Book Review: Chaya Bhunaveswar’s “White Dancing Elephants”
BY: A.M. Larks
Chaya Bhuvaneswar fills her collection White Dancing Elephants with honest, unfiltered observations about tragedy and poetic truths, while crafting a diverse set of characters that spans from the unlikeable to the heart-wrenchingly sympathetic.
In the title story, “White Dancing Elephants,” we are introduced to the narrator, who is venturing outside in the London rain in her pajamas. “I hate metaphors of rain, fecundity, gushing water from a hidden space. There wasn’t anything macabre in your passing—no rush of blood, no horrifying trickle down my legs. Just two clear stains, understated, as quiet and undemanding as your whole life had been; only enough blood for me to know.” Bhuvaneswar’s words are simple and without pretense, which makes them profound and haunting, as in the phrase “. . .enough blood for me to know,” or in the way the narrator maintained the illogical hope of still being pregnant despite bleeding for several days. “The first day, the way I mopped up blood was cautious, hopeful, as if by showing that it could be quickly absorbed, I was collecting proof that you were still alive. After that I stopped measuring.” Bhuvaneswar’s observations about hope are what leap off the page and sink into the reader’s bones. We, too, feel the sinking sensation of days of “enough” blood that has gone on too many days to maintain any hope of life.
Bhuvaneswar shows a range of skill as an author in this collection by including stories that reference literature, philosophy, myth, and history. In “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death,” Bhuvaneswar creates a mise en abyme effect by placing a story within the story.
In an armchair at the center of a Starbucks, nearly hidden by its arms, a young boy reads, perplexed but concentrating hard: Once upon a time, there lived a man of little importance. But his fine young daughter did belong to him: her lovely face, the soft and the angular parts of her body, her hips, her strong legs, her glorious laugh—everything that made her worth the highest price.
The real-time plot line reveals the family narrative of the boy reading the tale of the woman who fell in love with death. “. . . [H]is sister—once long ago he did have a sister, though no one in the house, not father, not aunt, not the mother who had died when the boy was three, none of them ever mentioned her, the sister-girl, with breasts like these.” There is an unspoken tragic tale in the real-world family, and the placement of the story within the story allows Bhuvaneswar to comment upon the very purpose of literature: to help us understand the world, ourselves, the people we are closest to, and also to give us hope.
In “Heitor,” Bhuvaneswar tells the story of an Indian slave in Portugal.
One October evening in the Year of Our Blessed Lord, fifteen hundred and forty-five, a male Indian slave once advertised as being in the most robust health, his young skin shining like sturdy striped mahogany from all the healing scars of past whippings, stood chained in the cool courtyard of the convent in Evora, in Imperial Portugal. He was awaiting punishment.
“Heitor” does not feel out of place as a story that includes modern-day characters (and even a robot) because every story has poetic nature in its DNA, whether through specific craft choices, like in “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death,” or through the simple use of language, as in “The Bang Bang,” where Bhuvaneswar describes parental negligence through the use of a metaphor. “On the same day our father discovered poetry, my only brother disappeared. As if the incantations Dad dredged up could hurt the two of us. As if, because our father had found joy, my brother and his quiet sadness had to become invisible.”
But every story in this collection is an unpredictable path weaving through human emotions. Bhuvaneswar offers characters that are relatable, even if not always likable. For example, there is Talinda, the sharp-mouthed cancer-ridden doctor whose best friend begins an affair with Talinda’s husband. “When she got sick, Talinda forbade her husband from getting his family involved. No mother, and no sisters, and George’s father was long gone. So George made more and more frequent calls to me in the middle of the night, while locked in the bathroom or sitting in his car.” Narika, the best-friend narrator, is the moral perpetrator in this scenario, but knowing that Talinda is cold and distant, “had she reached for him the way I reached for her, when I found out she was dying?” Narika is contrite, flipping the antagonist-protagonist scale, bringing a sympathetic eye to the antagonist. “If I loved Talinda, really loved her, I’d tell her that her husband seduced me, and vice versa. That the three of us should get far away from each other. That she deserves a better life, friend, and lover. If I were good, I’d exit, pursued by a bear.”
Bhuvaneswar’s beautiful language only makes the tragedies she discusses all the more poignant, whether discussing the Bhopal disaster in “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,”
Then early one morning, coming back with a vessel of water, you spy a pile of bright folded cotton cloths on the ground and, because of the weight you carried, you carefully make your way toward it, even though you want to run.
December. Your birthday.
Maybe a pavaday from home—a dream. But all three half-naked little boys, the brothers who’d once thrown stones at palaces with you, or come at you with sticks for swords, are sleeping on the ground near the shanty, tensed and at odd angles, as if they’d tried escaping even in their sleep.
Still hoping they’re playing a game, you set down the water and tickle them.
or more personal tragedies, like mental illness, as in “Jagatishwaran,”
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. I got sick, I remind him often, just before my college exams. I got very ill, it was terrible. First tuberculosis, then something else, something in my head. I was in pain, for pity’s sake. It became too late, impossible to work. To do anything but sit or stand very quietly, in peace, left to myself. I’ve tried to explain. “But you’re a grown man now,” Father says in disbelief, “and that was years ago.”
or gang rape in “Orange Popsicles”
Jayanti 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 analyzing, as if with three-dimensional revolving diagrams, the pattern of choices that put her in the position of cheating in the first place. Like so many choices in life, like coming to the U.S. for her studies, the instant of cheating felt both unexpected and inevitable.
This collection will draw you in and set you on edge. It leaps off the page so that you feel each beautiful and painful moment. It sets the standard for what a short story collection can do and the range of subjects it can cover. It is not to be missed.
AM Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review and contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, TCR. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.