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One Amazing Thing
Sivaram Srikandath
 Story Dated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 11:5 hrs IST 
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Just a few days ago, I had the occasion to participate in, what turned out to be, quite a charming evening. The Indian born, U.S. based award winning author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, was in Kerala on a personal visit, and the good people behind the David Hall Gallery in Fort Kochi managed to get her to  do a reading from her works. Jose Dominic, the CEO  of the CGH Earth Group which manages the David Hall Gallery sent me am invitation for the event.

Now, Jose is a person behind some of the finer initiatives aimed at integrating art with the local ethos, and in creating an awareness and an appreciation for the arts and crafts of  our state. When he does something he does it sincerely, does it well, and does it with oodles of class. So, the question of whether or not to  accept the invite was a no-brainer. Of course, I did ! And I am glad that I did, for the evening turned out to be quite an enjoyable one.

The function started at 6.30 PM with an interesting opening act.  Chitra  read one of her poems, The River, from her  Pushcart Prize winning collection of poetry, Leaving Yuba City, and a young dancer interpreted it on stage for the audience. The presentation was elegant, spare, and understated;  and fittingly apposite for the reading that was to follow.

The danseuse, a young lady with wondrously expressive eyes and an attractively confident demeanour, chose to interpret the poem in a  manner that added depth and a sense of narrative to the reading. The mood was set ! Chitra then chose to read two short passages - one from The Palace of Illusions, her 2008 re-telling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's perspective; and the other from her latest novel, One Amazing Thing, published in 2010 - which was followed by a Q&A session.

Now, I normally attend book reading sessions and Lit Fests with a bit of apprehension, even jaded cynicism.  Often, such events tend to be marketing gigs, a commercial exploitation  of the literature-as-spectacle genre. The participants, by and large, are  fashionable  arrivistas, who must "have" their own autographed copy of the latest book by the currently fashionable flavour-of-the-season author. There is a lot more of gushing, cooing, and air-kissing  than serious literary discourse going on at such events. Add to it free flowing  sponsored plonk, and what you get is a typical Page 3 event.

Also, some of these authors are notoriously famous for being so full of themselves that they tend to go on and on, quite enamoured by  their own voices. Oftentimes, they feel that they have an obligation to become thespians for an evening, by adding dramatic Shakespearian flourishes and lilting cadences, where, perhaps, none are called for; making a mockery of the fine art of theatre. It could be for this reason that the British writer Daphne Du Maurier once wryly remarked that "Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard."

Thankfully, Chitra  proved to be an exception; a very welcome one too, I may add. Both her selections turned out to be brief and short,  and her reading style and manner were easy on the ear, and the eye. But it was in the  Q&A session that the author came into her own. At times, Q&A sessions can be quite tedious and boring. In every audience you can find the usual  "veterans" itching to  hog the limelight, asking questions that are irritatingly long and multi-part, or are more motherhood statements about their own positions on fiction, poetry and the general ferment in the field of literature rather than being  questions relevant to  the author's own works. And then there is the confused odd-ball, who loses track of the question half way through, and ends up an embarrassing  sad sack. This evening, it was not to be so. True, there were a couple of multi-part questions that really went nowhere, and a meandering motherhood statement or two.  But, for the most part, audience members were on the ball and asked questions that were pertinent and interesting.

Chitra's responses were disarmingly candid and engagingly frank. She spoke freely about herself, the immigrant influences that have so sharply defined her writing, the element of divinity and spirituality that she finds so compelling, and of the interests and passions that fuelled the creative spark in her.She recalled the words of Uma,  one of the protagonists in her book The Amazing Thing,  that "everyone has a story of at least one amazing thing that has happened to them."  The author said that it was her belief that we all have these stories, but we never have been taught to look for them and recognize them. She said that  she could  become a writer only when she herself  began to believe that she had a story worth telling, and that " people would be interested in listening to it."

One amazing story that we all carry around with us !

What an engaging and powerful  idea. Surely, each and every one of us, even those who think that they lead seemingly staid and uneventful lives, has  this one amazing thing about which we have a story that, perhaps, we would like to talk about. And in sharing this story with others, as Chitra says, maybe we can "find a common space  where we can respect each other's stories as we share them. In hearing a story or reading a story, or in experiencing  a story,  the other really becomes ourselves, or is closer to us."

It would be fantastic if we could, isn't it ? And maybe we should all start looking for this one amazing thing in our lives that we would like to talk about, and share with others. And in the process, hopefully become closer to  each other. .

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