Book Review: Chita Banerjee Divakaruni's 'One Amazing Thing' Reviewer Jane Ciabattari says the new novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni takes the shape of Scheherazade's tales, as nine people begin sharing their life stories after being trapped in the basement passport office of San Fransisco's Indian Consulate after an earthquake.


Book Reviews

Nine Strangers, 'One Amazing Thing'

'One Amazing Thing' cover
One Amazing Thing
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $23.99

Read An Excerpt

Poet, short-story writer and novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni cut her teeth listening to her grandfather tell tales from the ancient Indian epics — the Ramayana and Mahabharata — by lantern light in his Bengali village. This storytelling legacy shines brightly in her entrancing new novel, One Amazing Thing, in which nine people in the passport office in the basement of the Indian Consulate in San Francisco are yoked together by fate when an earthquakes hits.

Uma, a sharply observant graduate student awaiting a visa to visit her retired parents in "shining India," mistakes the quake's first tremor for a cable car. She notes the sour-faced young Indian woman at the reception desk, gatekeeper for the passport officer, and the others in the waiting room: a Caucasian couple in their 60s; a young man, about 25, whom she takes for Indian (Tariq is, in fact, Muslim-American, and unsettled by how he is perceived after Sept. 11); a Chinese women with her teenage granddaughter. 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 U.N. summit."

As the quake hits with full force, Divakaruni moves effortlessly from one character to another, and across a spectrum of raw feeling: panic; pain; antagonism; selfishness. She reveals intimate details and sensual reactions so vivid you feel as if you're with each of them in the room.

The survivors are held together by the guidance of Cameron, a lanky, African-American Vietnam vet, who times his suggestions — gathering bowls of water from the bathroom sink, sharing the little food they have, keeping their feet above the floor when the place begins to flood — to the intervals between the five remaining doses on his asthma inhaler.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in India. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. Neela Banerjee hide caption

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Neela Banerjee

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in India. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.

Neela Banerjee

Page after page, tensions escalate. As the group grows desperate, the men begin to tussle. "It was like their very own Lord of the Flies," Uma thinks. To calm them, she challenges each to describe "one amazing thing" that has happened in their lives.

Divakaruni embeds the last two-thirds of her novel with narrative gems that bring the nine survivors back to the bedrock of human connection. Trapped strangers are transformed into a chorus of Scheherazades, offering up tales of loss and love, and betrayal and redemption, to illuminate the gathering darkness.

Excerpt: 'One Amazing Thing'

'One Amazing Thing' cover
One Amazing Thing
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $23.99


When the first rumble came, no one in the Visa Office, down in the basement of the Indian Consulate, thought anything of it. Immersed in regret or hope or trepidation (as is usual for persons planning a major journey), they took it to be a passing cable-car. Or perhaps the repair crew who had draped the pavement outside with neon-orange netting, making entry into the building a feat that required significant gymnastic skill, had resumed drilling. Uma Sinha watched a flake of plaster float from the ceiling in a lazy dance until it disappeared into the implausibly green foliage of the plant that stood at attention in the corner. She watched, but she didn't really see it, for she was mulling over a question that had troubled her for the last several weeks: Did her boyfriend Ramon love her more than she loved him, and (should her suspicion that he did so prove correct) was that a good thing?

Uma snapped shut her copy of Chaucer, which she had brought with her to compensate for the Medieval Lit class she was missing at the university. In the last few hours she had managed to progress only a page and a half into the "Wyfe of Bath's Tale" — this despite the fact that the bawdy, cheerful Wyfe was one of her favorite characters. Now she surrendered to reality: The lobby of the P&V Office, with all its comings and goings, its calling out of the names of individuals more fortunate than herself, was not a place suited to erudite endeavors. She surrendered with ill grace — it was a belief of hers that people ought to rise above the challenges of circumstance — and glared at the woman stationed behind the glassed-in customer service window. The woman was dressed in a blue sari of an electrifying hue. Her hair was gathered into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and she wore a daunting red dot in the center of her forehead. She ignored Uma superbly, as people do when faced with those whose abject destinies they control.

