One Amazing Thingby Chitra Divakaruni
Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11.… See more details below
Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.
When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There's little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, "one amazing thing" from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself. From Chitra Divakaruni, author of such finely wrought, bestselling novels as Sister of My Heart, The Palace of Illusions, and The Mistress of Spices, comes her most compelling and transporting story to date. One Amazing Thing is a passionate creation about survival--and about the reasons to survive.
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One Amazing Thing
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
HyperionCopyright © 2009 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen the first rumble came, no one in the visa office, down in the basement of the Indian consulate, thought anything of it. Immersed in regret or hope or trepidation (as is usual for persons planning a major journey), they took it to be a passing cable car. Or perhaps the repair crew that had draped the pavement outside with neon-orange netting, making entry into the building a feat that required significant gymnastic skill, had resumed drilling. Uma Sinha watched a flake of plaster float from the ceiling in a lazy dance until it disappeared into the implausibly green foliage of the plant that stood at attention in the corner. She watched, but she didn't really see it, for she was mulling over a question that had troubled her for the last several weeks: Did her boyfriend, Ramon (who didn't know where she was right now), love her more than she loved him, and (should her suspicion that he did so prove correct) was that a good thing?
Uma snapped shut her copy of Chaucer, which she had brought with her to compensate for the Medieval Lit class she was missing at the university. In the last few hours she had managed to progress only a page and a half into "The Wife of Bath's Tale"-despite the fact that the bawdy, cheerful Wife was one of her favorite characters. Now she surrendered to reality: the lobby of the visa office, with all its comings and goings, its calling out of the names of individuals more fortunate than herself, was not a place suited to erudite endeavors. She surrendered with ill grace-it was a belief of hers that people ought to rise above the challenges of circumstance-and glared at the woman stationed behind the glassed-in customer-service window. The woman was dressed in a blue sari of an electrifying hue. Her hair was gathered into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and she wore a daunting red dot in the center of her forehead. She ignored Uma superbly, as people do when faced with those whose abject destinies they control.
Uma did not trust this woman. When she had arrived this morning, assured of a nine a.m. appointment, she found several people swirling around the lobby, and more crowding behind, who had been similarly assured. When questioned, the woman had shrugged, pointing to the pile upon which Uma was to place her paperwork. Clients, she told Uma, would be called according to the order of arrival for their interview with the visa officer. Here she nodded reverently toward the office to the side of the lobby. Its closed door bore the name Mr. V.K.S. Mangalam stenciled in flowery letters on the nubby, opaque glass. Craning her neck, Uma saw that there was a second door to the office, a blank wooden slab that opened into the sequestered employees area: the customer-service window and, behind it, desks at which two women sorted piles of official-looking documents into other piles and occasionally stamped them. The woman at the counter pursed her lips at Uma's curiosity and frostily advised her to take a seat while there was one still available.
Uma sat. What else could she do? But she resolved to keep an eye on the woman, who looked entirely capable of shuffling the visa applications around out of bored caprice when no one was watching.
* * *
NOW IT WAS THREE P.M. A FEW MINUTES EARLIER, THE WOMEN at the desks had left on their midafternoon break. They had asked the woman in the blue sari if she wanted to accompany them, and when she had declined, stating that she would take her break later, they had dissolved into giggles and whispers, which she chose to disregard. There remained four sets of people in the room, apart from Urea. In the distant corner was an old Chinese woman dressed in a traditional tunic, accompanied by a fidgety, sullen girl of thirteen or fourteen who should surely have been in school. The teenager wore her hair in spikes and sported an eyebrow ring. Her lipstick was black and so were her clothes. Did they allow students to attend school dressed like that nowadays? Uma wondered. Then she felt old-fashioned. From time to time, grandmother and granddaughter fought in fiery whispers, words that Uma longed to decipher. She had always been this way: interested-quite unnecessarily, some would say-in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them. Now she made up the dialogue she could not understand.
I missed a big test today because of your stupid appointment. If I fail Algebra, just remember it was your fault-because you were too scared to ride the bus here by yourself
Whose fault was it that you overslept six times this month and didn't get to school for your morning classes, Missy? And your poor parents, slaving at their jobs, thinking you were hard at work! Maybe I should tell them what really goes on at home while they're killing themselves to provide for you....
"But sweetie, all that has changed. It's a different India now, India Shining!"
