New Novel Examines the Emotional Costs of a Global Catastrophe

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Amulya Malladi

Something as simple as the direction of the wind saved the lives of author Amulya Malladi and her family, who were living in Bhopal, India, in 1984, when gas leaked from a tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at a plant owned and operated by Union Carbide. The December 3 accident killed 16,000 people in Bhopal; tens of thousands of others are still seriously ill. Malladi and her family were then living four kilometers from the factory.

In a recent interview with BTW, Malladi recalled that "when I was nine years old, my army officer father was posted to the 3 EME Center in Bhopal. The last few months of 1984 were educational. ... I learned about war in the name of religion ... how the cost of life was cheap in India and that chemicals could kill."

Malladi explained that "for years, I wanted to tell the story of that year, to convey what happened without losing the small picture. I wanted to tell the story of people who were affected by the tragedies of 1984 and how the human spirit is so strong that no matter what is thrown our way, we survive and find a way to bring happiness back into our lives."

In her recently published novel, A Breath of Fresh Air (Ballantine Books), Malladi unravels the story of Anjali, who on the night of the tragedy almost dies while waiting for her philandering, abusive husband to pick her up at the train station. In its review of the novel, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review wrote that "Malladi has tried to look at the shadow [the catastrophe] casts on the souls of those who survived."

Living in an arranged marriage, Anjali does the unthinkable in the Indian culture when, following the disaster, she divorces her military officer husband, Prakash. She breaks free of domestic binds to reclaim her life. Eighteen years later, she's a school teacher, happily married to a kind and faithful man, with a son, dying from the harmful affects of the poisonous gas leak that occurred years earlier. Her world is shaken when her ex-husband reappears in her life with a new wife and two healthy children.

"A Breath of Fresh Air came to me years later when I was living in Utah, thousands of miles away [from India] in time and geography. I already knew who Anjali was ... but I didn't know who would tell her story, or what her story would be. Slowly, it unraveled, and I was caught up in her life and the story I wanted to tell found a voice," Malladi explained.

She noted that she wanted to show readers an Indian woman, who is strong and bold, and who, despite being constrained by social mores, finds a way to improve her life. "Anjali divorces when divorce is taboo because she knows that her life can only be better if she gets away from a bad marriage. Anjali fights for her son's life, has a career, tries to balance [being a] working woman with loving mother and wife with ex-wife," said Malladi.

It was also important for her to show Indian men in a better light, and not to depict them all as chauvinists, even if Indian society is still a patriarchal one, she said. Sandeep, Anjali's second husband, is a loving, caring husband and father.

"Even Prakash, her first husband, who treats her badly and cheats on her, in the end is forgiven for his sins because he asks for forgiveness as he makes a sincere effort to not undo, but make peace with the errors of his past," said Malladi.

The author noted that she has been pleased by the outpouring of support from the Indian community. "A friend of mine in India read the book and said that he felt I handled the aspect of divorce and the stigma it carries in Indian society well."

According to Malladi, most Indians who have read the book also believe the she successfully conveyed the changing role of Indian women. And many were pleased that she has helped increase awareness of the Bhopal tragedy, one of the world's worst chemical catastrophes. -- Gayle Herbert Robinson