Poet, short-story writer and novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni cut her teeth listening to her grandfather tell tales from the ancient Indian epics — the Ramayana and Mahabharata — by lantern light in his Bengali village. This storytelling legacy shines brightly in her entrancing new novel, One Amazing Thing, in which nine people in the passport office in the basement of the Indian Consulate in San Francisco are yoked together by fate when an earthquakes hits.
Uma, a sharply observant graduate student awaiting a visa to visit her retired parents in "shining India," mistakes the quake's first tremor for a cable car. She notes the sour-faced young Indian woman at the reception desk, gatekeeper for the passport officer, and the others in the waiting room: a Caucasian couple in their 60s; a young man, about 25, whom she takes for Indian (Tariq is, in fact, Muslim-American, and unsettled by how he is perceived after Sept. 11); a Chinese women with her teenage granddaughter. Divakaruni writes: "It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races randomly thrown together. Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini U.N. summit."
As the quake hits with full force, Divakaruni moves effortlessly from one character to another, and across a spectrum of raw feeling: panic; pain; antagonism; selfishness. She reveals intimate details and sensual reactions so vivid you feel as if you're with each of them in the room.
The survivors are held together by the guidance of Cameron, a lanky, African-American Vietnam vet, who times his suggestions — gathering bowls of water from the bathroom sink, sharing the little food they have, keeping their feet above the floor when the place begins to flood — to the intervals between the five remaining doses on his asthma inhaler.
Page after page, tensions escalate. As the group grows desperate, the men begin to tussle. "It was like their very own Lord of the Flies," Uma thinks. To calm them, she challenges each to describe "one amazing thing" that has happened in their lives.
Divakaruni embeds the last two-thirds of her novel with narrative gems that bring the nine survivors back to the bedrock of human connection. Trapped strangers are transformed into a chorus of Scheherazades, offering up tales of loss and love, and betrayal and redemption, to illuminate the gathering darkness.