Monday, May 10, 2010

One Amazing Thing - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I am a great fan of Chitra Divakaruni's 'Palace of Illusions'. I like the way she writes and the way she tells a story. Picked up 'One Amazing Thing' from a collection of books that my niece Prarthana had picked up from Nagpur (quite an eclectic collection for a youngster - but she reads a lot and reads well). The book was slim and looked like a nice easy summer read.

'One Amazing Thing' started off well enough. A bunch of people getting stuck in a basement office of an Indian embassy in the USA because of a sudden earthquake. These people are from different nationalities, backgrounds, motives and cultures and in the face of a disaster, react differently. A young Indian woman who grew up in the USA, a woman of Chinese descent who fled Calcutta during the China war in 1962, and her grandchild who grew up in the USA entirely, an American soldier, a Muslim boy, a South Indian embassy officer and his lady assistant (where is the other staff?), a retired American couple.... As pieces of the ceiling fall over, as water and food gets more and more rationed, as help seems farther and farther away, as lights and torches start dimming and fading out, the drama in the basement increases.

It is then that the young Indian women gets an idea that they all share a story of one amazing thing that happened in their lives to drown the boredom and to make their hours passable without having to resort to more dramatic acts like killing one another. They start telling one another stories in a random order about the one amazing thing while they wait to either die or be rescued. The embassy officer talks of the way his life goes after he trapped a rich girl and actually finds himself trapped in that loveless, manipulative marriage, the embassy assistant reveals how she made it to a beauty saloon in Coimbatore and then wreaks vengeance on one of the richest patrons of the saloon for a flimsy reason, the young Indian woman thinks her parents are about to divorce and goes off on an aborted trip with a couple of crazies where they get to watch unnatural lights in the sky, the American man has a sad story about a cat during his sad childhood, the old Chinese grandma tells about how she came to the USA after she broke off with a love affair involving a rich Hindu boy in Calcutta, her granddaughter has a story I forget, the soldier has a story of an adopted daughter in India and visions of killing innocents in the Vietnam war, the Muslim boy has a story everyone knows...and so on.
Me, I found all the stories quite soulless. There was no amazing thing about them to me. I certainly would not expect people who are waiting for their death to tell each other stories as if they were passing a night on a train that has a longer than scheduled stop.

I had a few big problems with the story. One is that when the characters tell their story the author chooses to tell it through her voice instead of the characters. She lost me there in the first story itself. Secondly, the stories themselves held no depth for me to suit the occasion; they were more like life stories of the people. Thirdly, the behavior of the people did not ring true to me, something about the entire episode was rather superficially dealt with.; the focus seemed more on their telling their stories and that watered down the original calamity.

Chitra Divakaruni's story still flows wonderfully and she wields her pen with great aplomb. You want to know what happens to the motley bunch of characters in the end. In fact it is one of the better stories I have read from novelists of Indian origin for sheer storytelling. But I think it fades in comparison with her own other works especially 'The Palace of Illusions' which is a must read in anyone's collection. I am sure that with her impeccable, racy style and her fearless choice of topics, she will produce many more brilliant books anyway. Now to get her autograph on my copy of the 'Palace of Illusions'.

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