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DECEMBER 3, 1984 BHOPAL RAILWAY STATION BHOPAL, INDIA
I waited patiently for the first hour, and then I started to get impatient. The Bhopal Railway Station was abuzz with late-night activities. The homeless were wandering, begging for money and food; some people were waiting for their train to arrive and others, like me, were waiting for someone to pick them up, as the hands of the big dirty clock in front of me came together to welcome midnight.
I turned my wrist again to look at the watch my husband had given me after our wedding just a few months ago. It was a nice Titan watch, with a green background and red numbers and hands. It was a compulsive action to look at the watch, since I already knew what the time was.
Why wasn’t he here? He knew when I was getting back. He had bought the tickets himself. How could he have forgotten?
Soon the homeless stopped begging and started looking for places to settle in for the night. The Station Master used a long, thick wooden stick to prod the homeless, who were sleeping in front of his office and the waiting rooms, into moving. He was successful with some and unsuccessful with others. He looked at me curiously and then ignored me. He had probably seen many women wait for their husbands or loved ones at the railway station.
I flipped once again through the Femina magazine I had bought at the Hyderabad Railway Station. By now I had read all the articles and the short story, and the advertisements, but I looked through them once more to avoid staring at the dirty white clock or my beautiful watch.
“Memsaab, taxi?” a Sardarji taxi driver asked me.
I inched fartherback into the metal chair I was sitting on, grasping my purse tightly in my lap and moving my sari-clad leg to touch my small suitcase in a subconscious effort to protect it.
“No,” I said, and focused on the slightly crumpled pages of my magazine.
“Late in the night it is now, Memsaab.” Sardarji was undeterred by my casual refusal. “Not safe it is at the station.”
I let the fear of being accosted late in the night pass first. My husband would be here soon, I told myself. I thought up an excuse: His scooter must have broken down. I thought up another: The tire must have been punctured. It happened all the time on the bad roads of Bhopal.
“Where do you have to go?” Sardarji asked me.
I took a deep breath and looked at him. He didn’t look dangerous in the dim yellow lights of the railway station, but you can never tell by someone’s face what he is capable of.
“Bairagarh,” I said succinctly, and he moved away from me without comment. The EME Center was in Bairagarh and if I lived there, I was an army wife, and he probably didn’t want to mess with me.
I kept time with my shifting feet and the rustle of the oft-turned pages of the magazine, pages that didn’t look brand-new and glossy anymore, but were wrinkled like the ones roadside peanut vendors wrapped fried peanuts in. My eyes wandered to the entrance of the station, again and again looking for a familiar face.
I didn’t even know how to get in touch with my husband—we didn’t have a phone. Colonel Shukla did. I could call him, I thought, and then decided against it. How would it look if people knew my husband forgot to pick me up?
I turned my head when there was a small commotion at the other end of the station, and it started then. Slowly, but surely, it spread.
I became aware of it for the first time when I inhaled and felt my lungs being scratched by nails from the inside, like someone had thrown red chili powder into my nose. I took another breath and it didn’t change. I clasped my throat and closed my eyes as they started to burn and water. Something was wrong, my mind screamed wildly as I, along with the others, tried to seek a reason for the tainted air we were breathing.
Sardarji, who was standing nearby, looked at me, our eyes matching the panic that was spreading through the railway station. The homeless had started gathering their meager belongings, while others were standing up, moving, looking around, asking questions, trying to find out what could be done. Soon it became unbearable and the exodus began. People started to clamor to get out of the station. The entrance was jam-packed; heaving bodies slammed against each other as they tried to squeeze past the small entrance to save their lives. Some people jumped across the tracks to get to the other platform and look for an exit from there. People were everywhere, like scrounging ants looking for food.
“Taxi, Memsaab,” Sardarji cried out as he came toward me.