Uma did not trust this woman. When she had arrived this morning, assured of a nine a.m. appointment with the visa officer, she found several people swirling around the lobby, and more crowding behind, who had been similarly assured. When questioned, the woman had shrugged, pointing to the pile upon which Uma was to place her paperwork. Clients, she told Uma, would be called according to the order of arrival for an interview with the visa officer. Here she nodded reverently toward the office to the side of the lobby. Its closed door bore the name Mr. V.K.S. Mangalam stenciled in flowery letters on the nubby, opaque glass. Craning her neck, Uma saw that there was a second door to the office, a blank wooden slab that opened into the sequestered employees area: the customer service window and, behind it, desks at which two women sorted piles of official looking documents into other piles and occasionally stamped them. The woman at the counter pursed her lips at Uma's curiosity and frostily advised her to take a seat while there was one still available.

Uma sat. What else could she do? But she resolved to keep an eye on the woman, who looked entirely capable of shuffling the visa applications around out of bored caprice when no one was watching.

Now it was three p.m. A few minutes earlier, the women at the desks had left on their mid-afternoon break. They had asked the woman in the blue sari if she wanted to accompany them, and when she had declined, stating that she would take her break later, they had dissolved into giggles and whispers which she loftily ignored. There remained four sets of people in the room, apart from Uma. In the distant corner was an old Chinese woman dressed in a traditional tunic, accompanied by a fidgety, sullen girl of thirteen or fourteen who should surely have been in school. The teenager wore her hair in spikes. Her lipstick was black and so were her clothes. Did they allow students to attend school dressed like this nowadays? Uma wondered. Then she felt old-fashioned. From time to time, grandmother and granddaughter fought in fiery whispers, words that Uma longed to decipher. She had always been this way: interested — quite unnecessarily, some would say — in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them. Now she made up the dialogue she could not understand.

I missed a big test today because of your stupid appointment. If I fail Algebra, just remember it was your fault — because you were too scared to ride the bus here by yourself.

Whose fault was it that you overslept six times this month and didn't get to school for your morning classes, Missy? And your poor parents, slaving at their jobs, thinking you were hard at work! Maybe I should tell them what really goes on at home while they're killing themselves to provide for you ...

Near them sat a Caucasian couple about a decade older than Uma's parents, their clothes hinting at affluence: he in a dark woolen jacket and shoes that looked Italian, she in a cashmere sweater and a navy blue pleated skirt that reached her calves. He riffled through The Wall Street Journal; she, the frailer of the pair, was knitting something brown and unidentifiable. Twice he stepped outside — to smoke a cigarette, Uma guessed. Sometimes, glancing sideways, she saw him watching his wife. Uma couldn't decipher the look on his face. Was it anxiety? Annoyance? Once she thought it was fear. Or maybe it was hope, the flip side of fear. The only time she heard them speak to each other was when he asked what he could pick up for her from the deli across the street.

"I'm not hungry," she replied in a leave-me-alone tone.

"You have to eat something. Build up your strength. We have a big trip coming up."

She knitted another row before responding. "Pick up whatever looks good to you, then." After he left, she put down the knitting needles and stared at her hands.

To Uma's left sat a young man of about thirty years, an Indian by his features, but fair-skinned as though he came from one of the mountain tribes. He wore dark glasses, a scowl and a beard of the kind that in recent years made airport security pull you out of line and frisk you. To her other side sat a lanky African American, perhaps in his fifties, Uma couldn't tell. His shaved head and the sharp, ascetic bones of his face gave him an ageless, monkish appearance, though the effect was somewhat undercut by the sparkly studs in his ears. When Uma's stomach gave an embarrassingly loud growl a couple of hours back (trusting in the nine a.m. appointment, she hadn't brought with her anything more substantial than a bagel and an apple), he dug into a large rucksack and solemnly offered her a Quaker Oats Peanut Butter Bar.

It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races randomly thrown together. Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini U. N. summit in here. Whatever were all these people planning to do in India?

