I often wonder if where you read a book influences how you feel about it. Would I have been less sanguine about Scavenger’s Son(by Thakazhi Shivasankaran Pillai) if I had read it on an uncomfortable flight from San Francisco to Chennai rather than while lounging in my grandma’s easy chair in our third floor balcony overlooking the Bay of Bengal?
I was on a cruise ship when I read the majority of One Amazing Thing. While the book is poignant and mostly dark, both literally and figuratively, the balmy Caribbean breeze, the salubrious weather and the generous libations while at sea contributed to an overall sense of joie de vivre. I hoped, no, knew, that the characters thrown together by a natural disaster in an Indian visa office would somehow find their way back to a normal and, perhaps, even better life.
Nine people are trapped in an office of the Indian consulate in an unnamed U.S. city by an earthquake. Some are injured, but all are disillusioned by the suddenness of the experience. An African American, a white couple, a Chinese grandmother and grand daughter, an Indian American graduate student, a young man of Muslim faith, and two of the consulate’s officers, are all thrown together by the fury of nature, forced to share provisions, forced to tend to each other. At the suggestion of Uma, the graduate student, they each share one amazing thing from their lives; a story, an event, that defined their sense of self.
With One Amazing Thing, Chitra Banerjee Divakurni returns to crisp storytelling (the book is all of 240 pages), a style markedly different from her recent oeuvre (notably, The Queen of Dreams).
Many of the nine characters are sharply etched. The story of the Chinese grandmother who lived in India and then migrated to the United States, forsaking her memories of childhood and youth, abstaining even from speaking English, is a character that will linger for days after you put down the book.
Or the story of Malathi, the visa officer, whose initial characterization as a coy, traditional, south Indian woman, starkly contrasts with her recollections of her stint at Miss Lola’s Lovely Ladies Salon.
Tariq Husein, on the other hand, a disgruntled Muslim youth turning to the fundamentals of his religion in order to make sense of a befuddling world, is a character with whom one has now become very familiar. It is almost as if Muslims will be seen first and foremost as products of their religious identity, as predictable portraitures of people already stereotyped, characters that have been explored with a greater sensitivity in works like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Stringing together different stories or vignettes into one narrative has the effect of making the reader eventually favor one over the other. One tends to be more curious about that character than about the denouement of the narrative in its entirety.
What is endearing about One Amazing Thing is while the message—outward differences in race, color, class, or religion hide the inherent humanity that is common to all—is universal, the rendering of it through the retelling of individual stories is refreshing and a nuanced reading of the zeitgeist, a time when much is made of dissimilarities—between nations, between peoples, and between political parties.
Some lines stand out, attesting Divakurni’s mastery of prose and language, like “a passion frozen into foreverness by the destiny that separated them” or “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.”
Divakurni’s protagonists tend be women, specifically immigrant women. Her stories are generally set among their varied lives and lived experiences. In One Amazing Thing, the author offers her devout fans and potential new ones a different attempt at narrative, with characters that stray from the author’s comfort zone.
Reading One Amazing Thing now, post the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, may well lead you to ponder about the one amazing story of your life. If you do, it would be a testament to the story teller.
Girija Sankar is a graduate student in Atlanta.