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Taking cue from everyday
life : Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi studied electronics and communications engineering in India and then switched to journalism with a Masters degree from University of Memphis.

She now lives in Denmark with her husband and son.

A Breath of Fresh Air is her first novel. Set in India with the world's largest industrial disaster as its backdrop, the book peeps into the life of a young woman, her ex-husband, her husband and their sick child.

The Prologue takes the reader to the Bhopal railway station where a newly married Anjali is fidgeting with a dog-eared magazine, looking at her green and red watch and waiting for her husband, Prakash, who forgets to pick her up because he had spent a cozy evening with his lover and overslept. Anjali gets caught in the ensuing chaos when she feels toxic gas in her throat and walks away from the limp, dead body of the Good Samaritan who tries to help her out of the melee.

Sixteen years scurry by between the Prologue and Chapter One - In a crowded vegetable market in a small town, Anjali bumps into her ex-husband. It creates a flutter in her heart and she goes back a little ruffled to her understanding husband, a sick child and a nagging sister-in-law.

You use the Bhopal gas tragedy as a backdrop for your book, A Breath of Fresh Air. In fact, you weren't too far from the scene of the world's greatest industrial disaster. How much do you take from life? Any character, any situation borrowed from what you saw or heard on that fateful night?

I think a lot of the chaos and fear in the prologue, I derived from what I heard about that night from others, part anecdote, part research, I used all the sources I could for Anjali to see what she did that night. Her experiences are part of what I learnt, but her emotions are her own. The morning after the Bhopal gas leak, most people said that there had been a leak in the railway station and I think that's how I came up with the scene there. It was five minutes past midnight when it began and it never really ended.

You say, "A Breath of Fresh Air came to me years later when I was living in Utah, thousands of miles away in time and geography. I already knew who Anjali was, had known for several years 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". Did the final story come to you as a revelation, or did it come one drop at a time?

The story did come drop by drop. I started with the scene in the bazaar where Anjali meets her first husband Prakash, fifteen years after the Bhopal gas tragedy. I went back after the first chapter and wrote the prologue. For me, writing is intuitive. I create the characters and then I just let them go and do their own thing. It is more exciting for me to write a story I don't know very well, as every sentence then becomes a revelation to me.

What strikes me most in the book is its simplicity - you choose a style and language that is absolutely simple. Too simple, I felt. Is that intentional?

Absolutely, it was intentional. I am a simple writer, I think. I want to tell a good, entertaining story and I want everyone who reads it to feel the emotional turmoil of my characters. I think this is part of my two years in journalism school. They really hammer the concept of writing simply and starkly.

Talking of style - you give each of the three main characters enough pages and reasons to talk about themselves; they look at life through their past and vis a vis other characters. Does that make the job of a storyteller easy?

I don't think it was a question of difficult or easy. For me it was an accident, a good one, I think because the story was enhanced when we saw Anjali's life from Prakash and Sandeep's eyes. I didn't intend for anyone but Anjali to speak, but all of a sudden I was writing in Sandeep's voice and he was such an interesting character that I wanted to get to know him better. His insecurities were a revelation, but they also made him so real. And as the story moved on, I realized that maybe Prakash was not all bad and I wanted to get to know him and his reasons better.

It was more curiosity that had me tell Anjali's story in Prakash and Sandeep's voice.

The end swerves towards general bonhomie - Anjali, Prakash and Sandeep, all seem to walk towards a better tomorrow - washing away their guilt, shedding their anger and forgiving their past. In the end, Anjali's weakness does not gel with her character - she gives in too easily, forgives suddenly. Why?

I don't know how better a tomorrow can be when your only child is dead, but I think it was important for them to move on. Important because for fifteen years Anjali has been hating Prakash and Sandeep has been blaming Prakash as well. Prakash and his second wife, Indu also carry baggage. In the face of a dying child, their "hate" and "anger" seem petty, even to them. Anjali has for a long time been waiting for Prakash to beg forgiveness and she never thinks he will, but when he does, she realizes that it's important to let go of the hate and the anger.

I don't think she gives in easily, I think she forgives him because her feelings for him, good and bad are small in comparison to this giant well of emotion and love she has for her child, her child who is dying. Ultimately, she comes to terms with the fact that Prakash is not to blame. What happened was an accident and Prakash is trying to redeem himself, make amends for his sins. Anjali would have been a different woman, a weaker woman I think, if she had held on to the hate and anger. It takes strength to forgive someone who you've become so used to blaming for so long.

You are working on another novel, what is it about?

My next book is The Mango Season and it will be released by Ballantine Books sometime in 2003.

It is about a conservative South Indian family living in India. The women of the family get together to make mango pickle and it is with that in the background that I tell my story. Priya Rao, a daughter of the family has been living in the United States for seven years when she goes back to India for the first time. Her family wants her to get married, the arranged way, and she has to break the bad news that she is in love with and marrying an American. The story is about how she tells her family and what happens after she tells them.

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