K.K Sunalini Associate Professor of English, K.L.University,Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the author of fifteen books including the award- winning short story collection Arranged Marriage, the novels Sister of My Heart, The Mistress of Spices, and The Palace of Illusions. Her works have been translated into eighteen languages and two of her novels have been made into films. Her writings have appeared in various publications including The Atlantic Monthly and The Newyorker. She is the Betty and Gene Mc David Professor of creative writing at the University of Houston. She explores various themes like women’s issues, immigration and the journeys of people, history, myth, magic and the celebration of diversity.
On May 10th 2010 Divakaruni gave interview for SAJA, The South Asian Journalists Association, a live Web cast on Blog talk Radio, where she was introduced by Sree Srinivasa, co-founder of SAJA and Professor at Columbia University. When asked by Lavina Melwani, a Newyork based journalist what the novel was about and how did she start writing it, Divakaruni replied that the inspiration for the book came from the first hand experiences when she was volunteering with victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It intrigued her to find how different people reacted very differently to disaster and that’s what the kernel of ‘One Amazing Thing’ was formed. In an earlier interview when Melwani asked Divakaruni if she felt that the immigrant journey has become common place and she has responded that no journey is unique and changes that person in a special way according to her. She feels that it is purely personal experience which she has fictionalized. It is her major interest to explore what individuals do in a situation of disaster and how they react differently. Following a devastating earthquake in an unidentified city of the U.S. nine heterogeneous groups of people find themselves in an underground room in the basement of an Indian Consulate. Though the building collapses around them, no rescue operations seem to be taking place. With very little food, rising flood water, dwindling oxygen, and no electricity or phone service, the victims fend off panic by taking turns at sharing the central stories of their lives. In the beginning arguments crop up and hardly trust one another. When things go from bad to progressively worse, unable to bear the psychological and emotional stress, Uma, a graduate student who reads awesome books like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales comes up with the idea to share one amazing story from their lives which they have never told anyone before. She gives necessary instructions not to interrupt and question especially by family members. The way the novel progresses in which the nine characters do not know whether they will survive or perish is also the tale of survival and hope. The focus of all these people first jolts to collective struggle to survive and they wait to be rescued. The novel is a beautiful, entertaining and touching patchwork of nine short stories within the context of a large story. The characters are two visa officers Malathi and Mangalam on the verge of an adulterous affair; A Chinese grandmother Jiang in her last years with a
gifted teenage granddaughter Lily unfolds her secret past; A graduate student haunted by a question about love; Cameron African American, ex-soldier suffering from guilt; Uma, a young graduate student is an Indian American girl bewildered by her parents’ decision to return to Kolkata after twenty years ; Tariq, a young Muslim man about 25 years is angry with the new America; An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. All these people’s stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life and death circumstances.
Jiang begins her story by breaking the custom of Chinese to keep family secrets safe. She is a responsible daughter who helps her father at their shoe-mart by opening the store in the morning, deciding the designs to order, checking the quality of work sent in by the shoe makers and ruthlessly sending back pieces that do not meet her stringent standards. She is a disciplined, work minded lady who is distracted by Mohit Das, a customer and a manager at young age at National and Grind Lays Bank. He proposes her to join for coffee and dessert at Firpo’s. He is attracted by her sharpness at work, fierce business acumen, canny bargaining and her ability to match customers with the product best suited to them. After a few months of clandestine meetings and stolen kisses in restaurants and movie theatres and the dusty carrels in the backs of university libraries, Jiang takes Mohit Das to her father. He says, “Can fish love birds” (Divakaruni 73). He gives a reluctant permission to keep seeing each other and if they still felt the same way, he says that he would reconsider the matter. On the other hand Mohit’s family is devastated by the prospects of their only son, carrier of the generations-proud Das name, marrying chee nay heathen. Mohit’s father informs his son clearly that he would never give permission for such a pervasion to occur in his family. He says:
Have an affair, if you’re so besotted. Get her out of your system. Then we’ll Look for a proper match for you – a
Woman. I won’t be ashamed to introduce to Calcutta as my daughter-in-law (73).
