the rest of the visa seekers are trapped in the consulate as a major earthquake destroys the building. Compared with many earthquake victims, they are lucky. No one apart from Uma is injured. The office has chairs and tables. Malathi finds a flashlight and a minimalist first-aid kit. Mr. Mangalam even has a private bathroom that remains functioning for quite a while, so they have sufficient water. Food is more of a problem, but snacks culled from everyone's totes plus a few office supplies rounded up by Malathi stave off any threat of immediate starvation...Read more

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