It’s a long way to canterbury

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IF THERE’S one thing would-be authors could stand to learn from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 20- year literary career, it’s her uncanny ability to churn out products. Her latest novel, One Amazing Thing, revisits the fundamentals of the Divakaruni method: invoke a sense of exuberant melodrama and shameless sentimentality unencumbered by the likes of subtlety or understatement — with an almost bewildering efficiency. Before they can even realise it, readers are dosed with enough bite-sized bromides to stun a horse.

Taking an ambitious cue from The Canterbury Tales, Divakaruni recasts the pilgrims as nine men and women trapped in an Indian visa office in the US after an earthquake brings the building down around them — two south Indian immigrants in their 30s or 40s, two young Indo-Americans, an Indo-Chinese grandmother-granddaughter duo, a WASPy couple in their 70s, and one black man. To keep their spirits up as the hope of rescue dims, they tell each other “one amazing thing” about their lives.

Though a clever conceit rendered skillfully, the characters are steamrolled paper-thin and the prevailing sensibility is that of the author’s own voice telling somebody else’s story. That Cameron — the black army veteran from an inner-city ghetto struggling to face up to a life-altering decision he took as a young man — sounds no different from Malathi, a sari-clad ex-beauty salon worker from Coimbatore now working as an office assistant, is confounding and inexplicable.

After a promising build-up, the characters’ uninspired ‘amazing things’ are doubly disappointing — angry young Muslim Tariq’s flirtation with the hardline is simply the product of post-9/11 anti-Islam paranoia; Jiang, the Indiaborn grandmother, fled Kolkata amid anti-China sentiments during the 1962 Sino- Indian War and her family handed over to a US-bound professional, who she learnt to love and eventually had children with; the unstable Mrs Pritchett has developed an antidepressant addiction and attempted suicide because she felt her husband didn’t love her enough.

ONE AMAZING THING
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni
Penguin
224 pp; Rs 450

This parade of monotony dressed up in worn platitudes is a frustrating dead end: Divakaruni has something interesting to say about the scars of personal experience — and how age and perception affect one’s understanding of life-changing moments — but remains silent. Her reluctance to complicate the narrative framework, offering easy truisms instead, is frustrating and undercuts any momentum the book threatens to build up — Mr Pritchett’s troubled childhood, for example.

The rapidfire pacing races through the story, as if it can’t wait to get to the end. Somewhere along the line, it forgets where it even began — that’s when some might begin to hope for a final aftershock to shake some life back into this workmanlike effort.

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