Mohit assures Jiang of his love and never goes to buckle under his father’s pressure. He proposes to her that they would elope to Darjeeling or Goa and asks her to pack her valuables. However, Jiang hesitates to leave her parental home imagining her father’s face when he discovers her walkout. She also visualizes her life with Mohit in a hill town, or in a seaside cottage and worries one day each of them might blame the other for what that life cost them. Mohit pleads her to get out of Calcutta as he learns that Chinese are being sent to internment camps. He is also afraid of his family being targeted as sympathizers (Indo-China war-1962). His last words to her are, “Forgive me, he said. I love you, can’t fight a whole country. Then he hung up” (76).Later on Jiang’s father gets her married to Mr.Chan, a middle-aged stocky stranger without even asking her opinion. Gradually she realizes Chan’s kindness and says:
One night I kissed him. I thought. He
is so kind to me, I must give him something What else did I have to give? so even though I did not love him, we made love. I thought.
It could be worse. It is possible to live without love with a gentleman(85).
After four years when Chan falls sick at the verge of death she shouts, “Don’t die, don’t die, I shouted, I love you” (85). At the end of the story narration, she confesses that she really loved him. Divakaruni picturises the honesty of self revelation in Jiang’s narration of her pre-marital love affair and marital adjustment with her husband. She shows how racial discrimination prevails in the matter of marriage.
Malathi, the second narrator unfolds the story of Ravi and Nirmala. Ravi is the son of Mrs. Balan,a hair stylist of Lola’s parlour where Malathi joins as a beautician. Nirmala is the servant maid with whom Ravi exchanges kisses and gets caught by his mother redhandedly. Ravi threatens his mother that he would return to America if she fires Nirmala from her job. Thus Mrs. Balan is forced to allow Nirmala to remain. When Mr. Balan enquires Ravi secretly if he wants to settle Nirmala in a flat where he could visit her without disrupting the peace of the household, Ravi replies that he has no such intention of taking advantage of her. Divakaruni’s impression is that the rigid class boundaries are the bane of Indian society and should be broken down. Malathi narrates how she gets a job in the Indian Consulate. While working at Lola’s parlour, one day Mrs. Balan loses all her hair because of Malathi’s mistake in conditioning the hair. At this incident Lola frightens Malathi by saying that Mrs.Balan can hire a goonda and attack Malathi with acid. After this Lola recommends Malathi to her nephew for a job at the Indian Consulate. Thus Malathi enters Mangalam’s office. She shares a tiny apartment with three other women who had been hired by the Consulate and brought over from India around the same time. Malathi’s plan is to open a beauty shop after saving enough money. She had noted how her two sisters were ordered by their husbands. Mangalam, according to Malathi’s room mates was the best looking man with his swashbuckling moustache, designer sunglasses and a surprisingly disarming smile, he looked much younger than his age. No one could blame Malathi for visiting Mangalam’s office a little more often than was necessary. She accepted a spoonful of the silvered betel nuts once in a while. She patiently listened to him when he told how lonely he was. She allowed his fingers to close over hers when she handed him a form. It was her habit to doodle on scraps of paper writing Malathi Mangala. Sometimes Mr. Mangalam pulled her into his arms and kissed her and she had to admit that the action was not totally unexpected though it surprised her. Though Malathi had never been kissed before, she knew what to do from the romantic movies. She lowered shy eyes and leaned into his chest, letting her lips brush his jaw even as a worrisome thought pricked her by dallying with a married man. Mangalam also unfolds his amazing past and gives reasons why he flirts with women. He is born in a poor South Indian town who considers himself seriously as the saviour of his family. He meets Naina the only daughter of a high-level government official at a posh Imperial Hotel in a dinner. Mangalam expresses his love in course of a few days expecting that she would never be able to persuade her father to accept him. Surprisingly, Naina insists her father that she will never marry anyone except Mangalam. Naina’s father accepts for the marriage hoping that Mangalam would keep Naina happy. Later on Naina becomes a dominating wife and does not respect Mangalam’s parents visiting them. Highly hurt by his wife’s arrogance, Mangalam
associates with a department accountant in his office. He finds Latika highly touching and discriminates from Naina and feels:
If Naina was a flash disco light, Latika was the moon In a misty sky. Behind her glasses, her eyes were Understanding and I felt that she was the meaning
of struggle. The hand kerchief she gave me was frayed at the edges, and I was impressed that she hadn’t minded sharing it with me even though I would see this. (158).
