Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants
Words By Kaitlin Lounsberry
Before the end of White Dancing Elephant’s first story, it was obvious this collection of seventeen stories highlighting diverse women and their experiences would leave readers spellbound and reflective. In her debut collection, Chaya Bhuvaneswar gifts her readers with stories that feature an array of real-life scenarios, allowing for a greater, long-lasting impression.
From extramarital affairs to miscarriages to sexual assault, Bhuvaneswar doesn’t falter from depicting the gritty reality of women. In White Dancing Elephants, we follow a middle-aged woman through rainy London as she imagines the life her miscarried baby might have experienced. Lines of prose like, “’You were so quiet, but you knew when the end came; you were silent as our blood leaked from our body” and “It isn’t that your soul came to me in a body that wasn’t durable. It’s that my body was failing, too late, too careless, too empty…” capture the painful, earthshattering moment so many have experienced but rarely discuss. These instances of stark and brutal emotion are woven into every story—you’ll move through the work unsure of how you’ll be stricken next yet desperately wanting to know more.
While readers will appreciate how emotionally vulnerable characters are in these stories, what’s most notable in this collection is Bhuvaneswar’s refusal to write one-dimensional, likeable women. She’s doing what so many people in the literary industry have been asking for but failing to produce. Her female characters are unlikeable for a multitude of reasons, yet Bhuvaneswar creates so many layers that readers are able to empathize with these characters despite their disagreeability. This experience of neither like nor dislike is especially evident in the story “Talinda,” in which narrator Narika attempts to rationalize her affair—which lands her pregnant—with her terminally ill best friend’s husband. What seems like a black-and-white situation is turned gray by Bhuvaneswar’s ability to elicit sympathy for Narika.
Bhuvaneswar has found a way to stress these unsavory moments between friends, lovers, and families in a way that finds you rooting for the antagonist one paragraph and cursing them the next. But it’s this commitment to presenting these women and their stories as they are, to avoid sugarcoating their lives, that captures the essence of their voices and makes you stop and listen.
Though Bhuvaneswar’s characters really drive this collection, her willingness to play with form and style, too, gives each of her stories its own flair and individuality. “The Woman Who Fell In Love With Death” flashes between folktales and present day as a means for our narrator to survive an abusive household and the disappearance of her sister. Bhuvaneswar especially likes to play with time, jumping from past to present to better detail the lasting impacts of her characters’ actions. Though this isn’t a unique writing method, Bhuvaneswar uses it to her advantage when revealing climaxes to plot or character revelation. Her ability to introduce different methods of storytelling to her readers without confusion is one of the true hidden gems in this story collection.
While I am profoundly appreciative of the stories Bhuvaneswar tells, the collection could have benefited from some injection of the author’s own experience—her inspiration. Bhuvaneswar took obvious efforts to leave readers reflective after the fact, but an extra sense of personal stakes might have given the stories even more urgency and driven readers to grasp that they were reading about actual experiences.
That said, it’s clear how much care and respect Bhuvaneswar took while writing these stories, many of which show how our society views the experiences of women of color. Reflective of today’s political climate, the women depicted in White Dancing Elephants unabashedly highlight their reality without fear for the sake of opening a desperately needed dialogue.