There is a certain sadness that pervades White Dancing Elephants. In each of the 17 stories in this debut short story collection by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, the protagonist either regrets, ruminates or grapples with an unforeseen tragedy — from a sibling gone missing, to a miscarriage, to a lost lover. The reader will also find a few surprise endings or twists in the stories — instead of merely creating plot-driven tales, the writer, it seems, is more interested in exploring how people come to terms with what life throws at them. This makes sense when one sees that Bhuvaneswar is a psychiatrist by profession.
What do psychiatrists do, after all, but guide us through life’s unpleasant surprises and the unexpected? In Bhuvaneswar’s stories, the protagonists do the same, whether it is Nisha in ‘Adristakama’ who wonders what her life would have been like if she hadn’t left her girlfriend, or the brother in ‘The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death’, who can never accept that his missing sister is most likely dead.
A winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, White Dancing Elephants mostly focuses on stories of women of colour and their struggles. Given the dark subject matter and Bhuvaneswar’s knack for paring the tale down to the protagonist’s frank, vulnerable thoughts, some stories are hard to get through, such as the titular ‘White Dancing Elephants’, in which a woman aimlessly wanders around the city as she tries to come to terms with her miscarriage. In ‘Orange Popsicles’, one of the stories that stands out in the collection, a student named Jayanti comes to terms with her rape by viewing it from a detached perspective: “[She] was raped because she dared to cheat on an exam. Her understanding was simple by now, unequivocal. She wasn’t interested in penance, though. She was more interested in analysing, as if with three-dimensional revolving diagrams, the pattern of choices that put her in the position of cheating in the first place.”
The psychiatrist author of an award-winning collection of short stories isn’t interested in the endings of stories — she’s more interested in how the protagonists end up there
While most of the stories are driven by the narrative, a few come across more like vignettes. ‘Neela: Bhopal, 1984’, for instance, gives us a child’s point of view of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, also known as the Bhopal Disaster, which killed thousands of people and is regarded as one of the worst industrial disasters in recorded history. Another, ‘The Orphan Handler’, is about corrupt nuns running an orphanage. Some of the best tales in the collection, however, are those where Bhuvaneswar has clearly mined her own life for inspiration, such as ‘A Shaker Chair’. The story revolves around Sylvia who, like Bhuvaneswar herself, is a Boston-based psychiatrist and how her tense, odd dynamic with Maya, one of her patients, leads to detrimental consequences for herself.
Like Sylvia, the characters and personalities that populate White Dancing Elephants are stripped of agency: they wonder how they ended up at this stage in their lives and conclude that the end is inevitable. In ‘Adristakama’, for instance, Nisha regrets giving up her girlfriend, Laura, but argues — more with herself than anyone else — that people face choiceless choices: “No one has a choice. The whole idea of choice, it’s just a Western myth designed to make people uncertain, prevent anyone from taking responsibility. It makes people not know who they are. But I know who I am,” she points out.
The old man calls me “demon” when he sees me eating, muttering as if I were still a young child and he were bending over my pillow promising candies in my ear. I am his youngest son; years and years ago he called me “eyes” in Tamil, which meant I was the dearest. Then in school I didn’t turn out like his nine good children, neither physicist nor lawyer, neither doctor nor engineer. — Excerpt from the book
In other stories, Bhuvaneswar shows how one event can snowball into another till we find ourselves the reluctant star in our own story. ‘Talinda’ explores how cancer brings two friends together and, at the same time, tears them apart. In ‘Newberry’, Vinita uses the troubled situation her boyfriend Marco finds himself in as an excuse to escape from her own suffocating life: “That was what she had decided four days ago, the morning Marco called her in a panic about being arrested. When it felt like it was too hard to have faith in any other choice. When suddenly it felt like rescuing Marco could be a way that she also rescued herself.” Similarly, in ‘The Bang Bang’, Millind becomes a much-lauded poet because he happens to innocuously one day walk into a bar: “[He] couldn’t explain why, of all days, he chose that one to duck inside the bar. He didn’t even drink and wasn’t looking for a drink.”
Bhuvaneswar isn’t interested in the endings of stories — she’s more interested in how the protagonists end up there. Most of the stories in her collection are a reminder about life’s messy decisions and the doubt that can often plague us; they are about how we sometimes aimlessly follow life until some small event, or perhaps a chance meeting, leads us to unexpected places. Her stories are also about simply accepting life for what it is: unpredictable. As someone once famously remarked, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
The reviewer is a former member of staff
White Dancing Elephants
By Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 2nd, 2019