April 3, 2020: “White Dancing Elephants” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Good Friday to you, Story366!

I just finished the first Zoom meeting of my life, my monthly English Department meeting, and boy, are my arms tired!

I’ve discovered this about Zoom meetings: A department meeting is a department meeting no matter how you dress it up. It was really nice to see all of my colleagues—and it was all of them, as it’s not like they could claim to have other plans—but after that wore off, it was business as usual. There was a lot of addressing the current situation, which I expected. The dean dropped by and thanked everyone for working so hard, which was great, as was his encouragement going forward. Some of my colleagues started asking the tough questions—like about possible layoffs—and without any way to answer those in an informed way, he wisely skirted them. Then our department chair answered more questions, some of them tough, some of them not so, and after an hour, we were done. So, it was like a regular department meeting, only with the constant reminder of the absurdity of our new reality. Yay.

I had to wonder, afterwards, how many times I forgot myself, that I was on camera. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings in person, where all of us sit in a big classroom and … meet. I’m sure I do all kinds of weird stuff there I don’t realize. But in a classroom, I’m just part of the backdrop. If someone zones in on me, sure, they could observe and judge, but that’s their issue: You need somethin’, bro? On camera, when it’s just you—your face and shoulders and biceps—you can’t escape. How often did I touch my face? Are people keeping track? Did I just burp? Can people smell through Zoom? Did I just carry the phone into the bathroom and sing “Home on Range” with the microphone on? With Zoom, you have to be more aware of yourself. I’m no sure I have that kind of discipline. I guess we’ll find out.

Before the meeting, I read several stories from Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s 2018 collection, White Dancing Elephants, out from Dzanc Books. I’d not read any of Bhuvaneswar’s work before today, so it was nice to get in touch with what she does.

I started with the lead and title story, “White Dancing Elephants,” a piece about a young Indian woman, living in England, who’s have an internal dialogue with a you, talking to someone specifically as she shuffles through what seems like an ordinary day. The trick, it seems, was to discover the person she’s talking to, what’s prompting this stylized monologue, and why she’s communicating to them in this manner.

We soon discover whom she’s addressing: Her recently miscarried baby. This tragedy has befallen her quite recently, in fact, as she found the discarded fetus just that morning, amidst some abnormal flow. So, this story takes place in the immediate aftermath of this shocking and horrific turn of events. It’s an intense premise for a story, en medis res to the extreme.

Our hero travels through Oxford, first to a pharmacy to buy more pads—she’s still bleeding—all the while going over what’s happened to her that day, throughout her life. We get a lot of her backstory, especially the history of her becoming pregnant, but also her plans for the baby, the future that would never be.

Have I used the word “tragedy” yet?

After the pharmacy, the woman takes a cab to the zoo, where she continues her thoughts, continues to cope. Along the way, we get the occasional reference to elephants—a theme for the nursery, perhaps? When they pick up later in the story and the elephants are white, it finally hit me: Ohhhhh … like Hemingway.

If this story couldn’t get any sadder, Bhuvaneswar takes her protagonist to a final destination, which I won’t reveal here. All in all, this story depicts an impossible journey, beautifully describing the wanderings of a person who’s just experienced a unfathomable blow. What a tough undertaking, to capture a character at this moment, on this day. The story is powerful and elegant, a grotesque journey of personal loss and its swift consequences.

“The Woman Who Fell in Love With Death” begins with a young boy reading a story in a Starbucks, the tale of a woman who loses her lover, but then falls in love with the agent of death who took him from her. The tale ends, but the boy grows up and sees a parallel in his own life, his older sister having gone missing some time ago. He lives his whole life, wondering what’s happened to her, haunted by her absence.

“Orange Popsicles” is the story of Jayanti, an Indian woman studying in America, who experiences a series of events that are, as you might guess at this point, rather tragic. Jayanti starts to see a male student from one of her classes. After a critical exam in that class, she is accused of cheating by the dean and must come in for an interview. Jayanti, on scholarship, is terrified she will lose everything. Even worse, the boy she’d just started seeing threatens her to lie, to take the fall and claim it was all her doing so can get off scott-free. To emphasize his point, he stages an elaborate group rape, trying to silence Jayanti permanently. The story takes a turn or two after that, but what’s done is done: A rape, especially one as extreme and violent as what’s happened to Jayanti, can never be forgotten.

I also read “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling”—I admit, I was cherry-picking titles as this point—which is about an Indian guy, Gopi, living in America, more or less trying to raise his daughter correctly. Gopi married a woman twenty years younger than he did—it was arranged by his family—but henceforth, his wife is both loving and manipulative, taking control of his life and the lives of his children thereafter. The goddess of beauty in the title is his daughter, the one with whom he’s trying to salvage a relationship.

On the whole, White Dancing Elephants includes a lot of tragic turns, yes, but it’s a lyrical, graceful book, chronicling the lives and losses of its inhabitants. Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a poet, a writer of great skill and obvious empathy for what horrors can befall the human heart. While there’s a lot of sadness here, I was glad to encounter a writer of such depth, compassion, and finesse.