Nine people, nine stories, one disaster that is what this book is about. Towards the end of a normal work day, there are nine people remaining in the basement of the Indian Consulate waiting for their Visas. An old Chinese woman (Jiang) and her granddaughter (Lily), an angry Muslim man (Tariq), a guilt-ridden soldier (Cameron Grant), a middle-aged couple going through their own problems (Mr & Mrs. Pritchett), a young Indian girl(Uma Sinha), the Visa officer (Mangalam) and his assistant (Malathi).
Each of these people is waiting for an interview with Mr. Mangalam to get their visas so they can visit India (except Mangalam and Malathi of course). The way the author describes these characters is interesting, with the usual surplus of details that you find in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books. Different people belonging to different cultures, religions, race, genders and age.
As they each wait for the interview call, the time passes and towards the end of the day, while only our nine characters are left, an earthquake rumbles its way through the building. And with its usual characteristic, the earthquake manages to disrupt the sense of peace and safety in their lives. The soldier’s instinct in Cameron Grant takes over and he assesses the situation as well as he could with his soldier’s training. Most of them are well, except for Uma who has a fracture and Jiang who has a serious gash.
Like in any dire situation, people tend to turn against each other. Tariq questions Cameron’s command and let’s his anger against the American authority color his behavior. Mr & Mrs. Pritchett quarrel over her medication, of course, that’s been building up between them for days. Mangalam and Malathi have words, lashing out at each other to cover their own guilt. It is their prejudice against one another that results in this primarily. The author’s description of each shows how view each other and how this inflluences their opinions.
They are cut off from the world. Water and gas are slowly leaking into their surroundings. After failed attempts at getting out from the basement, they realize the futility of arguing and fighting and get together in an attempt to survive.
Once things are more peaceful and all frustration is vented out, the soldier suggests each of them tell an important story from their lives – the one amazing thing that they experienced. Jiang starts first. Even her granddaughter is surprised to learn that her grandmother knows English. A language that Jiang conveniently lets go off once she moves to America. Her story is about love, heartbreak, and living life even when things get tough.
He was burning up, babbling nonsense. Suddenly he went stiff. His eyes rolled back. I thought, He’s dying. My insides turned cold. Don’t die, don’t die, I shouted. I love you.
Maybe he heard me. His eyes cleared for a moment. He lifted a hand. I clutched it. But he was trying to pull it away. Then I understood. He wanted to stroke my hair. I bent over so he could do it. Who knows why, next day his fever was less. In a week he was better.
The next story is Mr. Pritchett’s. His story is about his childhood. His story gives his own wife a glimpse of what shaped him into the man he is. After him, Malathi narrates her story with Mangalam translating for her. Her tale is how she went from being a potential underage bride to coming all the way to America. She breaks the usual box that she would have fit into. She also breaks a few rules of her own along the way.
He finds a pie server in a bottom drawer, digs a hole in the junkyard, and buries the stiff kitten-body though he can hardly bear to touch it. He can’t eat anything the rest of the day or the next, but no one notices because he fixes his own meals. At night he lies in bed, going over the moment when he had last wedged the stick in the freezer door. How could it have fallen out? Had he been in a hurry? Had he been careless? Had someone followed him and pulled the stick out on purpose? Who would do something like that? There are no answers.
Next Tariq starts his tale. His story is that of how he grew up in a country that has begun to classify his people as anti-nationals. The confusion that this brings up in his mind leads him to find his own religion amongst other things. Then comes Lily’s story. Her story is of finding her own self.
All our characters are across different age groups. There is her grandmother, the oldest person in the room and then Lily, a school student, the youngest. Yet, each of their stories in important and endearing.
I started playing something sad that I’d heard in my head as I walked along the beach after my conversation with Mark. But as I made my way through it, I found out that it wasn’t sad all the way through. It had leaps and trills and a ribbon of joy that kept looping back. After a while, the other boys heard the music and wandered over and sat down, too. My boy (that’s how I thought of him) might have felt proprietary, because he scooted up and put his hand on my knee. He smelled like strawberry jam. I played the melody for a long time, discovering something new with each pass-through, and then it was time for us to go home.
As Mangalam begins his tale, the nine survivors are worse for wear. Strengths are depleted. Their will to survive is what keeps them going as a whole unit. Cameron, an asthmatic, is no more the once sharp commander but a man who has to rest to gain his strength and hope for the absence of another asthma attack. Each of them finds strength in the others.
“It was the only time in my life I did something brave,” Malathi said, “even though it was a big cost for me. I don’t think I can do that again. I am too selfish. So it is special to me.”
At the mention of selfishness, Mangalam’s head jerked up as though he had not expected her to confess to such a vice.
Mangalam’s tale is about his actions came back to haunt him and his escape from his life in India. He says it’s his Karma, which leads to Mrs. Pritchett’s tale. Hers is one mid-life crisis situation. One incident in her life makes her realise that all her life is filled with nothingness. She attempts suicide, yet here she sits with strangers telling them her deepest secrets.
“What do you mean, karma’s wheel?” said Mrs. Pritchett. She leaned across her husband toward Mr. Mangalam.
Next up Cameron tells us his story while he still has his strength. His young love and how he lets it go to make a better life for himself. His guilt over an incident pulls him down and he becomes a soldier. He then ends up sponsoring a child in India, whom he is going to visit.
When Cameron informed Seva, he was coming, he received an ecstatic note listing all the things she would take him to see once he arrived. He carried it around in his wallet.
Finally, Uma tells her story. Her story is of a revelation in her life. When the concept of security in her life is questioned, she makes some choices which then make her, literally, take an about turn and come back to where she left off.
“You telling the truth? People lie to me all the time. I’m sick of it. I want the truth about this one thing before I die.”
“I’m telling you,” Uma said. “It was an aurora.”
While each of them narrates their stories the other give us a glimpse of an incident in their life. It makes sense when we read their stories. Like every one of us, they have experienced, guilt, jealousy, love, hatred, loathing, despair, happiness and doubt. With the telling of each tale, these nine people look into themselves and come to empathise with someone in the tale. Eventually, they all understand where they come from and the others as well. They come to realise that these emotions that they experience are all experienced by others as well. Like Tariq says, “Now, I don’t feel so alone.”
I think One Amazing Thing brings out the fact that we are never without secrets. Like Lily who learns of her grandmother’s English skills, or Mr & Mrs. Pritchett coming to know of their secrets. These are examples of how we go a lifetime holding some secrets close to our hearts and they remain there in the deep dark corners for eternity.
Once the mask that we show the world comes off, we are basically the same. Vulnerable humans, who want some sort of validation in our life. Some seek love and affection, for others, it’s just acceptance. But in essence its all the same. This is what the book is about.
Like in her usual style, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni leaves us guessing as to how the story as a whole and each individual’s tale ends. It is upon us and our wild imaginations to go forth and take it further. Every situation is described in such detail that we can well imagine the surrounding smells and sights. We can hear the sounds of water creeping in or the ceiling rumbling. We can smell the hibiscus oils from the saloon that Malathi worked in. We can taste the desperation and feel the hope and despair of these nine people. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is indeed a marvelously gifted story-teller.
I wouldn’t say it is her best work, but it is definitely worth a read.