Excerpted from A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi. Copyright © 2002 by Amulya Malladi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Amulya Malladi
Indu Sundaresan is the author of The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.
I can remember 1984 as being a some-what horrific year because of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Bhopal gas tragedy, both of which left the country reeling for a while. I don’t know that any other author has chosen to explore the Bhopal incident in the medium of fiction. Why did you? And why now, after so many years?
Amulya Malladi: I believe that writers write about what haunts them. It’s the stories that keep us up at night we want to put down on paper. I am sure you understand, as it must’ve been a very strong passion for the Indian Mogul Period, Taj Mahal, and Noorjehan that propelled you to write
not one, but two books about those times. For me the Bhopal gas tragedy is part of my life, my childhood, and its images stay with me even now, after so many years. I was nine years old when my father, an army officer, was posted to the 3 EME Center in Bhopal. Indira Gandhi was assassinated first and it started to dawn on me that people went to war over religion in the present times. I think I always assumed that it was something of the past, something for the history books. And before any of us could recover from the mayhem Indira Gandhi’s assassination brought, the Bhopal gas tragedy happened. Several victims found their way to the military hospital in the EME Center and we heard stories from army officers who were doctors and their children. I remember how everyone who had breathed in the methyl isocyanate gas described it as chili powder in their lungs.
Those images stayed with me. So this became a story I wanted to tell but I had no idea how to. I didn’t want to write about the statistical millions, but the one, the few who were affected. I thought that would make the tragedy more real than saying “x” number died and “y” number survived.
IS: Neither Anjali nor Sandeep was interested in joining the
class-action suit against Union Carbide, despite the fact that
Amar might possibly gain from it?
AM: I always read out what I write everyday to my husband—he’s my sounding board—and I remember when I read this part out, he asked the same thing. We didn’t have children then but I wondered what I would do if my husband was the victim of something like this. I realized that my first instinct would be to be with him, to continue to be part of his life, whatever remained, and not chase after lawsuits.
I think a part of their reluctance stems from how lawsuits are perceived in India. They are not orderly or coherent and cost a lot of money and time. I think both Anjali and Sandeep knew their first priority was to be with Amar, not waste time in becoming part of a lawsuit.
IS: In the space of just one year, Anjali makes a huge transition from a silly teenager whose mind is filled with fanciful ideas of love and marriage into a woman with tremendous strength of character. At what point in the story does she gain the courage to walk away from the marriage and defy almost every tradition she has hitherto bowed to?
AM: It is the cliché I guess, that you almost die and then you take stock of your life and change it. The same thing happens to Anjali. Until she becomes a survivor of the Bhopal gas tragedy, she’s not sure how to handle Prakash’s infidelity and their loveless marriage. But after she sees people die around her, she realizes that life is ephemeral and she could spend all of it trying to figure out how to handle Prakash or she could get out of the marriage and build a new life. In the end the decision is an easy, almost inevitable, one for her. She has always known that the marriage wasn’t working; it just takes some poisonous gas and a near-death experience for her to find the courage to get up and do something about her situation.
IS: We see these two sides of Sandeep: the calm, self possessed, confident and quiet man—the man Anjali sees;
and then, when the narrative switches to his point of view, we see a Sandeep fraught with insecurities. Yet he does not volunteer his fears to his wife. I think of this fierce reluctance to reveal oneself, even to those beloved, as a very “In-dian” cultural affliction (for lack of a better description).
AM: Oh, you are absolutely right. Indians are very private;
I am starting to realize that as I travel abroad and meet people from different cultures. We are very careful about who sees what about us. But part of it is also gender. Men, I
A Breath of Fresh Air believe, inherently carry the burden of being macho, and weeping on your wife’s pallu about your insecurities hardly fits the manly image. Sandeep, by and large, is more broad-minded than most Indian men of his generation, yet he has insecurities and even I was surprised to discover them. When I first started writing, only Anjali spoke; others were silent. Then all of a sudden, Sandeep started speaking, and then Prakash. I think if I hadn’t delved into their minds, I’d never have found out what they were feeling; they would never have willingly volunteered that information.
IS: You know, it surprised me when Prakash came on the scene, but he took on this third dimension by speaking in his own voice, and that helped me see him as not just evil. Speaking of villains . . . Komal too is not a very attractive character. Did this keep her from remarrying? You say on page 95 that she was a “pariah in society.” Is this still true of modern Indian society? Are widows still treated as nonentities?
AM: Things are different these days. Don’t you agree? My generation deals with divorce, widowhood, remarriage in a completely different light. I was talking to an old classmate about other old classmates and was shocked to know that two of the girls I went to high school with are now divorced. The India I left eight years ago appears to be different from the India today, at least for my generation. Now my mother and grandmother’s generation look at divorce and widowhood very differently. Anjali is more my mother’s generation than mine and so is Komal. But in Ko-mal’s case I can’t help but feel that she is a pariah in society because she believes that is her fate, her destiny. I remember my grandmother, who I barely knew, always shaved her hair off as demanded by tradition of widows. I was quite young when I tried to convince her that maybe she didn’t have to do it anymore, and I realized that this was not about me and my convictions, it was about my grandmother’s belief that this was her duty, her obligation.