I didn’t question his generosity and picked up my suitcase and started to run along with him to the entrance. Our bodies joined the others as we looked for a small hole, a pathway, out of the railway station. People were running helter-skelter, trying to breathe. Something is wrong, I thought again, this time in complete panic, something about the air in the railway station is very wrong.
The struggle to get out of the station became harder because no one could breathe. My lungs felt like they would implode and even though I tried to suck in as much air as I could, it was not really air that I was breathing. It was something toxic, something acrid, something that was burning my insides and scratching my eyes. Each breath I took made me dizzy and the burning sensation, that terrible burning sensation, wouldn’t go away.
My suitcase and purse got lost somewhere in the crowd, but I was half-crazed with the need to breathe and forgot about them.
Sardarji was having trouble breathing as well. His voice was high-pitched and shaky and I could hear him hiss as he tried to breathe. He pointed in the direction of his taxi and we started running, pushing past people who just like us were trying to find a way out. It looked like every automobile in the city was out on the streets. The sound of honking vehicles mingled with the cries for help, while the city stood bright, lit up with car, scooter, and auto rickshaw headlights, like a bride covered in gold and diamonds just before her wedding.
“What’s happening?” someone screamed.
“Run, out of the city, out of the city!” someone else cried out.
We reached the taxi and as soon as we got inside, people clamored and banged at the car windows.
For once, compassion failed me. “Drive,” I said through my misery, and the engine mercifully started.
Navigating the taxi out of the crowded parking lot, where cars lay haphazardly like dead and wounded soldiers in a battlefield, proved to be difficult. Sardarji tried his best. The honking of his taxi joined the sounds of other impatient cars. It was getting increasingly difficult to drive. The crowds were blocking the way and our inability to breathe was not helping either.
I held the edge of my sari to my nose, hoping to dissipate some of the spice in the air, but nothing would make the air clean.
A few cars moved and we managed to get to the road, which could just as well have been a parking lot itself because the cars were not moving. As I struggled to stay alive, a new fear gripped me. Was my husband caught in this? I shuddered at the thought and prayed he had indeed forgotten to pick me up. But if he had come and picked me up when my train arrived two hours ago, we would have been safe. I would have been safe, my mind cried out.
“Memsaab, we will never get out of here,” Sardarji said, stumbling over the words. “Maybe we should get out of the car and run.”
“Run where?” I asked, hysteria sprinkled over my voice. “Where would we go?”
When he didn’t answer, I turned to him and saw him lying on the steering wheel. I shook him hard, screaming for him to wake up and drive us out of there.
He managed to straighten himself, but before he could step on the accelerator or drive into the space the car ahead of us had made, he collapsed on the steering wheel again, and this time I couldn’t wake him up.
My heart felt like it had stopped beating for an instant. I didn’t know how to drive; I had never learned. My husband and I didn’t even have a car. I wanted to help Sardarji, check on him, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t even breathe, and suddenly nothing seemed more important than breathing. I had taken it for granted all my life and now I couldn’t breathe without feeling my insides rip open against the onslaught of the spice in the air.
I opened the taxi door and pushed into the people who swarmed around the car. There was no relief for anyone.
Someone got into the taxi as soon as I left and I saw Sardarji’s lifeless body being pushed out of the driver’s seat onto the road.
I looked around as people jostled me, searching for a way out. People were running in all directions and I wondered, Which one was the right direction? Which direction gave you life? I moved aimlessly, going first in one direction and then in another. The world revolved around me in slow motion as my eyes started to shut on their own accord. I knew that I was going to join Sardarji.
It was then, when I was almost sure that I was going to die, that I saw an army Jeep, and it looked like a beacon of hope. I cried out for help, but my voice was drowned by the voices of others, screaming and yelling and demanding the gods for an answer.
I think the Jeep driver saw me first, and then someone from inside called out to me. They knew my name and they knew whose wife I was. I felt relief sweep through me, even as energy seeped out. Just like it happens in the movies, I quietly collapsed onto the asphalt road.
