“The whole idea of choice,” Indian American Nisha tells her girlfriend in a restaurant in Queens, “it’s just a Western myth designed to make people uncertain, prevent anyone from taking responsibility.” Nisha has just announced her decision to go to her family’s home in Agra, where she will allow her uncles to arrange a marriage for her. “It’s who I am,” she says. “It’s mine. My heritage.”
Nisha will regret this decision, yearning for her all-American lover Lauren years after the sham marriage has crumbled. What does this say, then, about choice? Could this Western myth turn out to have some weight? And if so, where does that leave those straddling Eastern and Western mythologies?
These are some of the core questions of the debut collection of short fiction from Chaya Bhuvaneswar, a practicing physician. The 17 stories in “White Dancing Elephants” — which won the Dzanc Short Story Collection prize — are set in India, England, imperial Portugal and the U.S. and follow a varied cast, but most often center on middle-aged women of color, frequently of Indian origin, living in America.
They are women reckoning with the decisions, missteps, fears and compulsions that have brought them to their current juncture. In the title story, a childless, miscarrying woman sees a mother with her children and thinks, “She’s probably my age [...] early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes.” Another protagonist in her early 40s “had already stopped minding how much she’d messed up her life. By then her wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds.” If choice is designed to make people feel uncertain, the ploy has worked on many of Bhuvaneswar’s women, who are burdened by the sense of squandered opportunity.
In this way, Bhuvaneswar picks up a time-honored Indian American literary conversation about choice. Prose fiction is the literary form of free will, emerging in 18th-century Europe on the waves of individualism and humanism — doctrines that positioned everyday humans and their will at the center of life on Earth. It would take more than 100 years for the form to arrive on the Indian subcontinent, in the 1850s and 1860s. Since then, generations of authors from India and the Indian diaspora have played with the tension between the “Western myth” of free will, written as it is into the DNA of prose fiction, and the traditional Indian outlook — an outlook that, as Nisha suggests, prioritizes tradition and family above individual choice. This tension runs through work by major writers including Tagore, Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie. “The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise,” begins the Gogol quote that opens Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake.”
Bhuvaneswar updates this conversation with a lens straight from today’s America. A rape on a U.S. college campus plays out with crushing inevitability, unfolding from the moment that Jayanti, an unfortunate scholarship student from Madras, falls behind in an overly ambitious science class. The behavior of her sexually and socioeconomically entitled classmate Dave reveals the ways in which, even in America, homeland of the myth of choice, free will has never been evenly distributed — rape culture being one of the many ways choice that is denied to women and other subjugated populations.
Even so, taken together, the stories seem to suggest an inclination toward the Western model. The regrets that abound tend to circle lives unlived, and the collection’s least complicated emotional high comes when doctor Michelle returns to a lover she’d left out of a sense of duty to his child from a previous relationship. She returns because “nothing could sustain her loyalty, nothing in medicine or religion, nothing more than the rhythm of their breaths and pounding hearts, the mystery of them.”
Michelle’s story seems a classic illustration of the American pursuit of personal fulfillment, but the bodily language of breath and hearts reveals that her compulsion is deeper than conscious choice. Elsewhere, a woman forgives herself for falling pregnant with the baby of her dying best friend’s husband, saying: “The instinct, the hunger to have a child — it’s no different from what drives the cancer growing inside Talinda. It’s involuntary and primal.” Thus Bhuvaneswar celebrates the pursuit of individual fulfillment, while suggesting that it’s driven by something other than choice.
In other stories, the meaning of life is located externally, in children. Many of Bhuvaneswar’s characters ache with regretful childlessness. “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own,” for instance, tells the story of unfulfilled, single, middle-aged executive Seema trying to find meaning in art collecting. Ultimately, Seema is jolted into life only by caring for a child injured in a blast in one of the galleries she visits.
These, then, are the collection’s core, jostling theses: that the life well lived is obedient to inmost impulses, but derives its deepest meaning from children. But what to do when those children become fully external agents whose needs conflict with one’s deepest desires? Bhuvaneswar suggests just one outcome of this conflict, and it’s ugly. Gopi, a 58-year-old man from Tamil Nadu, living in Queens with his wife and a young daughter with developmental disabilities, finds himself frustrated to the brink of violence by his daughter’s needs.
How free is anyone, driven as we are by impulses deeper than thought, moving through inextricably connected societies? This debut author has created a host of original scenarios through which to probe this vital question — a question that’s both a long-running conversation between East and West and one of the intractable problems of the human condition. There’s a slight unevenness to the collection, some stories being more fully realized than others. But it’ll be worth watching Bhuvaneswar’s future work, not least for future attempts to synthesize her evidently strongly held, though perhaps necessarily conflicting, convictions about choice.
Robins is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.
Dzanc Books: 208 pp., $16.95 paper