And perhaps it was, for hadn't her parents glided effortlessly into their new life, renting an air-conditioned terrace-top flat and hiring a retinue of servants to take care of every possible chore? ("I haven't washed a single dish since I moved here!" her mother rhapsodized on the phone.) A chauffeured car whisked her father to his office each morning. ("I work only from ten to four," he added proudly from the other phone.) It returned to take her mother shopping, or to see childhood friends, or to get a pedicure, or (before Uma could chide her for being totally frivolous) to volunteer with an agency that educated slum children. In the evenings her parents attended Rabindra Sangeet concerts together, or watched movies on gigantic screens in theaters that resembled palaces, or walked hand in hand (such things were accepted in India Shining) by the same lake where they had met secretly as college students, or went to the club for drinks and a game of bridge. They were invited out every weekend and sometimes on weeknights as well. They vacationed in Kulu Manali in the summer and Goa in the winter.
Uma was happy for her parents, though secretly she disapproved of their newly hedonistic lifestyle. (Yet how could she object when it was so much better than what she often saw around her: couples losing interest in each other, living in wooden togetherness or even breaking up?) Was it partly that she felt excluded? Or was it that by contrast her university life, which she had been so proud of, with its angst-filled film festivals, its cards where heated intellectual discussions raged late into the night, its cavernous libraries where one might, at any moment, bump into a Nobel laureate, suddenly appeared lackluster? She said nothing, waiting in a stew of anxiety and anticipation for this honeymoon with India to be over, for disillusion and dyspepsia to set in. A year passed. Her mother continued as blithe as ever, though surely she must have faced problems. Who doesn't? (Why then did she conceal them from Uma?) Now and then she urged Uma to visit. "We'll go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal together-we're saving it for you," she would say. Or "I know the best ayurvedic spa. They give sesame oil massages like you wouldn't believe." In a recent conversation, she'd said, twice, "We miss you. Why don't you come visit? We'll send you a ticket."
There had been something plaintive about her voice that struck Uma in the space just below her breastbone. She had missed her parents, too. Though she had always decried touristic amusements, she felt a sudden desire to see the Taj Mahal. "I'll come for winter break," she promised rashly.
"How long is that?"
"Six weeks! Lovely!" her mother said, restored to buoyancy. "That should give us enough time. Don't forget, you'll need a new visa-you haven't been to India in ages. Don't mail them your passport-that takes forever. Go to the office yourself. You'll have to wait a bit, but you'll get it the same day."
Only after she had hung up did Uma realize that she had failed to ask her mother, Enough time for what? She also realized that her boyfriend, Ramon, whom her parents had treated affably once they got over the shock of learning that he and Uma were living together (her father had even given him an Indian nickname, Ramu), had not been included in the invitation.
She might have let it pass-tickets to India, were, after all, expensive-but there was that other conversation, when Uma had said, "It's a good thing you haven't sold the house. This way, if things don't work out, you'll have a place to come back to."
"Oh no, sweetie," her mother had replied. "We love it in India-we knew we would. The house is there for you, in case-"
Then her mother had caught herself deftly in midsentence and changed the subject, leaving Urea with the sense that she had been about to divulge something she knew Urea was not ready to hear.
MINUTES BEFORE THE SECOND RUMBLE, UMA FELT A CRAVING TO see the sun. Had the gossamer fog that draped the tops of the downtown buildings when she arrived that morning lifted by now? If so, the sky would be bright as a Niles lily; if not, it would glimmer like fish scales. Suddenly she needed to know which it was. Later she would wonder at the urgency that had pulled her out of her chair and to her feet. Was it an instinct like the one that made zoo animals moan and whine for hours before natural disasters struck? She shouldered her bag and stepped toward the door. A few more seconds and she would have pushed it open, run down the corridor, and taken the stairs up to the first floor two at a time, rushing to satisfy the desire that ballooned inside her. She would have been outside, lifting her face to the gray drizzle that was beginning to fall, and this would have been a different story.
But as she turned to go, the door to Mr. Mangalam's office opened. A man hurried out, clutching his passport with an air of victory, and brushed past Uma. The woman in the blue sari picked up the stack of applications and disappeared into Mr. Mangalam's office through the side door. She had been doing that every hour or so. For what? Uma thought, scowling. All the woman needed to do was call out the next name in the pile. Uma had little hope that that name would be hers, but she paused, just in case.
It was a good time to phone Ramon. If she was lucky, she would catch him as he walked across the Student Union plaza from the class he taught to his laboratory, wending his way between drummers and dim sum vendors and doomsday orators. Once in the laboratory, he would turn the phone off, not wanting to be distracted. He was passionate about his work, Ramon. Sometimes at night when he went to the lab to check on an experiment, she would accompany him just so she could watch the stillness that took over his body as he tested and measured and took notes. Sometimes he forgot she was there. That was when she loved him most. If she got him on the phone now, she would tell him this.
But the phone would not cooperate. NO SERVICE, the small, lighted square declared.
The man with the ear studs looked over and offered her a sympathetic grimace. "My phone has the same problem," he said. "That's the trouble with these downtown buildings. Maybe if you walk around the room, you'll find a spot where it works."
