Following an earthquake severe enough to damage the building containing the Indian consulate nine people are trapped in the visa office located in its basement. Seven of them are there to apply for an Indian visa, two are the last remaining office workers. One of the applicants, a student of Medieval Literature, has brought her copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with her. This suggests to her the idea of having each of the trapped people tell a story, some encounter with one amazing thing that may help to pass the time and keep their minds off the stifling conditions and the increasing mortal danger. As in Chaucer’s poem all of these characters come from disparate backgrounds and are on a pilgrammage (of sorts). The multicultural background of these characters creates a microcosm of the world in a room, a stationary Pequod in which human frailty and the universality of suffering seems never to deter the quest for happiness or our incessant search for meaning.
As they tell their tales, some with an autumnal poignance that is like the fast dying light of the early setting sun, others that are filled with an anger and bitterness that seems to increasingly typify an alternate American experience for those caught in the snare of recent history, we discern something deeper in the manner in which the author lets these stories unfold. As the characters struggle on the knife-edge of calamity, living a nearly posthumous existence even as they try to fend off the darkness, we are engrossed in their past struggles as much as their current travails. Through Divakaruni’s creative alchemy we are drawn to the power of stories to reveal who we were, what we are and what we hope to become. As the darkness draws near, we watch these troubled lives begin their ghostly flickering, entombed in what one of them describes as a “damp mausoleum”. The author shows us with stunning simplicity and skill that after we die all that may remain are our stories. And for the solace they offer and the instruction they bring these stories need to be told as much as they need to be heard.
The story moves back and forth between the characters’ stories and the present situation in the office. As they struggle to survive the tension builds. They must put aside individual needs for the common good, and trust their lives to strangers. The result of this perfectly balanced story is like a literary symphony; it builds, swells to a taut crescendo, and leaves you haunted by the last echoing strains of the tale. As they struggle with whether to fight for survival or resign themselves to dying in the rubble, the stories provide both a distraction and a reason to keep going.
One Amazing Thing combines suspenseful action with a spiritual insight into matters of life and death. As the characters fight for survival, their passion for living and the crushing disappointments of their lives all come into play. In an easy-to-read light yet poetic prose, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s words flow with a simplicity that gets to the heart of the issues while leaving enough unsaid to allow the reader’s imagination to enter the story. While one scene flows naturally to the next, the chapter and sub-chapter divisions within the narrative work at odds with the natural flow of the story. The breaks do not always correspond to the speaking voice or to specific events. Quite frankly, the text flows smoothly without all these divisions on account of the author’s skill so that at times the divisions seem superfluous or stop the smooth flow that would exist without them. The ending might not satisfy readers who prefer all questions resolved at the end, especially since the suspenseful plot drives forward towards the end, and yet others, like myself, might find the ending a most satisfying ending all the more so because it respects the almost mystical, spiritual dimension of life opened up by the characters’ stories.
The book keeps a reader glued to the pages, anxious to find out the fate of the characters but also wanting to never quite reach the ending in hopes of witnessing more revelations in the intimate look into the characters’ hearts. It is not a disaster survival book laden with physical how-to details nor are the fleeting portraits heavy in psychological detail. Rather,One Amazing Thing, like the moment it portrays, is a quick glance at a moment in time, a moment marked by points of spiritual and emotional conflict as the characters struggle to survive. Easily read within one sitting, the narrative satisfies a desire for a light read that nevertheless touches spirituality or something beyond the everyday reality, a spirituality that is not overly preachy or defined by division. Part of the charm of this story resides in the empty spaces and details that the author leaves up to the imagination of the reader.
One Amazing Thing; Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin India; Rs. 450