9 October 2018

Review - White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

White Dancing Elephants
Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Dzanc Books, 9 October 2018
PB, 208pp

I was very honoured that Chaya Bhuvaneswar asked me if I would like to review her new collection of short stories, White Dancing Elephants, and grateful to her for an advance copy to review.

About the Author

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of colour.

In addition to the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection prize under which her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9 2018, she recently received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing.

Her work received several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year as well as a Joy Harjo Poetry Contest prize.

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS has also been nominated for a Kirkus award and NBCC award (first stage of each as candidate for the long lists).

My Review

This is a collection of seventeen excellent, eye opening stories, written with a sharp understanding of characters' background, motivation and self image (perhaps the author being a doctor helped here?)

These stories often revolve around loss, abuse and identity and the range of stories in the volume means these themes are visited from different directions and through different eyes. There are missing parents, siblings, lost children and abuse as well as missed (or simply, not taken) turns in life - but also friendships and hope.  Cultural identities clash, both between and within protagonists, and these characters and their worlds are often caught in the long shadow of colonialism.

The titular story, White Dancing Elephants, heaves with loss, written almost as a love letter by a woman to - well, you'll have to read it to find out who. On a visit to London and then Oxford she turns over what is gone, what might be to come and how things might have been different. It's so poignant but also strong, hopeful. (I live near Oxford and on a personal note appreciated a glimpse here not of the honeyed stones and dreaming spires but of the bustle of the Cowley Road.)

The Story of the Woman Who fell in Love with Death tells of a boy and his missing sister. She's an absence that mustn't be mentioned, a gap he questions and mourns as he grows up. Bhuvaneswar skilfully makes this woman who never appears in the story as much of a filled out character as anyone who does. Again there is a sharp sense of loss here, and a mystery that's never (I think) completely cleared up.

Kalinda, in Talinda is "not long for this world". While she slowly dies of stomach cancer, a little tragedy plays out with her friend Narika and husband George. Again the theme of children, of childlessness and - child fulness??? - plays out. This is a sad story, the countdowns of death and birth overlapping and Bhuvaneswar convoys a chilling, even wicked sense of stolen lives, of alternatives lost, her characters waiting for what will happen.

Some of the stories in this book are very painful, though it isn't always clear at first. A Shaker Chair  is one of those. It documents the relationship between a psychotherapist and her client, delicately tracing the web of alliances and prejudices in Boston between those of African and of Asian heritage, the tension made pointed as Sylvia, the therapist has a father with a Ugandan African background, bringing with him a certain outlook and issues. ("Like most Indians Sylvia had ever known - actually like most Asians in general - this girl Maya... was conscientious, consistent... Paying for each psychoanalysis session... with bedraggled wads of cash that looked like the contents of the cash register at some filthy curry restaurant.") The relationship that unfolds between the two women is painful, tender, delicate as they negotiate their way through unspoken truths - but it ends in catastrophe, perhaps one that Sylvia always felt coming?

Jagatishwaran is a story, perhaps of a lost brother... but Jagatishwaran has not gone but stayed, after some illness or episode in his earlier life he's becomes settled at home, stuck, perhaps suffering from something but still observant of the currents and tensions in his Bombay [sic] home. Unlike many of the characters in this book he hasn't got out to get on but in not doing so he creates a kind of statement. Well observed, well paced, this story charts Jagatishwaran's life in exquisite detail.

The Bang Bang is the name of the New York bar where immigrant chauffeur Millind wanders into a poetry slam and changes his life for ever. Told from his daughter's point of view - a daughter who loses her brother and mother and almost fades out of existence herself as her father unexpectedly takes the spotlight - this is a novel in miniature, a probing, haunting account of cultures and lives and ultimately of hope.

Orange Popsicles is a story whose content will be clear pretty much from the first page. It is about a woman, Jayanti, who has been raped on her university campus. The story tells us what went before and what happens after. It's, perhaps, a starkly relevant story not only because of the present climate but - as I read it - in timing, I'm writing this review as the US Senate votes on filling their Supreme Court vacancy.