Mangalam and Lathika dream of their future together which would include his parents and her brother. After the approval of his job transfer, he asks Naina for a divorce based on incompatibility with the assistance of her father, Naina, a cruel woman does not wish Mangalam to be happy with another woman which stings like a poison ivy. She fights to keep him tied to her for the entire life and in the battle her father is her ally. Mangalam takes a strong decision to degrade Niana’s prestige and so he flirts with the near and dear friends of Naina. Though he is sent to America he cannot stop flirting with women. He turns towards Malathi and says:
‘I think we might die here- perhaps in the next few hours, If more of the building comes down or the air deteriorates Further….I don’t want to die without telling you that I’m Sorry for my behaviour (165)
Tariq, an Indian Muslim by his features, fair skinned, with dark glasses, a scowl and a beard. He reveals his amazing love story with Farah. She is the daughter of Ammi’s (Tariq’s mother) best friend from childhood, Farah had come to America two years back on a prestigious study – abroad scholarship from her University in Delhi. Inspite of her brilliance, Farah had not made it to America. Her widowed mother, blissfully ignorant of what occurred with some regularity on the campuses of her hometown, had been terrified that American dorm life, ruled as it was by the unholy trinity of alcohol, drugs and sex would ruin her daughter. Only after a protracted and tearful conversation with Ammi had Farah’s mother given Farah permission to come. The conditions on which she was sent were; Farah would live with Ammi for her entire stay; she would visit the mosque twice a week; she would mingle only with other Indian Muslims; and she would be escorted everywhere she went by a member of the Hussain family. Boyishly thin and too tall to be considered pretty by Indian standards, she was smart and secretive, with the disconcerting habit of fixing her keen, Kohl – lined eyes on Tariq giving an impression that she did not believe what he said. Tariq could not figure her out though she was polite, disapproval seemed to emanate from her unlike other girls who had visited them from India. She wasn’t interested in the latest music, movies or magazines. Brand name clothing and make-up didn’t excite her. He tried to see what made America America. But she had asked if they could go to the Museum of Modern Art. She examined with excruciating interest, canvasses filled with incomprehensive slashes of colour or people who were naked, and ugly besides. One day when Farah enters with a glass of barley water when he was recovering from flue, she happens to touch his two-day grown beard on the cause of
checking temperature. She complements ‘looks good!’(31). He stopped shaving after that and the beard had become a code between them.
Mrs.Pritchett takes her turn to express her dissatisfaction of her marital life. She starts
by saying that her husband did not love her the way she needed him to. Though he was a good husband who provided her everything, he often made her feel bored by saying about his achievements, new companies, clients, financial disasters and so on. Mrs. Pritchett says, they enjoyed many things together like living in an expensive house, sharing dinners, going to dinners, going to theatres, restaurants, movies and holiday touring to Europe, Canada and New Zealand. After seeing the couple in the café, a great dissatisfaction washes her because the old couple share and care for each other in discussing the menu and cut up their desserts for sharing. Mrs. Pritchett compares her life with that of theirs and says that she wants a new life because the present life is too painful. In her own words:
There was nothing like that tenderness in my life. And without it, what use were the things the things I’d built my days around? My garden, my home,
my activities, and friendships, even the time Mr. Pritchett and I spent together- they were all so many zeroes.