Uma herself was going to India because of her parents' folly. They had come to the United States some twenty years back as young professionals, when Uma was a child. They had loved their jobs, plunging enthusiastically into their workdays. They had celebrated weekends with similar gusto, getting together (in between soccer games and Girl Scout meetings and Bharatnatyam classes for Uma) with other suburbanite Indian families. They had orchestrated elaborate, schizophrenic meals (mustard fish and fried bitter gourd for the parents; spaghetti with meatballs and peach pie for the children) and bemoaned the corruption of Indian politicians. In recent years, they had spoken of moving to San Diego to spend their golden years by the ocean (such nice weather, perfect for our old bones). Then, in a dizzying volte-face that Uma considered most imprudent, her mother had chosen early retirement and her father had quit his position as a senior administrator for a computer company to accept a consultant's job in India. Together, heartlessly, they had leased out their house (the house where Uma was born!) and returned to their hometown of Kolkata.

"But all these years you complained about how terrible Kolkata was," Uma had cried, aghast, when they called to inform her of their decision. Apart from her concern for their well-being, she was vexed at not having been consulted. "The heat, the dirt, the noise, the crowded buses, the beggars, the bribes, the diarrhea, the bootlicking, the streets littered with garbage that never got picked up. How are you going to handle it?"

To which her mother had replied, with maddening good humor, "But sweetie, all that has changed. It's a different India now, India Shining!"

And perhaps it was, for hadn't her parents glided effortlessly into their new life, renting an air-conditioned terrace-top flat and hiring a retinue of servants to take care of every possible chore? ("I haven't washed a single dish since I moved here!" her mother rhapsodized on the phone.) A chauffeured car whisked her father to his office each morning. ("I only work from ten to four," he added proudly from the other phone.) It returned to take her mother shopping, or to see childhood friends, or to get a pedicure, or (before Uma could chide her for being totally frivolous) to volunteer with an agency that educated slum children. In the evenings her parents attended Rabindra Sangeet concerts together, or watched movies on gigantic screens in theaters that resembled palaces, or walked hand in hand (such things were accepted in India Shining) by the same lake where they had met secretly as college students, or went to the club for drinks and a game of bridge. They were invited out every weekend and sometimes on weeknights as well. They vacationed in Kulu Manali in the summer and Goa in the winter.

Uma was happy for her parents though secretly she disapproved of their newly hedonistic lifestyle. (Yet how could she object when it was so much better than what she often saw around her: couples losing interest in each other, living in wooden togetherness or even breaking up?) Was it partly that she felt excluded? Or was it that by contrast her university life, which she had been so proud of, with its angst-filled film festivals, its cafes where heated intellectual discussions raged late into the night, its cavernous libraries where one might, at any moment, bump into a Nobel Laureate, suddenly appeared lackluster? She said nothing, waiting in a stew of anxiety and anticipation for this honeymoon with India to be over, for disillusion and dyspepsia to set in. A year passed. Her mother continued as blithe as ever, though surely she must have faced problems. Who doesn't? (Why then did she conceal them from Uma?) Now and then she urged Uma to visit. "We'll go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal together — we're saving it for you," she would say. Or, "I know the best ayurvedic spa. They give sesame oil massages like you wouldn't believe." In a recent conversation, she'd said, twice, "We miss you. Why don't you come visit? We'll send you a ticket."

There had been something plaintive about her voice that struck Uma in the space just below her breastbone. She had missed her parents, too. Though she had always decried touristic amusements, suddenly she felt a desire to see the Taj Mahal. "I'll come for winter break," she promised rashly.

"How long is that?"

"Six weeks."

"Six weeks! Lovely!" her mother said, restored to buoyancy. "That should give us enough time. Don't forget, you'll need a new visa — you haven't been to India in ages. Don't mail them your passport — that takes forever. Go into the office yourself. You'll have to wait a bit, but you'll get it the same day."

Only after she had hung up did Uma realize that she had failed to ask her mother, enough time for what? She also realized that her boyfriend Ramon, whom her parents knew and had always treated affably (her father had even given him an Indian nickname, Ramu), had not been included in the invitation.

