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  • Written by Amulya Malladi
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  • Written by Amulya Malladi
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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41437-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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india (19) fiction (14) bhopal (5)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On the night of December 3, 1984, Anjali waits for her army officer husband to pick her up at the train station in Bhopal, India. In an instant, her world changes forever. Her anger at his being late turns to horror when a catastrophic gas leak poisons the city air. Anjali miraculously survives. Her marriage does not.

A smart, successful schoolteacher, Anjali is now remarried to Sandeep, a loving and stable professor. Their lives would be nearly perfect, if not for their young son’s declining health. But when Anjali’s first husband suddenly reappears in her life, she is thrown back to the troubling days of their marriage with a force that impacts everyone around her.

Her first husband’s return brings back all the uncertainty Anjali thought time and conviction had healed–about her decision to divorce, and about her place in a society that views her as scandalous for having walked away from her arranged marriage. As events unfold, feelings she had guarded like gold begin to leak away from her, spreading out into the world and challenging her once firm beliefs.

Rich in insight into Indian culture and psychology, A Breath of Fresh Air resonates with meaning and the abiding power of love. In a landscape as intriguing as it is unfamiliar, Anjali’s struggles to reconcile the roles of wife and ex-wife, working woman and mother, illuminate both the fascinating duality of the modern Indian woman and the difficult choices all women must make.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

ANJALI

DECEMBER 3, 1984 BHOPAL RAILWAY STATION BHOPAL, INDIA

I waited patiently for the first hour, and then I started to get impatient. The Bhopal Railway Station was abuzz with late-night activities. The homeless were wandering, begging for money and food; some people were waiting for their train to arrive and others, like me, were waiting for someone to pick them up, as the hands of the big dirty clock in front of me came together to welcome midnight.

I turned my wrist again to look at the watch my husband had given me after our wedding just a few months ago. It was a nice Titan watch, with a green background and red numbers and hands. It was a compulsive action to look at the watch, since I already knew what the time was.

Why wasn’t he here? He knew when I was getting back. He had bought the tickets himself. How could he have forgotten?

Soon the homeless stopped begging and started looking for places to settle in for the night. The Station Master used a long, thick wooden stick to prod the homeless, who were sleeping in front of his office and the waiting rooms, into moving. He was successful with some and unsuccessful with others. He looked at me curiously and then ignored me. He had probably seen many women wait for their husbands or loved ones at the railway station.

I flipped once again through the Femina magazine I had bought at the Hyderabad Railway Station. By now I had read all the articles and the short story, and the advertisements, but I looked through them once more to avoid staring at the dirty white clock or my beautiful watch.

“Memsaab, taxi?” a Sardarji taxi driver asked me.

I inched farther back into the metal chair I was sitting on, grasping my purse tightly in my lap and moving my sari-clad leg to touch my small suitcase in a subconscious effort to protect it.

“No,” I said, and focused on the slightly crumpled pages of my magazine.

“Late in the night it is now, Memsaab.” Sardarji was undeterred by my casual refusal. “Not safe it is at the station.”

I let the fear of being accosted late in the night pass first. My husband would be here soon, I told myself. I thought up an excuse: His scooter must have broken down. I thought up another: The tire must have been punctured. It happened all the time on the bad roads of Bhopal.

“Where do you have to go?” Sardarji asked me.

I took a deep breath and looked at him. He didn’t look dangerous in the dim yellow lights of the railway station, but you can never tell by someone’s face what he is capable of.

“Bairagarh,” I said succinctly, and he moved away from me without comment. The EME Center was in Bairagarh and if I lived there, I was an army wife, and he probably didn’t want to mess with me.

I kept time with my shifting feet and the rustle of the oft-turned pages of the magazine, pages that didn’t look brand-new and glossy anymore, but were wrinkled like the ones roadside peanut vendors wrapped fried peanuts in. My eyes wandered to the entrance of the station, again and again looking for a familiar face.

I didn’t even know how to get in touch with my husband—we didn’t have a phone. Colonel Shukla did. I could call him, I thought, and then decided against it. How would it look if people knew my husband forgot to pick me up?

I turned my head when there was a small commotion at the other end of the station, and it started then. Slowly, but surely, it spread.

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.

Sardarji, who was standing nearby, looked at me, our eyes matching the panic that was spreading through the railway station. The homeless had started gathering their meager belongings, while others were standing up, moving, looking around, asking questions, trying to find out what could be done. Soon it became unbearable and the exodus began. People started to clamor to get out of the station. The entrance was jam-packed; heaving bodies slammed against each other as they tried to squeeze past the small entrance to save their lives. Some people jumped across the tracks to get to the other platform and look for an exit from there. People were everywhere, like scrounging ants looking for food.

“Taxi, Memsaab,” Sardarji cried out as he came toward me.

I didn’t question his generosity and picked up my suitcase and started to run along with him to the entrance. Our bodies joined the others as we looked for a small hole, a pathway, out of the railway station. People were running helter-skelter, trying to breathe. Something is wrong, I thought again, this time in complete panic, something about the air in the railway station is very wrong.