My eyes had trouble adjusting to the whiteness. Everything around me was white. But I knew I was not dead. I knew I was in a hospital because of the telltale smell of medicines. I lifted my hands but couldn’t see anything. I could feel there were tubes going into my nose and some were coming out of my hands. I felt like an octopus.
I wanted to talk, to ask someone what was going on, but my throat was clogged, and then I remembered in fuzzy detail the night I thought I had died. I breathed in with trepidation and was relieved to not feel any burning, but my lungs still felt full and heavy, as if water had been pumped into them.
I licked my dry lips and tried to speak. I called out for my husband and waited, but I wasn’t sure if I was making enough sound to attract his attention. I wasn’t even sure if anyone was near me. I could hear some voices at a distance, far away.
I could not concentrate clearly on anything, but I heard the faint voice of a newscaster saying something about a Union Carbide factory and some gas that had leaked into the city of Bhopal.
1. Amulya Malladi chose to use the Bhopal gas leak of 1984, which killed 3,800 people and permanently disabled thousands more, as the key event within A Breathof Fresh Air. Given the license of a fiction writer to invent tragedy, why would an author like Malladi decide to use a real event instead?
2. Does the reality behind such an event enhance or distract from the fictional story?
3. Do you, as the reader, hold the author to different standards of verisimilitude when such an event appears in a novel?
4. What is the effect of starting the novel with this terrifying event?
5. How does Anjali's role as the victim of such a tragedy change her life in subtle, unexpected ways (in addition to the major changes she experiences)?
6. What is the meaning behind the title, beyond the obvious allusion to the gas leak?
7. Malladi narrates her novel through three voices: those of Anjali, Sandeep, and Prakash. Why might she have made this decision as an author? What are some of the inherent benefits and risks of such a choice?
8. Do you, as the reader, find the voice of each different character convincing? Why or why not?
9. Think of another novel in which the author engages more than one narrative voice. In comparison to A Breath of Fresh Air, how does the author distinguish the different voices from one another, and do you find it as effective, less effective, or more effective?
10. Given that the author grants more space to Anjali's voice than to the voices of Prakash and Sandeep, did you find Anjali's way of telling the story to be the most sympathetic? Or did you want to hear more from either or both of the other two?
11. After the three major characters, which minor character
did you find most crucial to the story's central conflicts?
12. How did Anjali, Sandeep, and Prakash either maintain
or subvert traditional gender roles within modern Indian society?
13. What is the role of fantasy within the context of an arranged marriage such as Anjali's to Prakash? Once her fantasies are inverted, how do they continue to play a role in Anjali's life?
14. How does materialism affect each main character, and how does the author show its presence?
15. What is the range of emotions Anjali experiences after Prakash returns to her life, and how does the author illustrate each of these emotions?
Posted November 1, 2013
This book starts out great but eventually the storyline becomes a constant loop of the same musings. The repetition is boring. I love books that share Indian culture but there are many better ones out there.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 5, 2005
Posted August 12, 2004
Well, yes, it was a tearjerker (but then I'm no fan of Nicholas Sparks). Using three different characters--Anjali, her ex-husband, and her current husband--as chapter narrators was an interesting tactic, but overall, I don't think this book was very well written. Anjali, as an Indian woman who filed for divorce, struggled to get her education, and made independent choices, was the most unique character; the others were rather flat stereotypes. (OK, her husband washes dishes and folds the laundry, I'll give him that.) And I really hate it when books end with their own title. I've read tons of wonderful books by Indian ethnic writers, some of which I'll list below; unfortunately, this wasn't one of them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 1, 2003
I got this book because of a review I read in TIME magazine; and it was worth it. Amulya Malladi does a terrific job of telling the story from the point of views of different characters. She manages to tell the story of a woman caring for a dying child without making it too sentimental. I look forward to her next book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2003
I read this on the recommendation of a friend who usually provides good direction. I'll forgive her this time. First love/tragic incident/woman marries and has family/years later encounters first love from the past. The only unique factor about this novel is that the protagonist(s) are in India. Otherwise, I found the book to be sad, yet predictable. I expected something more rich. The book provides some insight into the Indian culture.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2003
