A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi. Ballantine Books. 2002. Hardcover. $23.95. 214 pages. Fiction.

On Dec. 3 1984, the leaves of the trees in Bhopal, India, turned black. In the calm dawn of the same day, a holding tank at the Union Carbide pesticide factory burst due to overheating, and released methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic and deadly gas. Along with hydrogen cyanide, about 65 other gases were released into the atmosphere in a huge cloud killing, by the most accurate statistics, over 5,000 people who died within three days. Eighteen years later survivors of the disaster suffer from a veritable grocery list of ailments and all in all, at least 20,000 more have died due to exposure of the gases. More die each month, though not many Indians, especially residents of Bhopal and its environs need to be reminded of the facts.

By a stroke of luck, in particular, the wind blowing the deadly gas in the direction away from the home of author Amulya Malladi, she lived to tell the tale. But it could just have easily been otherwise. Malladi’s first novel, A Breath of Fresh Air, tells the story of one such survivor, but not one of the luckiest ones. The narrative opens up on Dec. 3 1984 as Anjali, a newly married army officer’s wife, arrives home from a visit to her parents and waits at the railway station for her husband to bring her home, the failure of which will incontrovertibly change Anjal’s world.

Anjali is a well-developed character and Malladi imbues her with every emotion of someone who has survived a tragedy on both personal and larger levels and struggles to come to terms with the far reaching after effects. In an e-mail interview, I asked Malladi if any of the narrative was autobiographical, and, expressed surprise at the fact that the Bhopal tragedy was not widely represented in India’s fiction. She states: “I was 9 years old then—too young to truly appreciate the horror of the situation, but not too young to ignore it completely.” She, too, expresses surprise that Bhopal, “the Hiroshima of the chemical industry,” has not gotten much fictional treatment, but cites Dominique La Pierre’s creative nonfiction book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal as one of the few exceptions.

In a way that will be gratifying to readers, Malladi presents the tragedy on a purely human and personal level. While that unfortunate night affected the lives of so many people, this writer focuses on Anjali’s mental and physical suffering and the ripple effects this suffering has on the rest of her family. Eventually, and shockingly, going against a very strong societal grain, Anjali divorces Prakash, her army officer husband, who forgot to retrieve her on that fateful night. If he had been on time she would have escaped the poison gas seeping into the air. His failure to show up is due to his almost serial philandering with a woman who he can’t seem to get enough of despite her married status. The book’s treatment of divorce seemed, at first, rather harsh. The point is driven home more than several times throughout the narrative, about the stigma divorce confers on a woman (to a greater degree) and to a man. Initially I found the reiteration somewhat unrealistic, given India’s current divorce rates which are rising at unprecedented rates, but Malladi defends her treatment of divorce as realistic:

“I left India seven years ago … divorce was still taboo. That doesn’t mean that women don’t get divorced, but I remember my mother distinctly telling me that a woman who is single by choice will be treated poorly in our society. I think the middle-class Indian society still doesn’t accept divorce as commonplace. These days divorce is not as much of a sin as it used to be, but I don’t think it is accepted the way it is in the U.S. and in Europe, not by a long shot.”

The reader is given a panoramic view of Anjali’s life, told recursively and alternately in the voices of Prakash, her first husband; Sandeep her current husband, a college professor with whom she shares a son; and herself. Ordinarily, this structure usually entails much repetition but Malladi artfully uses the technique to fill in the gaps of each person’s story and to show the long arm of tragedy and unhappiness. Much of this unhappiness revolves around the state of her 12-year-old son Amar’s health. Amar is a weak but sweet-tempered boy who is loved desperately by Anjali and her husband, but suffers the debilitating effects passed on to him from his mother’s exposure to the gas, a by-product of the tragedy that neither Anjali, nor Sandeep ever contemplated or anticipated.

“We went from specialist to specialist and were finally told that Amar’s breathing problems were related to the methyl isocyanate gas that I had inhaled … But that was years ago and I couldn’t understand how something that happened so long ago could affect my baby. Then I found out more about the deadly gas and how I shouldn’t have more children, that any child we had would probably have the same set of problems … and just like that, my past took over my future.

Surviving a tragedy entails strength, endurance and a certain amount of forgiveness. Anjali and Prakash, by chance meeting up at a vegetable stand, struggle tenaciously and bitterly against the circumstances of their lives. Anjali suffers the obvious physical ailments, the affliction of her son, and the loss of her parents’ love and approval due to a divorce that everyone was led to believe was her own fault. Prakash suffers a guilt that has been building up and infecting him over the years, threatening to wreak havoc on the already precarious structure of his own family. Eventually, through the innocence of Amar’s suffering and his own touching acceptance of it, a form of forgiveness eventually takes place between Anjali and Prakash.

When I asked Malladi what single aspect of the Bhopal tragedy disgusted her more than any other, she said:

“The nights of the Bhopal gas tragedy 40 tons of toxic methyl isocynate gas leaked out from a Union Carbide plant. The worst part was how people woke up to clouds of toxic gas, chili powder in the air without knowing what was happening. No alarm was sounded, no evacuation plan was prepared, nothing was done when victims arrived at hospitals breathless and blind, the doctors didn’t know what to do because neither Union Carbide nor the Indian government had bothered to put a plan into place in case there was a leak. What shocks and disgusts me the most is that no one was warned. When the leak took place, why didn’t Union Carbide officials, the Indian government, those who knew, put out a radio bulletin, something on the television, cars with loudspeakers, anything to tell people what was happening, and that they should breathe through a wet towel to minimize the effects of the gas. This information was given later, after the gas leak and when they were releasing the remaining gas safely above the city. Information was a little too late to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

What remain, amid the emotional and physical scars, are stories that will be told and, hopefully, lessons that will be learned. The conclusion to A Breath of Fresh Air is poignant and realistic in that there are no neat and happy endings. Refreshingly, Malladi offers none. Those that we love become as important and, cruelly ironic, as the air that we breathe.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.