Sunday, May 9, 2010

REVIEW: One Amazing Thing

One Amazing Thing 
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Penguin / Hamish Hamilton
Rs 450
Pp 224
ISBN: 9780670084524

A group of nine are trapped in the visa office at an Indian Consulate after a massive earthquake in an American city. Two visa officers on the verge of an adulterous affair; Jiang, a Chinese–Indian woman in her last years; her gifted teenage granddaughter Lily; an ex-soldier haunted by guilt; Uma, an Indian–American girl bewildered by her parents’ decision to return to Kolkata after twenty years; Tariq, a young Muslim man angry with the new America; and an enraged and bitter elderly white couple. As they wait to be rescued—or to die—they begin to tell each other stories, each recalling ‘one amazing thing’ in their life, sharing things they have never spoken of before. Their tales are tragic and life-affirming, revealing what it means to be human and the incredible power of storytelling.

Games people play Business Standard
The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni’s first book, seemed low on zest. But its unfair to pigeonhole anyone on the basis of one encounter, so when this latest arrived from the publisher, I decided to renew the acquaintance.

The one interesting thing about this book (‘amazing’ is a special word and one that should not be used lightly) is that it is, or sets out to tell, a different story.

A motley group of people (all hoping to travel to India) are trapped in the visa section of the Indian consulate in an American city following an earthquake. As time wears on and chances of escape or rescue look bleak, one of them decides that they should ‘focus their minds on something compelling’ and tell an important story from their lives, ‘one amazing thing’ that has made a difference or made them who they are. 

So unfold stories by the visa officer Mangalam, his colleague Malathi, an estranged American couple, Tariq, an angry young Muslim man, Jiang, a Chinese-Indian woman returning to Kolkata… the characters are stereotypical but their stories are interesting, if on a basic level.

Various kinds of life, and the different turns that they take
Asian Age
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a master storyteller. In One Amazing Thing, a collection of short stories woven into a single tapestry, her weave is seamless, possessing an almost flawless fluidity. What is overridingly attractive is that just as in her earlier book Palace of Illusions — which was certainly “an amazing thing” — she is unpretentious, never attempting to be clever.

Her craft lacks the jarring in-your-face quality that many “intellectual” writers are prone to. The nine stories unravel at a rhythmic pace, and each protagonist comes vividly alive.
An earthquake traps nine people in the Indian visa office in an American city. The focus is naturally on a collective struggle to survive. There’s little food, and later the office begins to flood. At a moment when the psychological and emotional stress begins to wear them down, a young graduate student Uma, who has been reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and who helps hold the collection together, suggests that each tell a personal tale, “one amazing thing” from their lives, which they have never told before. As their stories of self-discovery unfold in the situation they are in, not knowing whether they will come out alive or dead, their lives flash before them and they tell strangers their innermost secrets.

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