Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel explores human reactions to a devastating natural disaster
It’s difficult to fathom the unbelievable stories of heroism and endurance that have daily reached our ears since the massive earthquake hit Haiti a few weeks ago. But it should set us thinking that, if a quake of that magnitude were to strike here, would we be prepared? What would we do if a temblor more substantial than any we’ve seen in 200 years hit Santa Cruz County? Would we rise to the occasion, helping our friends and neighbors in the hour of need? Or would we cower alone, hoarding our food and water in a dark corner? Natural disasters are a sure-fire way of bringing out the true nature of individuals, as demonstrated in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new book, “One Amazing Thing.” Banerjee will be speaking about her new book at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 8 at Capitola Book Café. Though the exact location of where the story unfolds is never really mentioned, myriad clues lead this reader to believe (or at least imagine) that it takes place in San Francisco—earthquake central. It is a day like any other at the Indian Consulate, as a handful of people wait in line impatiently to receive their visas. Each looks at the other with suspicion and a curiosity about why that person is traveling to Southeast Asia. Suddenly a mighty earthquake strikes, trapping the strangers together and causing them to form an unlikely bond. There’s a graduate student struggling to determine the path her life will take; an elderly Chinese woman and her rebellious teenage granddaughter; a wealthy American couple experiencing a rough patch in their relationship; an African-American Vietnam War veteran going through post-traumatic stress syndrome; a young Muslim-American with a grudge against the world after 9/11; and two visa office employees who are on the verge of a torrid affair.
When it becomes apparent that the group is trapped and help is not on its way, Cameron, the Vietnam vet, takes the initiative to preserve the physical by collecting food, water and what inadequate medical supplies can be found in the office’s dilapidated first aid kit. But it is Uma, the graduate student, who attempts to calm the group’s frayed nerves by conjuring up the idea that everyone tells one amazing thing from their past as a way of distracting themselves from the disaster that has encapsulated them in darkness and imminently threatens their lives. As loves, losses and personal histories are slowly and vibrantly unveiled; each person gains a new awareness of themselves and of the others—causing a connection that seems to make the dire situation a little less stressful.
Divakaruni lives and works in Houston and her inspiration for the tome drew from her own experience of being forced to evacuate the Texas city as Hurricane Rita threatened to blow through in 2005. “As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralyzed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw people around me responding in many different ways,” Divakaruni shares in a recent interview. “The pressure brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling at people; others were sharing their meager supply of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to write about this phenomenon,” she concludes. In addition to “One Amazing Thing,” Divakaruni has written 14 other books including the acclaimed “The Mistress of Spices,” “The Palace of Illusions” and “Sister of my Heart,” many of which deal mainly with Indian history and culture and contain main characters that are Indian. But her new novel is nothing like her previous books, she says. “For one, unlike my other novels which have one or at most two protagonists, in “Amazing” all the characters are equally important, all their stories equally crucial to the creation of the community,” the author explains. “That is the point of the book: together, they help each other survive.” “One Amazing Thing” is also more multi-cultural than my other books … here, five of the nine characters are non-Indian,” she says.
What sustains someone through a life-threatening situation—whether praying, singing or recalling the face of a loved one—is as unique to the individual as his or her fingerprints and can be remarkably effective as we have seen from survivors from the Haitian quake that have been pulled out up to nearly two weeks after the fact. “One Amazing Thing” uses storytelling to sustain the souls of these nine unlikely comrades making this inspirational tale not only a captivating read but also a testament to the redeeming power of human love and connection.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415 or visit chitradivakaruni.com.
Photo Credit: Neela Banerjee