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Poisoned Chalice

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR: A Novel, By Amulya Malladi, Ballantine: 214 pp., $23.95

September 08, 2002|CHITRA DIVAKARUNI | Chitra Divakaruni is the author of "Unknown Errors of Our Lives" and "The Vine of Desire."

In "A Breath of Fresh Air," the story of a personal tragedy faced by a young woman in contemporary India gains resonance because it is skillfully intertwined with a larger public tragedy--the Bhopal gas leak that destroyed thousands of lives in 1984. (While the official dead toll is listed at more than 5,000, activists claim the number of deaths from gas-related illnesses is closer to 20,000.) In the novel's dramatic beginning section, the protagonist, Anjali, almost dies when her negligent husband forgets to pick her up at the Bhopal train station on the night of the poisonous gas cloud. This leads to the breakdown of their already shaky marriage. Anjali, a strong woman with a streak of stubbornness, refuses to give up on life in spite of her recurring health problems. She goes back to college, starts a career, meets the quiet and considerate Sandeep and marries him. But their happiness is marred by their son's increasingly serious illness, a legacy of Anjali's exposure to the deadly poison. Things get complicated when Anjali's ex-husband Prakash, now remarried, is transferred to the same town Anjali moved to after the accident, and the two happen to run into each other at the vegetable market. How the two couples negotiate their way around the past and the anger, guilt, suspicion and blame they carry forms the rest of the novel.

By showing us the ways in which the Bhopal incident continues to affect not only the lives of those who were directly involved in the tragedy, but also the lives of the next generation, Malladi personalizes an event that had been, for many readers, merely an unfortunate but distant occurrence.

Malladi's style often falls into plainness, making us wish, sometimes, for more expansion and detail, and a deeper exploration of the ways in which Anjali's personal betrayal is connected to a larger social injustice. But she draws us into the novel with her characters, who are refreshingly free of stereotype. The major characters--both men and women--are given chapters in which they express their responses to the complications and tragedies in their lives. Their voices are clear and strong, each one carefully modulated to be different, and as the book progresses, they surprise us by their reactions to events and to each other.

Except in a couple of places, Malladi has successfully managed to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in her handling of emotional material--a near-fatal accident, a child's mortal illness, a spouse's infidelity. And that is no mean achievement for a first-time novelist.

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