WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS
by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Dzanc Books, 205 pages
reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is part of a unique legacy of writer-physicians—Nawal El Saadawi, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, to name a few—and the unexpected harmony of these pursuits is showcased throughout her collection White Dancing Elephants, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.
Many of Bhuvaneswar’s characters are medical professionals themselves, grappling with death or identity or love, who turn to the realm of the poetic and mythological for guidance even as they snap on their latex gloves. In “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death,” a modern-day boy looks for his disappeared sister within the titular myth, never relenting in his search even after marriage, children, and medical school.
It was never deliberate, how he would look for his sister […] It was just that he’d never believed she was dead […] The boy imagined life for her, a life she might reveal to him, her children and his children playing together, his wife coming to love her as a sister.
The images eventually made him get married, and in the marriage, he was happy but waiting. Waiting for his sister.
There was life in between the years of searching and imagining—a job for him, first at another Starbucks, then medical school, because it fully distracted him.
Or perhaps it isn’t simply that medical school “fully distracted him,” but that it fit into a larger mission of healing and resuscitation he’d been working toward his entire life, unwilling to cede his sister to death. He might’ve been willing to cede her instead to the handsome god Death, though, if he could know for certain it was what (and who) she’d truly wanted. If he could know she hadn’t forgotten about him. If he could know she’d run away with Death by choice instead of having been defeated.
Gods, myths, stories within stories—Bhuvaneswar’s quiet, magical real style reveals a beauty that is constant and unflinching, found even in the face of D/death. Throughout this collection, her fascination with Indian myths and poetic traditions is folded into the everyday lives of her characters. In many ways, these stories almost read like modern-day fairytales—timely and timeless, magical even as they haunt.
Bhuvneshwar opens the story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” with a trusted (read: imagined) forest—a place of mystery, animals, and escape; a place where games are played—introducing characters simply as “you and your brothers.” These nameless Indian children were sold into slavery by a father who could no longer afford them; they soon die with little explanation or fanfare. “All this was caused,” the story says flatly, “by someone important, an American, used to ordering some work to be finished somewhere else….” This flatness—another hallmark of fairytales that Bhuvneshwar masters—works hand-in-hand with the intuitive logic of this story to reveal a much more insidious, all too real kind of logic, the kind still used today to justify slavery, child labor, and deadly pollution.
A particularly striking example of Bhuvneshwar’s use of fairytale elements may be seen in “The Orphan Handler.” Even the title sets up a classic storybook state of mind. Here, the magic of orphaned little girls is normalized. The orphan-handling nuns not only expect their wards to have the ability to change into animals, but they know that they’ll be the ones dealing with and subduing this magical ability, transforming them from children of power into quiet girls who obediently cook and clean.
Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.
“The Orphan Handler” sets up clashes between motherless girls and childless women, marking another vital thread that weavs through the collection: the wrestling of female identity with motherhood. Bhuvaneswar’s stories consider women of color who are depressed, who struggle to get pregnant, who undergo IVF, who suffer miscarriages, who must find satisfaction in saving children’s lives in lieu of creating them, who desire children in order to feel their own worth.
In “Talinda,” the narrator wonders if the desire for children may have led not only to the betrayal of a friendship, but to a physical death sentence:
Tired by marriage—or maybe by his marriage to Talinda specifically, with its burdens, the heaviest of which was extreme privacy—George pulled me in. The lingering touch on my arm, my back, my hand. The grateful smiles that never felt straightforward. Then his expression when I told him how I’d tried and failed a few times to have a child with donor sperm. “I know what it’s like to hope and be disappointed,” he’d said. “To wait, and want, and not have children. To be the only people waiting in the world. Believe me, I know what it’s like.”
George and Talinda tried a lot too. Wasn’t clear now, if her in vitro might have speeded the cancer. She would’ve kept trying, but George was the one who made her stop, unable to bear how unrelenting she was. They’d just gotten to the point of discussing adoption when her new symptoms started.
It’s a relentlessness that not even the narrator can explain:
Why do people want to have children so much? Now I don’t know. 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. Primordial.
Similarly, the narrator of “Asha in Allston” attributes her entire (now broken) marriage to the disappointed promise of children:
Remember, when we came here, you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not impossible, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said we’d have sons. Their predictions made us get engaged.
In “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own,” the heroine Seema believes her life to be a garden of mis-sown seeds that have “flowered into vines that [bind] her tight.” The seeds: daring to want love, romance, and children. The vines: being single and childless at forty-three. “Miscarriage number five from the sperm bank only confirmed what [Seema had] already suspected: there wouldn’t be kids.” This is the same confirmation that the heartbroken narrator of “White Dancing Elephants” feverishly denies as she wanders a rain-soaked London in desperate search of green-space, of the forest where she and her yet-born (miscarried) child will be safe together at last. Where the world will make sense again. Where her child will live, even if she does not.
Terrence Holt, another writer-physician, once said in an interview with NPR, “death is the mother of beauty” and that “an appreciation of human suffering and our limited tenure on this Earth is essential to seeing our lives and seeing the world we inhabit.” This is an appreciation that doctors and mothers have unique access to, one that’s made painfully, exquisitely clear throughout White Dancing Elephants, wherein the god Death himself is “so beautiful” that our heroine is unable to look away.
In so many fairytales, young lovers are drawn together as if by fate. As if their love were inevitable. Unstoppable. Bhuvaneswar takes this a step further in these stories, showing the seemingly inevitable, unstoppable, fateful love between parent and child, even between parents and unborn children. But she also shows us this quality within the inevitable, fated nature of the god Death. For though he (Bhuvaneswar uses the masculine) is often dreaded and cursed, he is not the same as violence or abuse or cruelty—a difference Bhuvaneswar boldly highlights throughout this collection. It isn’t Death who brings cruelty, but we humans. Instead, Death marks a new beginning and can help bring the preciousness of life into focus: growth and decay forever mirroring each other. By juxtaposing this god with countless births and lovers, Bhuvaneswar underscores Death’s role in the realm of New Beginnings. She reveals both his pain and his solemn beauty, challenging us not to look away.
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears in Carve Magazine, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.