Quake me a story

Lead review

Quake me a story

It’s story in the time of earthquake. The plot is time-tested: character revealed in the backdrop of a disaster. There is a whole genre of literature and cinema based on this. Also, a Scheherazade-like story-telling spree that pinpoints cornered characters caught in a life-threatening situation.

But Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni rises beyond clichés, delivering a novel with a minimalist style, skimming and diving, often deliberately lightening her touch so the trauma comes without drama, the nine narratives of old hurts stark against the tension of a present predicament.

In an American city, seven people are waiting in the visa office in preparation for an Indian visit. In his room, the visa officer has just kissed the assistant, trying to move closer towards an adulterous relationship. The others waiting outside are mixed fare: Cameron, an African-American Vietnam vet with an emotional injury; Uma, a young woman about to meet her parents in India; the Pritchetts, an old white couple on the constant verge of vocalising their mutual discord; Tariq, a sulky American Muslim of Indian origin whose life has been rocked by 9/11; and Jiang, a Chinese woman and her punkish teenage granddaughter, Lily. These nine people are trapped when the building is rocked by an earthquake: “... as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building’s foundation and roared”; and then: “The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it.”

There’s panic when they realise what has happened. Various parts of the building have fallen or are falling about them, ceiling, walls, fittings; they hear occasional sounds that make them even more uneasy. The ‘Nam vet, trained for emergencies, takes over, fighting his own debilitating asthma to get on top of the situation. He rations food, cautions them on what can and can’t be done, shields them from the sight of death, and generally steers them through each new crisis. His popularity doesn’t extend to the whole group since survival seeks sacrifice and self-control.
 
Sharing stories

Emotions run high, the tension and despair ruffling their relationships and temperaments. After a particularly unnerving fight, Uma suggests they focus their “minds on something compelling” rather than venting their stress on each other. She suggests they each tell a story, “one amazing thing” from their lives. Uma has been reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and invoking the pilgrims’ tales reminds us that these are people preparing for a journey (to India), but at this moment they’re not really sure where they’ll end up.
Unpredictable like most of her books, there’s no saying what Chitra Divakaruni will serve up next. Here, the easy, bare style unravels an often complex tale. The coming together of different races and experiences to unitedly wage a common struggle for survival demonstrates without strain the extent of possibility in today’s simmering world.

It is all there — the layers of acceptance and intolerance, the distrust based on race and religion, the unexpressed, simmering discontent within families; it simply needs something extraordinary to change their perspective and then further understand their own lives by holding them up for others to see.

Each of the nine survivors has “one amazing thing” to tell, which sometimes becomes a life revealed. Particularly fascinating is the story of Jiang, the old Chinese woman who first surprises her granddaughter by speaking in English and then reveals a love deeply hidden all these years. In the backdrop of the ‘62 Indo-China war, she falls in love with an Indian and pays the price of the political fallout.

Jiang’s wisdom, love and desperation, the quaint glimpse of life in Calcutta’s Chinese quarter where her family has a flourishing footwear business, the resumption of her story to add an epilogue — the awakening of love for her husband — make Jiang’s story stand out, approaching a classic retelling.

The last story is from Uma herself. It culminates in a spectacular aurora, a sky full of swirling colours on a wild, uncertain night. Uma later discovers that it was actually an industrial fire, but she persists in the myth to please a dying classmate. And thereby is established the raison d’être of the story-telling. It becomes clear that the stories have a more significant purpose than that of keeping the characters occupied and focussed; they are prescription medicine.

Each tale, bringing out an “amazing” essence of the narrator and his/her life, is a healing process for both teller and listeners; they are life-affirming, and in a situation like this, life-saving. The tales are so crucial, in fact, that the final solution seems less important to the characters as well as the author, and we have an equivocal ending that may not satisfy every reader.

Also, the characters, going beyond reticence and grumpiness, without exception, and with astonishing alacrity, open out to narrate intimate details of their lives with fairy-tale ease, a willingness that makes it easier for the book to complete its complex journey in a couple of hundred pages. It’s also strange to meet a Tamilian male character named Mangalam but, of course, there are names and names.

Despite this, One Amazing Thing works well. It is well-crafted and well-told, and it brings us closer to understanding human nature.

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