Phone to her ear, Uma took a few steps forward. It felt good to stretch her legs. She watched the woman emerge from Mr. Mangalam's office, shaking out the creases of her sari, looking like she had bitten into something sour. Uncharitably, Uma hoped that Mr. Mangalam had rebuked her for making so many people wait for so many unnecessary hours. The phone gave a small burp against her ear, but before she could check if it was working, the rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building's foundation and roared. The floor buckled, throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room toward Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm. People were screaming. Feet ran by her, then ran back again. She tried to wedge herself beneath one of the chairs, as she had been taught long ago in grade school, but only her head and shoulders would fit. The cell phone was still in her other hand, pressed against her ear. Was that Ramon's voice asking her to leave a message, or was it just her need to hear him?
Above her, the ceiling collapsed in an explosion of plaster. Beams broke apart with the sound of gigantic bones snapping. A light fixture shattered. For a moment, before the electricity failed, she saw the glowing filaments of the naked bulb. Rubble fell through the blackness, burying her legs. Her arm was on fire. She cradled it against her chest. (A useless gesture, when she would probably die in the next minutes.) Was that the sound of running water? Was the basement they were in flooding? She thought she heard a beep, the machine ready to record her voice. Ramon, she cried, her mouth full of dust. She thought of his long, meticulous fingers, how they could fix anything she broke. She thought of the small red moles on his chest, just above the left nipple. She wanted to say something important and consoling, something for him to remember her by. But she could think of nothing, and then her phone went dead.
Chapter TwoThe dark was full of women's voices, keening in a language he did not know, so that at first he thought he was back in the war. The thought sucked the air from his lungs and left him choking. There was dirt on his tongue, shards under his fingertips. He smelled burning. He moved his hands over his face, over the uneven bones of his head, the stubble coming in already, the scar over his eyebrow that told him nothing. But when he touched the small, prickly stones in his ears, he remembered who he was.
I am Cameron, he said to himself. With the words, the world as it was formed around him: piles of rubble, shapes that might be broken furniture. Some of the shapes moaned. The voices-no, it was only one voice-fell into an inexorable rhythm, repeating a name over and over. After a while he was able to think past the droning. He checked his pants pockets. The right one held his inhaler. He pulled it out and shook it carefully. There were maybe five doses left. He saw in his mind the tidy cabinet in his bathroom, the new bottle waiting on the second shelf. He pushed away regret and anger, which for him had always been mixed together, and focused on positiveness the way the holy man would have, if he'd been stuck here. If Cameron was careful, five doses could last him for days. They would be out of here long before that.
His keys were in his left pocket. A mini-flashlight was strung through the chain. He stood and passed the pencil-thin ray over the room. A different part of his brain clicked into being, the part that weighed situations and decided what needed to be done. He welcomed it.
One part of the ceiling had collapsed. People would have to be kept as far as possible from that area in case more followed. Some folks were huddled under furniture along a wall. They could remain there for the moment. He searched for flames. Nothing. His mind must have conjured the burning smell from memory. He sniffed for the acrid odor that would signal a broken gas pipe and was satisfied that there were none nearby. Somewhere he could hear water falling in an uneven rhythm, starting and stopping and starting again, but the floor was dry. There were two figures at the door that led to the passage, trying to pull it open.
He sprang forward with a yell, shocking the weeper into silence. "Hey!" he shouted, though he knew noise was unsafe. "Stop! Don't open it! That's dangerous!" He sprinted as fast as he could through the rubble and grabbed their shoulders. The older man allowed himself to be pulled away, but the younger one flung him off with a curse and wrenched at the handle again.
A splinter of rage jabbed Cameron's chest, but he tried to keep his voice calm. "The door may be what's holding up this part of the room. If you open it suddenly, something else might collapse. Also, there may be a pile of rubble pressing against the door from the outside. If it's dislodged, who knows what could happen. We will try to open it-but we have to figure out how to do it right."
Something glistened on the young man's cheekbone. In the inadequate light, Cameron couldn't tell if it was blood or tears. But there was no mistaking the fury in his shoulders and arms, the lowered angle of his head. He came at Cameron, propelled by compressed fear. Cameron had seen men like him before. They could hurt you something serious. He stepped to the side and brought the edge of his hand down on the base of the man's skull-but carefully. Such a blow could snap the neck vertebrae. The men he had faced elsewhere would have known to twist away, to block with an upraised elbow. But this boy-that's how Cameron suddenly thought of him, a boy younger than his son would have been, had he lived-took the full force of the blow and fell facedown on the floor and stayed there. In the shadows someone whimpered, then stopped abruptly, as though a palm had been clapped over a mouth. Cameron massaged his hand. He was out of shape. He had let himself go intentionally, hoping never again to have to do things like what he had just done.
Excerpted from One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Copyright © 2009 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission.
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