Bhuvaneswar spares nothing here as she shows how the situation was set up, how is preyed on, blames herself, and what she manages to collect together of herself afterwards. I fine story but one I'm sure some readers will find very hard to bear.

Neela: Bhopal is also hard to bear, for different reasons. It's another where the reader will think they know from the start pretty much what's going to happen, but Bhuvaneswar manages, if anything, to make this tragedy of four siblings even more haunting than you'd expect.

Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold is the story I enjoyed most in this collection. It's about Mikki, a young woman taking part in a retreat for "indigenous or Third World woman writers". The retreat takes place in what seems like most uncomfortable surroundings, a series of caves on a remote island. (Men used to attend as well, but have been excluded ("in the early years, some men were caught lurking at the entrances of certain women's caves, or following especially lovely women home...") Despite the uncomfortable sounding surroundings, it gives Mikki an opportunity to reflect on her life, partly through the medium of an imagined (or is he?) - what? Lover? Interviewer? - with whom she gradually builds a relationship. This person, Harry, may or may not have played many roles in her life. Mikki compares and contrasts him to her husband, reflects on their lack of children - and moves into a future. Treading a line between romance and horror, this is one of the strangest stories in the book.

Heitor is also unusual in the collection in being historical rather than set in the present day. In 1545, Indian slave Heitor awaits punishment at the Portuguese convent where he serves. We gradually learn how he was trafficked there, and why he's to be punished. I don't want to say much about what takes place but it does seem to me to be an absolute affirmation of love and hope in the face of terror and oppression. A fine story.

Newberry is the story of a disregarded, undervalued person - Vinita, who works in a hairdressing salon to pay for her fathers' nursing care - and of how she uses where she is and what she can get to make a life for herself and to safeguard her family. It's a clever story and one with a real sense of tension.

Asha in Allston reminded me of an episode of Black Mirror. A story with science fictional overtones, it features an enthusiastic engineer who's created, it seems, a perfect substitute for his wife ("you have her download stored somewhere permanent").  Bhuvaneswar gives us the wife's perspective on this situation, and her eventual response.

The Life You Save Isn't Your Own is about a moment in the life of Seema Venkatramanan who has made "all the wrong choices" leaving her childless ("On top of that, Anand was sterile") and in a job she doesn't really enjoy ("Seema has sold out and gone into managed healthcare"). Coincidence means she visited the Uffizi in Florence a few weeks before a bombing and fire that took the life of a child. Could she, Seema asks herself, have made any difference had she been there when it happened?

The Orphan Handler is a really, really creepy story, again on the cusp of being horror, with aspects of child trafficking, magic and abuse. I found it a deeply ambiguous story, both as to what really happens and what one is to make of the situation. Very though-provoking.

In Allegheny is told from the point of view of Michelle, a doctor, and opens as she attends a festival by invitation of "a neighbour" at the local Hindu temple. As Michelle intervenes in a medical emergency, she has an opportunity to reflect on her relationship with John, who has been in India and considers he understands that culture. I found it a very moving and touching story.

I, personally, found The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling a very hard read. It's a clever story, exploring several different themes: as in much of this book, the contrast between East and West, arrival and acclimatisation (not assimilation), the place, or absence, of a child in the family and also the behaviour of men and women. Lakshmi and Gopi are parents of two children, son Romesh who has been sent away to school and daughter Shree who has learning disabilities. I found it hard to distance myself from this situation as I have an adult daughter with learning disabilities. It can be a very hard situation and I found it impossible not to judge Gopi for his failure to grasp the situation: he comes over as petulant, selfish and lacking empathy. I think Bhuvaneswar is actually being more nuanced and saying something about the whole situation, about the other family members and about Shree herself. It's a vivid story well worth pondering and one that left me very uneasy.

Adristakama, the final story in this volume, is about Lauren and narrator Nisha, two young women who have been lovers. Nisha broke off their relationship and returned to India to marry. Another story full of might-have-beens, or possibilities unrealised and maybe yet to come, this is a bitter, moody little piece to end the collection on, yet not without hope. An enjoyable story.

Follow Chaya on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.

Buy White Dancing Elephants from Amazon UK
But White Dancing Elephants from Amazon US
Buy White Dancing Elephants from Waterstones

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