She might have let it pass — tickets to India, were, after all, expensive — but then there was that other conversation, the one where Uma had said, "It's a good thing you haven't sold the house. This way, if things don't work out, you'll have a place to come back to."

"Oh no, sweetie," her mother had replied. "We love it in India — we knew we would. The house is there for you, in case — ."

Then her mother had caught herself deftly in mid-sentence and changed the subject, leaving Uma with the sense that she had been about to divulge something she knew Uma was not ready to hear.

Minutes before the second rumble, Uma felt a craving to see the sun. Had the gossamer fog that draped the tops of the downtown buildings when she arrived that morning lifted by now? If so, the sky would be bright as a Niles lily; if not, it would glimmer like fish-scales. Suddenly she needed to know which it was. Later she would wonder at the urgency that had pulled her out of her chair and to her feet. Was it an instinct like the one that made zoo animals moan and whine for hours before natural disasters struck? She shouldered her bag and stepped toward the door. A few more seconds and she would have pushed it open, run down the corridor and taken the stairs up to the first floor two at a time, rushing to satisfy the desire that ballooned inside of her. She would have been outside, lifting her face to the gray drizzle that was beginning to fall, and this would have been a different story.

But as she turned to go, the door to Mr. Mangalam's office opened. A man hurried out, clutching his passport with an air of victory, and brushed past Uma. The woman in the blue sari picked up the stack of applications and disappeared into Mr. Mangal's office through the side door. She had been doing that every hour or so. For what? Uma thought, scowling. All the woman needed to do was call out the next name in the pile. Uma had little hope that that name would be hers, but she paused, just in case.

It was a good time to phone Ramon. If she were lucky, she would catch him as he walked across the Student Union plaza from the class he taught to his laboratory, wending his way between drummers and dim sum vendors and doomsday orators. Once in the laboratory, he would turn the phone off, not wanting to be distracted. He was passionate about his work, Ramon. Sometimes at night when he went to the lab to check on an experiment, she would accompany him just so she could watch the stillness that took over his body as he tested and measured and took notes. Sometimes he forgot she was there. That was when she loved him most. If she got him on the phone now, she would tell him this.

But the phone would not cooperate. No Service, the small, lighted square declared.

The man with the ear studs looked over and offered her a sympathetic grimace. "My phone has the same problem," he said. "That's the trouble with these downtown buildings. Maybe if you walk around the room, you'll find a spot where it works."

Phone to her ear, Uma took a few steps forward, though not with much hope. It felt good to stretch her legs. She watched the woman emerge from Mr. Mangal's office, shaking out the creases of her sari, looking like she had bitten into something sour. Uncharitably, Uma hoped that Mr. Mangalam had rebuked her for making so many people wait for so many unnecessary hours. The phone gave a small burp against her ear. But before she could check if it was working, the rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building's foundations and roared. The floor buckled, throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room at Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm. People were screaming. Feet ran by her, then ran back again. She tried to wedge herself beneath one of the chairs, as she had been taught long ago in grade school, but only her head and shoulders would fit. The cell-phone was still in her other hand, pressed against her ear. Was that Ramon's voice asking her to leave a message, or was it just her need to hear him?

Above her the ceiling collapsed in an explosion of plaster. Beams broke apart with the sound of gigantic bones snapping. A light fixture shattered. For a moment, before the electricity failed, she saw the glowing filaments of the naked bulb. Rubble fell through the blackness, burying her legs. Her arm was on fire. She cradled it against her chest. (A useless gesture, when she would probably die in the next minutes.) Was that the sound of running water? Was the basement they were in flooding? She thought she heard a beep, the machine ready to record her voice. Ramon, she cried, her mouth full of dust. She thought of his long, meticulous fingers, how they could fix anything she broke. She thought of the small red moles on his chest, just above the left nipple. She wanted to say something important and consoling, something for him remember her by. But she could think of nothing, and then her phone went dead.

From One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright 2010 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Reprinted with permission by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion. All rights reserved.

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