This was a wonderful book. I read it during Christmas and I bawled at the end, even after I finished the book. The story is unique in the way in which it mixes the Union Carbide accident in Bhopal with a woman's life. I bought the book because of a great review of the book I'd read a while ago in the LA Times by Chitra Divakaruni (one of my favorite writers), and it was worth the money for a hardback.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 25, 2002
"A Breath of Fresh Air" is worth every minute. It is a book that you will not want to put down until you get to the end. The story of Anjali and her life makes you want to continue reading just ot find out what happens to her next. When I got to the end I felt sad I wish it had continued. I highly recommend this well written and lovely novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 28, 2002
I have read a lot of fiction from India/Pakistan in the past years and I must say that this is a really good book. It showed me a world I didn't even know existed. Loved the book and it opened my eyes to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and its effects. A must read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2002
Although the Bhopal disaster is the catalyst for this book, it is not the subject. The subject is the human heart. Love and loss, retribution and forgiveness, acceptance and rejection, power and vulnerability, strength and weakness¿these are the threads that make up the fabric of Anjali¿s story. In the course of the book Anjali grows from a pliant pretty obedient girl to a strong, but conflicted woman. If it is possible to forgive a thoughtless husband, how can one forget? Anjali¿s answer is to cut him out of her life. But how can one forgive that same husband for the sins he has visited on his innocent son? What do we do when the past returns to bump against the present? What does Anjali owe her son? What does she owe her quiet, steady second husband? What does she owe herself? A quiet book, but brimming with emotion, it gives us insight into some very complicated areas of life. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2002
Posted June 11, 2002
Amulya Malladi has written a poignant and wonderful book. A Breath of Fresh Air resonates with the power of love and the strength of the human spirit. The story begins in the railway station of Bhopal, India on the night of December 3, 1984. Anjali, a young bride is forgotten at the railway station by her philandering, army officer husband, Prakash, on the fateful night of the Bhopal gas tragedy when deadly gas leaked out of a Union Carbide plant killing and maiming thousands in the city of Bhopal. Anjali survives, but her marriage does not. Years later, happily married, Anjali is haunted by the aftermath of the gas tragedy as she and her new husband, Sandeep, watch their son, Amar, struggle for his life. Amar is born with birth defects resulting from the Anjali¿s exposure to the deadly poison. When fifteen years later, Prakash reenters Anjali¿s life, she finds that she must now confront her unresolved feelings surrounding her prior marriage and scandalous divorce. Unwillingly, Prakash is also forced to acknowledge his part in the failure of his marriage and Amar¿s failing health. This is a wonderful debut novel. A sad story told in the voices of Anjali, Prakash and Sandeep. It has been a long time since a book made me cry and by the end of this one, I was sobbing. A must read for fans of fiction from India and those who love a good story from anywhere.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 27, 2002
When I first started reading this book it seemed so stark, so simply written and because of that I was surprised when I felt tears in my eyes as I read on. It is a short read, but a good one. The story is about a victim of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 when toxic gas came out of a Union Carbide factory and lots of people died. Anjali, the heroine of the story gets caught that night at the train station because her philandering husband forgets to pick her up. After she survives the gas tragedy she divorces her husband, Prakash, something that is not accepted by her family. After fifteen years when she is happily married to Sandeep and has a child, Amar, Prakash enters her life again. Amar is dying because he has diseases caused by Anjali¿s exposure to the toxic gas in Bhopal. With Prakash¿s entry everyone¿s universe starts to shift and Anjali, Sandeep and Prakash have to look inside themselves and face their insecurities and responsibilities. I liked this book very much. I didn¿t expect to like it when I started reading it but I did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 3, 2008
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Posted April 22, 2011
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