"About 2 am I could see people around me behaving in very different ways," Divakaruni told an audience of nearly 200 at the book's launch party, hosted by Asia Society Texas Center.
“Some were very paranoid—there were people carrying guns—while other people were sharing their water. You saw the whole spectrum of how people behave when faced with a life-threatening catastrophe.”
From that experience grew a novel of grace under pressure, set amid a different type of natural disaster. Nine strangers find themselves trapped inside a collapsed Indian consulate building in an unnamed American city in the wake of a devastating earthquake. To pass the time and take their minds off their perilous situation, they agree that each will tell about "one amazing thing" in their lives.
The novel is the 16th book for Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and is best-known for her novels of the Indian immigrant experience, including Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices.
Divakaruni regaled the audience with her reading of a comic chapter involving a coiffure calamity at Miss Lola's Lovely Ladies Salon. She then sat for an onstage interview with St. John Flynn, cultural programming director for the Houston PBS affiliate, KUHF-FM, where she proved an illuminating commentator on her own practice as a writer.
Divakaruni explained why she adopted the Canterbury Tales-like structure of the novel. By having her nine characters tell stories, she could "open up" the novel to nine different worlds while maintaining the dramatic tension created by the unfolding disaster, she said.
"Also I believe strongly in the power of story in creating a community," she said. "It is when we learn about the core of the lives of strangers that they become family to us."
Special guests at the launch included Andrea White, who introduced Divakaruni. White is the wife of former Mayor Bill White and a novelist herself. Sanjiv Arora, India's Consul-General in Houston, attended with Virendra Gupta, the visiting Director-General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Divakaruni drew laughs when she assured the Consul General that the two nearly adulterous Indian visa officers she depicts are "completely fictional."
Reported by Fritz Lanham