With the ‘one’ of love in front of them, they could have been worth millions but as on now, I was bankrupt ,and it was to late to start over (170).
Now Cameron takes his turn and reveals his love story. He remembers his girl friend Imani whom he meets her in a party, singing a song. He is attracted by her art of singing with passion. The song “My Man He Don’t Love Me?” Cameron felt that he had not heard it before. The notes went into him like a guinea worm, emerging whenever it wanted to. They shared their life by going to movies and listening to music. They develop physical relationship as a result Imani becomes pregnant. One day he learns that he is offered an admission to a prestigious college with a sports scholarship. Instead of complementing, she calls him an Oreo before his co-workers to hear and snigger. He understands that she wants to ruin the moment of his greatest achievement. While informing that she was pregnant he could see the feeling of triumph in her as he has to stay back and take the responsibility of her and the baby. He recommends her an abortion and prepares to pay for it. At the mention of the abortion, she starts crying and becomes very quiet, she asks, “‘you want to kill our baby?’ and ‘It so important for you to get away from you people? (183). Imani leaves him by cursing. He thinks of saying sorry but he feels that would reopen the coffin of their relationship. Over the next weeks he waits with concern and strange disappointment but he learns that Imani had an abortion. Cameron knew he cannot go looking for Imani to ask forgiveness. He hopes her to get married and his reappearance would cause more harm than good. He decides to adopt a child and become a full time parent. He selects a girl child from orphanage and sponsers her after naming her as Seva.
Uma is the last one to narrate her version of amazing thing of her life. The novel opens with Uma, mulling over a question whether her boyfriend Ramon loves her more than what she loves him. The question troubles her for several weeks before she comes to Visa office. She is on her way to India because of her parents’ folly. They came to the U.S twenty years back as young professionals. They loved their jobs, celebrated weekends. Her mother decides to take early retirement and her father quits his position as a senior administrator for a computer company and accepts a consultant’s job in India. They rent a house in Kolkata. Uma’s parents extend an invitation to Uma to spend six weeks in India. It is a shock to them to learn that Uma and Ramon are living together and Uma realizes that Ramon has not been included in the invitation. Towards the end of the novel, Uma analyses her father’s relationship with her mother. She notices her mother crying on phone whenever she talked. All of a sudden on one day her father makes her a phone call and says that he is planning to divorce from his wife,” Your mother and I no longer have anything in common except you”(196). He also declares, “All my life I’ve done what other people expected of me, he continued ‘whatever time I have left, I’d like to live it the way I want. Do you have any questions?”(197).
Uma tries to find out reasons of his decision. She thinks that they lived a quiet non controversial life as husband and wife and puzzles to know what has crumbled overnight. She doubts if there is another woman in her father’s life, if so what would be the fate of her mother if she comes to know about it. After some days Uma’s father makes her a phone call and says that he no longer plans to divorce his wife. Uma feels that she has betrayed her mother because she was careful in withholding the issue of divorce. This incident of her parents is an amazing thing in her life. Thus Uma says, “I didn’t realize – until this earthquake, until today – that my withholding was a worse kind of betrayal, a betrayal of the self” (206).
Divakaruni gives the gamut of emotions and reactions to her characters. All of them carry at least a tinge of poignancy. The novel is a journey of journeys which teaches the disaster management. The novel is emotionally charged that digs deep into the soul of the reader and creates a way to manage almost any situation. These moments are like real life situations. No character seems to outshine the other and this makes the journey of all lives universal irrespective of the cultural differences.
Banerjee, Chitra Divakaruni. One Amazing Thing Penguin Books India Limited, 2010. Print.
Lavina’s SAJA interview with Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee 10th May 2010. WeB. 22 September 2011.