The struggle to get out of the station became harder because no one could breathe. My lungs felt like they would implode and even though I tried to suck in as much air as I could, it was not really air that I was breathing. It was something toxic, something acrid, something that was burning my insides and scratching my eyes. Each breath I took made me dizzy and the burning sensation, that terrible burning sensation, wouldn’t go away.

My suitcase and purse got lost somewhere in the crowd, but I was half-crazed with the need to breathe and forgot about them.

Sardarji was having trouble breathing as well. His voice was high-pitched and shaky and I could hear him hiss as he tried to breathe. He pointed in the direction of his taxi and we started running, pushing past people who just like us were trying to find a way out. It looked like every automobile in the city was out on the streets. The sound of honking vehicles mingled with the cries for help, while the city stood bright, lit up with car, scooter, and auto rickshaw headlights, like a bride covered in gold and diamonds just before her wedding.

“What’s happening?” someone screamed.

“Run, out of the city, out of the city!” someone else cried out.

We reached the taxi and as soon as we got inside, people clamored and banged at the car windows.

For once, compassion failed me. “Drive,” I said through my misery, and the engine mercifully started.

Navigating the taxi out of the crowded parking lot, where cars lay haphazardly like dead and wounded soldiers in a battlefield, proved to be difficult. Sardarji tried his best. The honking of his taxi joined the sounds of other impatient cars. It was getting increasingly difficult to drive. The crowds were blocking the way and our inability to breathe was not helping either.

I held the edge of my sari to my nose, hoping to dissipate some of the spice in the air, but nothing would make the air clean.

A few cars moved and we managed to get to the road, which could just as well have been a parking lot itself because the cars were not moving. As I struggled to stay alive, a new fear gripped me. Was my husband caught in this? I shuddered at the thought and prayed he had indeed forgotten to pick me up. But if he had come and picked me up when my train arrived two hours ago, we would have been safe. I would have been safe, my mind cried out.

“Memsaab, we will never get out of here,” Sardarji said, stumbling over the words. “Maybe we should get out of the car and run.”

“Run where?” I asked, hysteria sprinkled over my voice. “Where would we go?”

When he didn’t answer, I turned to him and saw him lying on the steering wheel. I shook him hard, screaming for him to wake up and drive us out of there.

He managed to straighten himself, but before he could step on the accelerator or drive into the space the car ahead of us had made, he collapsed on the steering wheel again, and this time I couldn’t wake him up.

My heart felt like it had stopped beating for an instant. I didn’t know how to drive; I had never learned. My husband and I didn’t even have a car. I wanted to help Sardarji, check on him, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t even breathe, and suddenly nothing seemed more important than breathing. I had taken it for granted all my life and now I couldn’t breathe without feeling my insides rip open against the onslaught of the spice in the air.

I opened the taxi door and pushed into the people who swarmed around the car. There was no relief for anyone.

Someone got into the taxi as soon as I left and I saw Sardarji’s lifeless body being pushed out of the driver’s seat onto the road.

I looked around as people jostled me, searching for a way out. People were running in all directions and I wondered, Which one was the right direction? Which direction gave you life? I moved aimlessly, going first in one direction and then in another. The world revolved around me in slow motion as my eyes started to shut on their own accord. I knew that I was going to join Sardarji.

It was then, when I was almost sure that I was going to die, that I saw an army Jeep, and it looked like a beacon of hope. I cried out for help, but my voice was drowned by the voices of others, screaming and yelling and demanding the gods for an answer.

I think the Jeep driver saw me first, and then someone from inside called out to me. They knew my name and they knew whose wife I was. I felt relief sweep through me, even as energy seeped out. Just like it happens in the movies, I quietly collapsed onto the asphalt road.

My eyes had trouble adjusting to the whiteness. Everything around me was white. But I knew I was not dead. I knew I was in a hospital because of the telltale smell of medicines. I lifted my hands but couldn’t see anything. I could feel there were tubes going into my nose and some were coming out of my hands. I felt like an octopus.

I wanted to talk, to ask someone what was going on, but my throat was clogged, and then I remembered in fuzzy detail the night I thought I had died. I breathed in with trepidation and was relieved to not feel any burning, but my lungs still felt full and heavy, as if water had been pumped into them.

I licked my dry lips and tried to speak. I called out for my husband and waited, but I wasn’t sure if I was making enough sound to attract his attention. I wasn’t even sure if anyone was near me. I could hear some voices at a distance, far away.

I could not concentrate clearly on anything, but I heard the faint voice of a newscaster saying something about a Union Carbide factory and some gas that had leaked into the city of Bhopal.


From the Hardcover edition.
Amulya Malladi|Author Q&A

About Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi - A Breath of Fresh Air

Photo © Soren Rasmussen

Amulya Malladi has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. Born and raised in India, she lived in the United States for several years before moving to Denmark, where she now lives on the island of Mors with her husband and two sons. You can contact her at www.amulyamalladi.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Amulya Malladi

Indu Sundaresan is the author of The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.

Indu Sundaresan:
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.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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?
Why?

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?


  • A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi
  • June 03, 2003
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $12.95
  • 9780345450296

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