THIS is a story of a young woman Uma who lives with her parents who had come and settled down in the United States as young professionals, just after she was born.
One day her parents decide to wind up and go back to “terrible Kolkata” as described earlier by her parents, who now think they are going to a different India now that ‘India is shining!’
Uma is working in the Indian Consulate when an earthquake occurs. She sees plaster of the ceiling falling on her. She gets caught under the debris and her arm gets broken. Cameron Grant, an American Negro, who had earlier served in the United States Army, comes and helps her.
There is another young Indian woman working at the customer service counter in the Consulate and Mr Mangalam who has his eyes on her, though he is a married man, has left behind his wife back in India. There is a teenager Lily and her grandmother Jiang who are Chinese, a couple Mr and Mrs Pritchett, a Muslim youth Tariq. The tension of being holed up in the basement with no hopes of escaping from it, makes them so edgy that Tariq picks up a fight with Cameron and in the midst of this melee, Uma makes a suggestion, “Unless we’re careful, things will get a lot worse. We can take out our stress on one another – like what just happened – and maybe, get buried alive. Or we can focus our minds on something compelling – we can each tell an important story from our lives.”
Jiang begins by telling her story in broken English about how she used to live in the narrow alley with the smelly gutters, so typical of Calcutta’s Chinatown. She takes over her father’s shoe-making business when her father’s gouty leg fail to permit him to run the store, called Feng’s Fine Footwear.
She meets a young Bengali named Mohit Das who comes to buy shoes for his 14-year-old younger sister. They fall in love and date each other. They want to get married but both their families are against it. So they plan to elope.
Mr Pritchet tells the story of his childhood when as a five-year old boy he sleeps next to his mother and is constantly afraid that she will die one day.
Mrs Prithett tells her story about keeping a pet dog when she and her husband realise they cannot have a child.
This way each of the occupants of the basement narrate their story and Uma is the last one to tell hers. While she is talking, they hear sounds of people speaking just above them and hope revives in their chests for they feel they would now be excavated from under the debris in the basement sooner than later.
This is a very interesting book to read.
(Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi- 110 017; www.penguinbooksindia.com)