Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Acts of self-redemption

Twister meets Canterbury Tales as a group of hitherto strangers are trapped in a room in the aftermath of a quake. Unwillingly, they are drawn into each other's tales and lives.US-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores the unities among the differing strands of human lives in her latest novel, One Amazing Thing

The genesis of One Amazing Thing was your engagement with the survivors of  Hurricane Katrina, and the experience you yourself had to undergo during Hurricane Rita in Houston. How did the two shape the 
When I was volunteering with Hurricane Katrina refugees in 2005, I noticed that some of the people I worked with were angry or devastated. But others were able to maintain calm, or even joke about things. I kept asking myself, Why? Why some and not the others? A few weeks later, I was experiencing a similar
situation first hand - Hurricane Rita was coming through Houston, and we were asked to evacuate. As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralysed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw how the pressure brought out the worst in some people and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling
at people; others were sharing their meagre supplies of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to write about this phenomenon.
In One Amazing Thing, we see this split in the characters once they are trapped by an earthquake. Some, like Tariq, the young Muslim American, is furious. When Cameron, the ex-soldier, stops him from opening a door that might cause the building to collapse, he is ready to kill Cameron. Others, like Lily, the sulky goth-punk teenager, risks her life to save a character buried under rubble.

One Amazing Thing is, in a way, a departure from your earlier works: it has a divergent composition of characters. Was such a composition essential to the narrative?
Very much so. This is a novel that examines whether a community can be built and whether true communication is possible, through storytelling, from a group of strangers who have nothing in common (or so do they think) except a desire to go to India. To make this truly effective, I had to create characters who were
different in terms of race, age and religion. One Amazing Thing is made up of Indians, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Caucasians, and an African American. They are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic. Their ages range from the 70s to 13.

How tough was it to make each of the nine individuals’ story almost equally compelling?
Very difficult - and they probably aren’t equal. Readers are always telling me which one their favourite story is (and sometimes, which one isn’t!)

How important for you was the central conceit’s link with India?
It was very important. India has always been important to all my books - and to me. In this novel, I wanted to explore many different reasons why people want to go to India - to reconnect with family, to find a mate, to escape from a post-9/11 America, to run away, to find redemption.

The characters, while recounting their follies, foibles and frailties, are engaged in an act of self-redemption through their stories.

Any influences, apart from Chaucer?
In addition to The Canterbury Tales (which appears in my novel) and Wuthering Heights, I was drawing on works such as The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, and the Indian Wise-Animal tales, The Panchatantra. In all of them, story-telling becomes a way of discovering the self, or discovering truth, or gaining wisdom, or
saving one’s life. I re-read, just before beginning One Amazing Thing, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, where a group of strangers are taken hostage, because I really liked the feel of that novel.

The novel is, in a way, also a microcosm for multiculturalism. Who your characters are, what they are and how they respond to the tragedy, have to do with where they come from. How easy or difficult was it to weave in their tales within a tale?
It was quite challenging. Since many of the characters come from non-Indian backgrounds, I had to research their lives carefully. For instance, the African American ex-soldier who fought in Vietnam, or Mr Pritchett, the older Caucasian man, who was brought up by a single mother in poverty.

Some of your novels - and stories - are best portrayals of the immigrant experience. Do you think you have written enough about that or will it continue to have some resonance in your forthcoming works, as it does, albeit in a limited way, in this novel?  
I hope to explore different angles of it. Immigration is such a big part of the life I lead and the stories I see around me, I don’t think I can totally give it up. But I know I want to write very different kinds of novels, such as Palace of Illusions, which retells the Mahabharat from Draupadi’s point of view.

If One Amazing Thing were to be made into a film, what will your preference of a director or cast be? 
There are so many possibilities. I would love to have Nandita Das in the role of Uma, the college student, and Konkona Sen Sharma as Malathi, the rebellious beauty salon employee. I can totally see Laurence Fishburne (who acted as Morpheus in The Matrix) as Cameron.

How important has storytelling been in your own family? What stories did you grow up on?
Storytelling was a big part of my childhood. My mother and grandfather were both great storytellers. From them I learned to love our Bengali folk tales and fairy tales, and stories from our epics and puranas. I continued that tradition with my own children when they were little.

What was the trigger for the novel - about a young Indian woman who sets out on a quest to find her father who is believed to be dead, but actually isn’t - you are currently working on? How long are we going to wait for that?
I have just started that novel, so it will take a while, maybe a couple of years. I’m not sure why the motif of searching for a lost father speaks to me so strongly. Perhaps it is my own search - I never really knew my father well. He was always busy with work, always travelling.

As an aside, If I were to ask you about the one amazing thing that happened to you, besides writing, it would be...
The most mysterious one occurred when I was on a pilgrimage in the Himalayas, returning from Amarnath. I got separated from my group in icy rain and could have died, out there on the glaciers. A man whom I’d never seen before came around a bend in the mountain and helped me across a really difficult stretch of road and took me up to where my group was. Then he disappeared around another bend in the mountain. I searched for him the next morning among all the pilgrim camps, but I never saw him again.

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