Doesn't add up

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Though some of the individual stories are captivating, One Amazing Thing is let down by the lack of a cohesive frame. PARVATHY NAYAR

A n eclectic group of people are trapped in a dangerous environment, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. As they search for ways to survive, and possibly escape, we learn a little more about who they are, via the narration of incidents from their past.

No, we aren't talking about the addictive TV series Lost, but the premise as reapplied to the latest book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, One Amazing Thing. In it, nine people find themselves trapped in the visa office of an Indian Consulate — in an unnamed American city — during an earthquake.

We are initially introduced to the nine protagonists via Uma, a graduate student who is there for a visa to visit her retired parents in India. Tariq, a young American Muslim, has also come to the Consulate for a visa to visit parents who have moved back to India. Rounding off the Indian dramatis personae, there's Malathi, the unhelpful young woman to whom the visa applications must be submitted, and her boss, the much-married Mr. Mangalam who still casts a fond eye in Malathi's direction.

Among the other trapped visa applicants are a Caucasian couple in their 60s, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett, also trapped in a wounding marriage; an African-American named Cameron who turns out to be a Vietnam veteran; a Chinese woman, Jiang, and her teenage granddaughter Lily.

Varied group

Emphasising how disparate a bunch her protagonists are, Divakaruni observes via the mouthpiece of Uma: “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.” What, obviously, links this bunch of people is their involvement with travel to India — whether as visa supplicants or visa-givers.

When the earthquake strikes, initially Cameron takes charge of the situation, organising the survivors, and systematically taking stock of necessities such as food, drinking water, first-aid materials. Inevitably with the passage of time, hope is replaced by growing levels of panic, and things are worsened by aftershocks, falling debris and rising water levels. In part, to take their minds off the precariousness of the situation, Uma suggests that her companions each share “one amazing thing” from their lives.

This structure of a set of stories organised within a framing device has obvious Chaucerian overtones. Underlining the point, Uma is seen to be reading The Canterbury Tales before the earthquake strikes.

Some striking stories

While the framing device has great potential, the novel lacks a bit in overall cohesiveness. Still, many of the individual stories are extremely engaging — Malathi's stands out for its dash of dark humour and unusual setting in a South Indian beauty parlour. Most compelling, though, is Jiang's tale that begins: “When I was a child … I lived inside a secret.” What unfolds is an unusual account of what it was to have lived as a resident of Chinatown in Calcutta during the Sino-Indian War of the 60s. Jiang's story also has an elegantly worded coda about the healing power of love: “We can change completely and not recognise it. We think terrible events have made us into stone. But love slips in like a chisel — and suddenly it is an ax, breaking us into pieces from the inside.”

If you wanted to quibble, though, you could argue that while many of the anecdotes come across as slices of real lives, they don't quite gel with the initial premise of One Amazing Thing. Presumably, when Uma asks people to share their lives, saying, “I don't believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing”, she is asking for incidents that are inspiring, even transcendent. Many of the narratives, while poignant, aren't really presented through this prism.

Abrupt end

While the slimness of the volume makes it an easy read, it also throws up the difficulty of not having enough ink on paper to really flesh out the characters. One Amazing Thing does end rather abruptly, though open/closed endings can be a matter of personal preference.

However, the real issue with the narrative revolves around the protagonists' situations/ responses in the present time, in the aftermath of the earthquake. These aren't as persuasive, and seem like fillers to get to the meat of the text — i.e., the individual stories. If the stories themselves are fluidly and vividly written, the “in-between narratives” feel contrived.

Perhaps more subtly constructed links between the protagonists' pasts and their reactions to the current crisis would have helped. After all, a character's true “character“ can be revealed by how he/she acts in extreme situations — whether the author chooses to show that people don't really change or that people can surprise us by their ability to draw from deep reserves.

This structure of a set of stories organised within a framing device has obvious Chaucerian overtones.



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