IS: What about that other unspoken rule in Indian society that a woman must be dependant only on her son, not her daughter? Anjali’s mother talks of this briefly when she worries about the possible consequences of her father’s heart attack. What typically happens to women who have only daughters?
AM: In Telugu we say “adapilla” for girl; where “ada” means “theirs” and “pilla” means “girl.” In defining a girl, the language-makers set the standard. The girl never belongs to her parents, always to her in-laws. Several parents and daughters I know would scoff at this unsaid rule, but I know many tradionalists who would think it wrong to rely on a daughter for financial support of any kind. Women who have only daughters find themselves alone or they find a home with a brother or some other male relative. I also know several older women who make a home with their daughters and son-in-laws. But Anjali’s parents are quite conservative and would stick to the old traditions and not feel comfortable living with her in their old age. Did you feel that this was too much like a Hindi movie? Or does this fit with your image of India as well?
IS: (laughs) Well, yes, like a Hindi movie, but that’s just an
over-dramatization of real life, isn’t it? I think this is true, still true for many people. For me, one of the most uplifting moments in the book was on page 174 when Anjali and Indira meet in the bazaar. Why does Indira think it necessary to apologize for her husband’s behavior? And why does Anjali respond to this apology?
AM: I am so glad you liked that scene. It is my favorite scene as well, but before you no one seemed to notice it specifically. Indira is a little rattled after hearing her husband’s confession. He’s a cheat and he did Anjali wrong. And when Indira sees Anjali, she feels the need to wipe away some of Prakash’s sins and is compelled to apologize. As a woman she also feels terrible for what Anjali went through and wants to show that she understands. That apology leaves Anjali happy. Not because she’s been waiting for her first husband’s second wife to apologize to her, but because it makes it clear to her that divorcing Prakash despite social pressure was the right thing to do. From the first time she sees Prakash and Indira, she wonders if Indira is living the life promised to Anjali. But after the meeting in the bazaar Anjali realizes she doesn’t want Indira’s life; she doesn’t want a husband who she needs to apologize for.
IS: Who is your favorite character in the book, and why? I know authors get asked this question and it’s very difficult to choose, but I’d still like to know! Mine is Indira; I think for all her flaws, she is endearing, for she knows how to forgive.
AM: Hard to say, I do like all of them; everyone, including Komal and Anjali’s parents. They are all doing what they believe in and living their lives as prescribed by society to them. But . . . since you ask, I think I have to go with Indira and Harjot. I like it that Indira has balls, so to speak, and she knows her mind. Harjot appeals to me because she’s such a budding feminist and I like seeing that in Indian women.
IS: I know that there’s no magic formula to creating a novel
and that every writer works at her own pace, in her own voice and style, and obeys her own discipline. And yet, it gives a struggling, fledgling writer heart to know how an established writer works . . . so what is your typical writing day like? Do you write everyday or only when you are working on a novel?
AM: I have no ground rules; I go against all the books there
are about writing everyday at the same time in a disciplined
fashion. I write when I need to and that makes every writing day unique. Sometimes I write during the day when my
son is away at daycare; other days I write at night after everyone goes to sleep. On some weekends I kick my husband and son out of the house and get a few hours. For me it is all about: How badly do I need to write? Some days the need is very intense and other days I’d rather read a book or worse, sit and watch television. If I didn’t have the writing demon sitting on my head at all times, I probably would never finish a book.
1. Amulya Malladi chose to use the Bhopal gas leak of 1984, which killed 3,800 people and permanently disabled thousands more, as the key event within A Breath of Fresh Air. Given the license of a fiction writer to invent tragedy, why would an author like Malladi decide to use a real event instead?
2. Does the reality behind such an event enhance or distract from the fictional story?
3. Do you, as the reader, hold the author to different standards of verisimilitude when such an event appears in a novel?
4. What is the effect of starting the novel with this terrifying event?
5. How does Anjali’s role as the victim of such a tragedy change her life in subtle, unexpected ways (in addition to the major changes she experiences)?
6. What is the meaning behind the title, beyond the obvious allusion to the gas leak?
7. Malladi narrates her novel through three voices: those of Anjali, Sandeep, and Prakash. Why might she have made this decision as an author? What are some of the inherent benefits and risks of such a choice?
8. Do you, as the reader, find the voice of each different character convincing? Why or why not?
9. Think of another novel in which the author engages more than one narrative voice. In comparison to A Breath of Fresh Air, how does the author distinguish the different voices from one another, and do you find it as effective, less effective, or more effective?
10. Given that the author grants more space to Anjali’s voice than to the voices of Prakash and Sandeep, did you find Anjali’s way of telling the story to be the most sympathetic? Or did you want to hear more from either or both of the other two?
11. After the three major characters, which minor character
did you find most crucial to the story’s central conflicts?
12. How did Anjali, Sandeep, and Prakash either maintain
or subvert traditional gender roles within modern Indian society?
13. What is the role of fantasy within the context of an arranged marriage such as Anjali’s to Prakash? Once her fantasies are inverted, how do they continue to play a role in Anjali’s life?
14. How does materialism affect each main character, and how does the author show its presence?
15. What is the range of emotions Anjali experiences after Prakash returns to her life, and how does the author illustrate each of these emotions?