The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 10, 2003

Horror trail revisited
Aradhika Sekhon

A Breath Of Fresh Air
by Amulya Malladi. Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 178. Rs 225.

A Breath Of Fresh AirTHE first thought that comes to the mind as one finishes reading A Breath of Fresh Air, is "nice book!" Certainly, as light reading goes, the book is an easily palatable one with all the ingredients that would ideally be prescribed to write a ‘good story’ thrown in for good measure. These would include a couple of well-etched characters, a plot that moves forward and backward in time, a villain of sorts who finds reformation of sorts in the end. However, it is not the kind of book that leaves an indelible impression on the reader’s mind. A impression that might bring the essence of the book to mind perhaps six months later.

The book has been set in Ooty, where Anjali, a schoolteacher, is happily married to Sandeep, a professor. The roots of the story, however, are in Bhopal, where Anjali’s former husband, Prakash, an Army officer, was posted at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Anjali faces the terrible consequences of the gas leak when she gives birth to Sandeep’s son, Amar, a brilliant boy doomed to die young.

At this stage, the erring Prakash, himself happily married with two beautiful children, re-enters Anjali’s life. And here is where the interactions begin to get a bit facile.


A drawback of the book is that undue importance has been assigned to certain situations. Amar’s ill-health and his parent’s worry for him, is of course a matter of concern, "The knowledge of death was a very big responsibility to shove on such a young boy. Adults who had lived a full life were afraid of death; a 12-year old must be petrified and outraged at the injustice." But the grimness associated with Prakash’s re-entry on the scene seems a bit excessive. Especially since Amulya Malladi hastens to describe, time and again, the loving relationship between Anjali and Sandeep, and compare it, time and again, with the lack of love in Anjali’s previous marriage.

Also, Malladi tends to fall into the most deadly trap that an author can get ensnared in — she assumes a moral position and does not let the reader judge for himself and does not even let the protagonist speak for himself. The characters are black and white. The shades of grey that inject the life-force into characters that will otherwise remain lifeless, are sadly missing.

Thus, Anjali emerges as this extremely strong woman, an adjusting, loving and self-sacrificing wife, a good teacher and a good mother. Sandeep is the sensitive, new-age man who is also strong and silent into the bargain. "It was our daily ritual — Sandeep sat and talked to me while I cooked, and he helped me with the dishes when I was done. Komal always objected to allowing the man of the house to soil his house cleaning pots and pans, but Sandeep and I both ignored her`85Sandeep was definitely not the average Indian male who thought helping his wife in the kitchen was below his dignity."

Then we come to Prakash, a perplexing person, who gets married in order to cover his peccadilloes with other women, married or unmarried. One wonders why, if sex is the driving force behind Prakash’s "life of immorality", is he not interested in his pretty and willing wife? The colour and parties that are a part of Army life, don’t really have much of a role to play in the plot. "Not once did I stop to think why I should want to marry an Army officer, or what I would be getting into. I didn’t want to look at the parties and the places I thought I would be going to` army officer seemed glamorous and polished`85I wanted a man who was elegant, like the men in the suit ads on television". She does hasten to explain later, "Life in the army was a series of parties, just as I had imagined it would be. The parties were boring – I had not counted on that".

However, the book does give a fair account of the far-reaching effects of the Bhopal gas leak and the horrors that it left in its trail. It forces the reader to focus on the effect of the enormous tragedy on the individual. Such an account is always more poignant than the reports of mass destruction in newspaper, for when one acknowledges the presence of a person, one is forced to look at his grief and desperation as well and that is not as easy to ‘skim over’ as an impersonal report might be. So when Anjali accuses Prakash "The gas`85remember? I breathed in that gas and then a few years later I had my son. The doctor didn’t tell me that any child I had could be harmed because of the gas`85.You left me there to die but I lived. All I have is chronic asthma while my son has a whole gamut of diseases", the reader is forced, at least momentarily, to remember and regret the lives that have been affected.