From the cave paintings of hunting scenes in French caves to hieroglyphs of planting and sacred rituals to tribal dances that tell stories, even to modern day poetry slams and support groups, human beings have always told stories about how we came to be or how we come to be who we are, or where we still plan to go. One of the most essentially human things a person can do is to shape a narrative about an event or feeling and share it with other people. It is therefore an especially touching tale that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has come up with in her 2009 novel One Amazing Thing, in which there are stories within the main frame story, stories which people not congregated around the age-old campfire or stove but trapped in a U. S. city passport office tell each other. They do this not just in order to pass the time, but also to align themselves with each other as survivors, and to attempt to rejoin the human tribe from which they are separated, they hope only temporarily.
Uma Sinha is a graduate student studying Medieval Literature; Malathi is an administrative clerk in the passport office where the group is isolated by an earthquake sealing off the building section they are in. V. K. S. Mangalam is her boss, an unhappily married man to and by whom she is alternately attracted and angered. An older Chinese woman and her teenage granddaughter are also there, the grandmother trapped behind the barrier of language which she must rely on her granddaughter to translate (or at least so they think). There’s also a mature Caucasian couple who are passing through the throes of an indifferent marital relationship; a young Indian Muslim man who to Uma seems to be “from one of the mountain tribes,” and a young African American man who has experience in the armed forces.
Uma’s voice is the main interpretative voice at first; then the story is seen as it progresses from several of the other characters’ perspectives, as they try to settle and soothe their wounds, get into conflicts over minor episodes between them, and finally give way to Uma’s suggestion. For, Uma suggests that they tell stories to each other, each telling about “one amazing thing” in their lives, in order to keep the time they share humane and ethical. They are all surprised when the first person amongst them to agree is the Chinese grandmother, Jiang. Cameron, the young African American, is meanwhile the tribal leader for the “tribe” of story-tellers made up of people from all different nations. He sets in motion the search for a safe way out, for adequate and clean water and sanitary facilities, and for a first aid kit. He also uses his experience in disasters to monitor the risky behavior of some of the others (for example, of Mr. Pritchett, who must have a smoke in this dangerously inflammatory setting), and helps keep them as calm as possible while they wait for rescue.
One pragmatically valuable thing that happens later on in the story is that Uma’s idea of story-telling brings the group together closely enough in their shared values that they become also more generous with their hidden and hoarded foodstuffs. Whereas before there had only been a small number of items to be shared out placed on the counter for food, suddenly previously unseen items begin to appear, and are shared out as well. Their time is becoming shorter, however, and is threatened by at least two things: Cameron, their “leader,” who has asthma, is running out of time on his inhaler; and water is climbing up in the room, leaking in from damaged pipes somewhere else in the building. And some of their stories have been painful in the telling: as Uma thinks to herself “on behalf” of one of them, “Hell is other people,” (the quote I cited a day or two ago from Jean-Paul Sartre). Then they experience aftershocks, then more water–and not being a “spoiler” at least in this article, I leave you to find out not only the rest, but the key to the rest: all the stories they have told together which have led them to their mutual conclusion.
The frame story here is only that, a frame story, like that of The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales (the latter book of which Uma has with her at the beginning, which we may feel gave her the original inspiration for her story-telling idea). For, these characters too, though not on a literal journey or at a wayside inn like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s collection of verse tales, are on a journey, a journey into each of themselves and sometimes through traumatic “moments of truth” or self-confrontation. As a group, they learn from each other, and as individuals, they manuever themselves in other directions from those of the past. Their challenges are not entirely internal, because they are fearful of the building’s collapse; rather the collapse of the building symbolizes the falling apart of old identities and the new ones rising from the dust of the city. I hope you will read this book and appreciate how new and old are woven together in these tales from different cultures and age groups, and will agree with me that they make a very tender and feeling picture of what is known as “the human condition.”