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Book Review - One Amazing Thing

Reviewed by Ananya Sarkar 

An Out-of-the-Box Novel

D.H.Lawrence once said that the novel “is a perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships” and it can “help us to live, as nothing else can: no didactic Scripture, anyhow.” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest book One Amazing Thing exemplifies the above statement in all its respects, while weaving together, with different threads the singular story of multicultural America in modern times.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
One Amazing Thing
Penguin Books, 2010
Pages 208, Paperback, Price- Rs 250

The novel is set in the basement visa and passport office of the Indian Consulate in a nondescript location in America. When trouble strikes in the form of a massive earthquake, there are nine people who get trapped together by the yoke of fate. They include Jiang, a Chinese woman with her punky teenage granddaughter Lily; Mr and Mrs Pritchett, an upper-class Caucasian couple; Cameron, an African American ex-soldier; Tariq, a young Muslim man; Malathi and Mr Manglam, two visa officers on the verge of an adulterous affair; and Uma, an Indian American girl doing her graduation. Remarking on this cross-section of society, 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 UN summit in here.” Plunged into the face of disaster with no phone signals or electricity, little food, occasional falling of plaster and the rising water level flooding the office, the characters at first take out their fear and frustration on each other. But with time, they learn to pool their resources, both physical and emotional, in their collective struggle to survive. In order to distract themselves, it is suggested that they each take turns sharing an important story, “one amazing thing” that had happened in their lives.

It is these stories which constitute the kernel of the novel. Ranging from childhood memories to romance, marriage, family and political upheaval, the tales stand out as plausible narrative gems in their poignancy and depth. One of the most compelling stories is that of Jiang, whose childhood and youth was spent in Tangra, the ethnic district of Calcutta long inhabited by Chinese tanners, shoe makers, cooks, tailors and traders. Since leather work is stigmatized by caste Hindus, this area was, and still is, not much frequented by the Bengalis of the city. Privately, the Chinese cautiously guard their age-old family secrets, hidden wealth and property that are shut away from prying eyes. Closeted in this enigmatic world, Jiang falls prey to the snake of forbidden love by entering into a relationship with a Bengali Hindu boy. However, arranged marriages being the venerable custom in both communities, the star-crossed lovers are coerced into different lives. The events gain greater significance in the backdrop of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, whose turmoil and widespread ramifications are painted by the author in vivid detail. Through Jiang’s voice is also delivered some of the most hauntingly beautiful lines of the book, which, by extension, are also applicable to the plight of the stranded survivors: “We can change completely and not recognize it. We think terrible events have made us into stone. But love slips in like a chisel---and suddenly it is an axe, breaking us into pieces from the inside.”

The war veteran Cameron’s character looms large over the group, with him taking stock of the situation, treating injuries, calming people and meticulously figuring a plan for survival. Taking the role of a surrogate guardian, Cameron tries to make the others feel at ease and withholds from them the harsher facts (such as the presence of a floating corpse on the other side of the room) for as long as possible. The narration of his story is permeated with speech sounds and syntax typical of African English, so that it gives the appearance of a real African American speaking to us. His ghetto existence as a poor Black with high aspirations is also portrayed with a commitment to truth. For instance, when trying to get a scholarship to a good university in order to be a doctor, Cameron’s teacher and mentor ironically pins his hope on his unfortunate background for bagging him one: “Like some second-rate prestidigitator, the counsellor tried to turn the painful truths of Cameron’s existence into advantages. Cameron had wanted to say something cutting, to walk out of the man’s office, slamming the door behind him. But he had held on to his temper. If doing so helped him to get where he needed to go, Cameron could put up with a little patronizing.”

The post 9/11 scenario for Muslims in America is graphically delineated through the character of Tariq. Not in the least responsible for the disaster in 2001, Tariq’s family, however, along with others like them become the victims of unjustified suspicion, distrust and marginalization. Tariq’s father’s once-flourishing business suffers a steep downfall and one day, along with his assistant manager, he is arrested without a reason and detained for days together for questioning. When he returns, he is a different man---dazed and impassive, interacting little with others, and unable to come to terms with his humiliation. Worse still, he suffers a stroke as a result of the perceived shock and is sufficiently incapacitated. While his mother considers a retirement to India to live a safe and peaceful life, Tariq, however, feels betrayed by the nation which had cradled him since birth: “This was my country. I was an American. The thought of being driven from my home filled me with rage.”

