On the night of December 3, 1984, when the leakage of methyl isocyanate from the American Union Carbide plant hit the unsuspecting, small city of Bhopal, India, it became a tragedy of monumental proportions.
It spawned, too, a well-publicized lawsuit, with hundreds and thousands of dollars
paid in compensation to the families of victims who had either died or
eventually suffocated to death.
Called the worst industrial disaster of the Eighties, its asphyxiating horror has been captured in articles, books and documentaries.
A Breath of Fresh Air author Malladi was a schoolgirl, living in army barracks where her father was stationed a few miles away from the Union Carbide factory. That night she was asleep and was personally untouched by the tragedy, at least physically.
Her family was saved because of the whimsical wind, which chose to blow in the direction away from them.
For her debut novel, Malladi, who was born and raised in India and now lives in Denmark with her husband and son, chooses to go back to the scene of the tragedy and reconstruct a fictional story of love, marriage,
In the midst of tragedy, when thousands die, relationships can either triumph and become stronger or break and die; that’s the main theme of her novel.
It’s a simple story of love and marriage and how her characters' lives changed in that one night.
The setting could have been anywhere, but Malladi deliberately chooses to put her characters in that time and place.
Nineteen eighty-four was an horrific year for India. Apart from the Bhopal gas tragedy, as the media termed it, the country was torn by the Hindu-Sikh riots that occurred after then-prime minister Indhira Gandhi was assassinated by her two personal bodyguards, both Sikhs.
In retaliation for her death, critics and opposition say that Gandhi’s party instigated riots against the Sikhs in which thousands were slaughtered, burned, hung from trees, and raped. Their homes and businesses were looted and then burnt down. A governmental inquiry into the riots is still pending in the Indian courts, unresolved. Malladi weaves the riots into the story as her heroine,
twenty-something Anjali, finds herself in an ugly rift with a Sikh friend who ends their friendship.
In real life, Malladi never witnessed the devastation firsthand, but in the book
she places Anjali near the scene. Anjali is waiting late at night at the railway station for her husband Prakash, an army officer, to pick her up. He never shows up, and she gets caught up in the chaos.
While alternately checking her Titan wristwatch with the green background and reading her women’s magazine and the station‘s dirty white clock, Anjali marks time.
Then it strikes:
"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."
As the exodus begins, Anjali grasps the offer of a ride from a Sikh taxi driver
she had turned down. But the taxi never makes it more than a few miles out of the station. The road hadsturned into a giant parking lot. An army jeep rescues her; she awakens in the hospital and realizes what has happened.
The next chapter opens with Anjali divorced and remarried to Sandeep, a professor who is gentle and supportive and her best friend, who knows all her secrets.
She now teaches English to ninth graders and has an extremely sick son, Amar, who is critically ill from the aftereffects of his exposure to the chemicals. As she struggles through daily comfortable life, teaching, cooking,
and dealing with her widowed sister-in-law who now lives with them, she runs into her ex-husband while shopping for fresh vegetables.
It had been a fantasy she had often played with:
"…He would say hello and my eyes would glaze over…in my imagination…I was a knockout and my hair was in place in a sophisticated knot."
Although, as she faces him, she knows that "her hair is not in place, her braid
was limp" and she looks like "a weary woman at the end of a very long day."
The reappearance of the ex-husband and his new wife creates complications in everyone’s lives. Anjali is far away from Bhopal, a place
she's never revisited, and in her small town community her divorce has been a
secret. How she makes peace with herself and with her parents who have never
approved of either her divorce or her second husband, how she reconciles her dual roles as a working mother and wife and how a single event changes thousands of people forever are the themes explored in this book.
As a first novel, A Breath of Fresh Air is a great attempt. It reads well and it is crisply written, but the exploration of arranged marriages, the stigma of divorce and Indian society, could have been better explored by themselves.
It is not a terribly original concept; authors like Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni have been doing it for years.