Lives in Extremes

by Published on

At the Indian consulate in an unidentified major American city, seven visa applicants and two members of the consular staff are trapped by an earthquake. As water rises in the collapsed building and food runs out, one of the accidental companions suggests they tell each other stories. What is the most amazing thing they’ve ever experienced?

In this, her twelfth book of fiction, University of Houston writing teacher Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s characters include an elderly Chinese woman, Jiang, and her teenage granddaughter Lily; the consulate secretary, Malathi, and her boss, Mr. Mangalam; an elderly white couple, the Pritchetts; an African-American Vietnam war veteran named Cameron; a young Indian Muslim named Tariq; and Uma, an Indian graduate student studying literature. They tell their stories in this sequence as the desperation of their situation incites them to increasing intimacy.

In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Renaissance classic The Decameron, 10 privileged characters escape the plague to a country estate, where they share the stories of their lives. Such confessional stories are a foundation of humanistic literature; they allow characters to lay bare their souls and bypass hypocrisy, shame and guilt. The same vulnerability and exposure characterize One Amazing Thing.

The Chinese grandmother begins by telling of her first love, an Indian man in Calcutta, and how the ethnic conflict of the 1962 Sino-Indian war made marriage an impossibility. As with her fellow characters, something is drawing her back to India, an urge to see if old magic can be rekindled, old tensions reconciled. One might expect granddaughter Lily, with her privileged American life, to have a more sedate tale to tell, yet the generations are bridged in angst when Lily spins a melancholy story about living in the shadow of her gifted older brother.

The attempt to escape the constraints of culture is one of the book’s dominant themes. Malathi and Mr. Mangalam have been engaged in a mutually hurtful flirtation at the consulate. We see this flirtation more forgivingly upon hearing their stories. Malathi is from a small town in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, where she avoided the chains of early marriage by taking a job at Miss Lola’s Lovely Ladies Salon. The generally meek Malathi had shown rare courage in burning the hair of a society matron who prevented her American-educated son from getting romantically involved with the family maid. Mr. Mangalam, though male, showed similar daring in fleeing his humble origins. He made a devil’s bargain to marry a rich man’s daughter, but once he established himself in his profession, he couldn’t escape her or her powerful father’s domination. At the novel’s start, coming to terms with the unfolding disaster, Mr. Mangalam seems to cling to his power too desperately. As he unveils his story, we begin to understand why.

We might think well-educated Uma has everything going for her, but her model-minority appearance is deceptive. Her father undermined her sense of security by expressing his desire to divorce Uma’s mother as soon as the girl went off to college. Of all the characters’ stories, Uma’s “one amazing thing” is perhaps most rooted in hallucination and unreality. Stoned and disoriented, she had taken off impulsively with two scruffy companions for New York, where she mistook a chemical plant fire along the highway for the aurora borealis.

These stories within stories carve deep avenues through which Divakaruni explores human expertise in self-deception. Passage to India won’t solve any of these characters’ problems, as we see in the tales told by the Pritchetts, who vainly hope that visiting India will revive their jaded love. We fail to see how Uma can find succor in India, and the same goes for Cameron and Tariq. In each case, the characters can’t escape themselves.

Meanwhile, who will take charge? At first Mr. Mangalam openly vies with Cameron and Tariq, but as the book goes on, the quietly assertive females come to the fore, catastrophe dislocating the normal social dynamic of male dominance.

With the possibility of death on the horizon, what is there to lose in being honest? Divakaruni seems to suggest that we should treat each day as if disaster loomed. If we do, we will derive strength from our cumulative acts of honesty. Divakaruni hints at this possibility in the progressively darker nature of her characters’ tales, each storyteller gaining sustenance from what has already been revealed.

This artfully designed novel explores our many interconnections without being heavy-handed or sentimental. What could such disparate characters, united only by their desire to visit India, have in common? When their superficial adult narcissism is peeled away, character is revealed to be fluid and malleable, as it is in youth. If only, One Amazing Thing seems to hope, it didn’t take disaster to compel such honesty.

Houston writer Anis Shivani’s debut book, Anatolia and Other Stories, has just been released by Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books.

Houstonian Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet and critic whose books include My Tranquil War and Other Poems and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories.