The latest offering from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - it is a set of short stories strung together with a common narrative much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that is referenced in this book.
The basic setting of the book is that nine people are trapped in the basement of an Indian Consulate in the US during an earthquake. With limited supplies of food, oxygen and light and unable to get out themselves, they are forced to rely on each other to keep up their spirits and morale.
Uma, born of Indian parents in the USA (who needs a visa to visit India), suggests that they tell each other a story of "One Amazing Thing" that happened in their lives.
The initial sketchy characters reveal the depths of their layers as each tale unfolds.
What is really interesting to me is how Divakaruni has tried to shed light on the same issue from different perspectives. Take for instance, the heavy book that Uma carries with her to the consulate, that she needs to review for her class and hopes to read while making use of the time spent waiting at the consulate. Malathi, a recent arrival from small town India to USA, to work at a secretarial level at the Consulate interprets it as a brash young girl, trying to show off her college education.
It is these insights into the various individual interpetations of events based on each characters past experiences that makes this book a fascinating read.
An ex-army vet, a second generation Indian muslim in a post 9/11 America, an estranged American couple, Uma, Malathi, an Indian Chinese emigrant and her talented grand-daughter (who didn't even know that her grandmother spoke English!) and an Indian bureaucrat at the Consulate. Each brings a different tale to the table.
Some are touching for their bravery, some bring understanding, some leave more questions than before. Romance, courage, hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, promise, hope - no matter what the underlying theme of their story is, each one is a powerful tale taking the readers and the listeners on a journey to a different time and place.
The book is an easy read, but the stories stay with you for awhile because they are human and touching.
There has been some criticism of this book in the USA as to why the trapped individuals wasted their time telling tales instead of brainstorming their way out of the situation. I think that stems from the stereotypical way each culture reacts. In General, Americans are action-oriented and the host of disaster movies from Hollywood have heroes whose sole focus is on rescuing themselves and those closest to them. Indians are more pragmatic/fatalistic in their actions and if initial efforts aren't successful, then further consequences are left for a higher power to decide.
The ending is a bit abrupt and doesn't tie up all the loose ends. But isn't that what life is like?
Also published on desicritics.org