When the “big one” (for me) hit on October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m., I was alone in our house, which sat on Blueberry Hill near the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was barely a few miles from the epicenter of the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake. I don’t know how I got out of the house, but I did tumble into our street. I was reading (and never stopped clutching) Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey which will forever be my “earthquake book.“ By December, we had not only left California, we had left the country, settling in for the first of our two London adventures.
Reading Chitra Divakaruni‘s latest was a visceral, haunting experience. A violent earthquake in an unnamed U.S. city looms large, its aftereffects and aftershocks almost a character itself. Amazingly enough, the book which debuts today, was written long before the too-recent tragic earthquake disaster in Haiti. As Divakaruni wrote her novel, Queen of Dreams, in response to 9/11, she imagined One Amazing Thing after surviving Hurricane Rita: “I saw people around me responding in many different ways,” she writes in a Q&A sent with the book from the publisher. “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 supplies of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to write about this phenomenon.”
Trapped in the basement visa office of the Indian consulate, nine men and women gather their strength, both physically and mentally, in order to survive the devastating earthquake that wipes out all contact with the outside world. Two characters emerge as the group’s leaders: Cameron, an African American Vietnam veteran still fighting demons, is the most qualified to deal with the group’s physical safely, while Uma, an Indian American graduate literature student inspired by the heavy copy of The Canterbury Tales she carries in her backpack, turns to storytelling to distract the group’s growing anxiety. “‘We can take our stress out on one another,’” she admonishes after a desperate violent incident, ‘… or we can focus our minds on something compelling … we can each tell an important story from our lives.’” Uma assures her desperate audience, “‘I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.’”
And so the stories unfold … Grandmother Jiang’s first love in the Chinese quarter of Calcutta, Mr. Pritchett’s beloved kitten that shuts down his little-boy heart, Malathi’s gleefully brave revenge on an abusive wealthy woman, Tariq’s first-hand experience of post-9/11 injustice against his innocent family, Lily’s discovery of her prodigious musical talent, Mangalam’s emotional destruction, Mrs. Pritchett’s longing to escape her overprivileged life … and finally Cameron’s desperate search for a lost child and Uma’s own need to understand true, lasting love.
As the waters rise, the gas leaks, and disappointments prove almost crippling, nine strangers who once expected to change their lives in faraway India, share a life-altering experience right here at home …
One tiny quibble … someone please let me know if I’ve read this incorrectly on page 5, about Uma’s parents: “They had come to the United Sates some twenty years back as young professionals, when Uma was a child.” And then further down on the same page describing Uma’s parents reverse immigration back to India: “Together, heartlessly, they had rented out their house (the house where Uma was born!) and returned to their hometown of Kolkata.” So Uma is an Indian-born immigrant, or she’s an American-born native? Seems to somehow be both, no?
Tidbit: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is our very first confirmed guest for SALTAF 2010 [South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival]. This year, the fabulous event happens on Saturday, November 13. Mark your calendars now. No excuses! We’ll be expecting you!