As the stories unfold one by one, they give a meaningful insight and understanding to each character who, until then, had mostly been viewed through the lens of stereotype and bias (for instance, Cameron’s black skin had made some characters fearful of him being violent, and Tariq’s unkempt beard made others suspect him to be a terrorist). Also, what had started as a casual affair for keeping themselves tentatively occupied soon assumes a larger, unforeseen importance. This is seen when Cameron saves the last dose from his inhaler for use at the time of his story and Mrs Pritchett secretly takes her medicinal pills in order to be at her best when her turn for the story came. Even when a new tremor occurs in the building, threatening imminent collapse and death, Uma is anxious that her story may remain unheard. Thus, narrating the autobiographical stories also becomes a thinly veiled process of unburdening the mind and coming face-to-face with the dark secrets of one’s life.

Collaterally, however, with her feet firmly grounded in reality, Divakaruni fills the interstices between the stories with details of the deteriorating situation around the survivors. The water level rises at an alarming rate, causing the persons to sit on top of the tables, the batteries in the only torch available begin to die out and the smell of leaked gas becomes stronger. All this creates a sense of urgency and trepidation, while deftly escalating the tension of the plot. However, with each passing moment pushing them deeper into crisis, the characters, strangely, are increasingly weaned into a bond of tacit love and warmth, and a feeling of kinship that welds them into a family.

Another noteworthy aspect is the covert but rich symbolism that imbues the text. For instance, the darkness which envelops the group is emblematic of the free, unconscious mind which undermines and subverts the rigorous rules of logic. Significantly, it is in the dark that the characters shed their inhibitions and pour out their private stories. Only in the intervals does Cameron switch on his flashlight, directing attention to the immediate reality and the practical necessities. Also, the flooding waters refer back to the Great Deluge in the Bible when God had decreed the destruction of the old, degraded world for a new and better one. Aiding him to execute his plan, Noah in the ark, had taken with him a couple from every species in order to ensure the continuation of life in the new universe. Similarly, here, the survivors, representing different ethnicities undergo a life-changing experience which enlightens them in several ways. If they ever do manage to get out, the thought flits across our mind that they could be the icons of a new world based on the creed of love. Whereas the Biblical Flood had caused the inundation of the whole world, here it is only a small part of America that is in similar circumstances. However, as the waters rise in the basement office, it metaphorically helps in cleansing the minds of the characters from prejudice and narrow-mindedness and forming them into new individuals.

The author’s style is lucid and fluid, with the words pouring forth like a refreshing stream. In some places, as in the introductory passages of Jiang’s story, the language is almost lyrical in content. From time to time, Divakaruni glides seamlessly from the consciousness of one character to another and though there are frequent alternations between the third person point of view and the various first person points of view, they do not strike any discordant note in the reading. As a way of titillating the curiosity, glimpses of some of the characters’ stories are offered long before they reveal it in its entirety before the others. (For instance, we wonder who Seva was in Cameron’s life, the reason for Mangalam’s coming to America to get away from his wife and about the kind of persons Uma’s parents were.) Creditably, the work clinches the attention of the reader till the very end. The stories too, seem relevant for each respective person and never spill beyond the boundaries of credibility. This is evinced from the fact that Lily’s story is comparatively short and simpler in content given that she is in her teens and the youngest in the group.

The concept behind the novel of clustering together a group of heterogeneous people who share engaging stories with each other to spend the time meaningfully is clearly reminiscent of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the latter volume of which Uma carries in her backpack as an oblique reminder of the parallel. But here, Divakaruni contextualizes the idea in a grave and sombre situation---in which the characters are balanced precariously on the precipice between life and death. Hence, their tales too, assume a seriousness not found in the preceding counterparts, and this proves to be one of the originalities of the book. Incidentally, the assembled group seems to be a microcosm of not only American society but also the world at large. From the way things develop, the novel pricks the suggestion of a better future of cooperation and integration between diverse communities based on the exchange of their respective stories, or, in other words, widespread direct interaction. Continued here