Barrelhouse Reviews: White Dancing Elephants, by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Review by Sanjana Sadique

In the first story of Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s White Dancing Elephants, the narrator walks out of her hotel lobby and into the rain. As she becomes drenched, she mourns her miscarriage. “The rain makes it possible to wipe my face and have people think that I was caught in a downpour,” she thinks. “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.” It’s both a small moment and an enormous one—a fitting illustration of Bhuvaneswar’s approach to the lives of women of color. Over the course of sixteen stories, White Dancing Elephants charms its readers into different worlds—with no small help from unexpected twists and robust endings. 

But truthfully, this is a collection about pain—and the challenge of not flinching in the face of it. In this first story, even as the narrator suffers a tragic loss, she tries her best to function in the world. Nothing around her has changed, no one knows about her inner struggles. Life simply goes on. Bhuvaneswar’s biggest asset is her pacing; mostly, her stories race along, masterfully slowing down where necessary to fill out the details of her worlds. The woman who suffers a miscarriage sees a prostitute on the street with a baby in the pram talking to a man in a van. “My taxi stops near enough for me to see her painted but young face when she steps back; I see her shaking her head at the driver of the black van; she will have other babies, I am sure of it, and they will live even though she smokes, exhaling blankly while she pokes milk bottle into her baby’s face.” It’s another little moment, but one may, when reading, need to stop and come up for air, the pain too much to bear.

Bhuvaneswar gives voice to an astonishing array of women—immigrant, queer, lost misfits, hopeless romantics, aggrieved women, sexually-abused victims—and the sheer ground the stories cover is powerful, but not gimmicky. The struggles feel real, the characters lifelike. A husband’s infidelity causes the wife to flee to a writer’s retreat which helps her to deal with her own fears and secrets; a boy finds comfort in the legend of a woman who weds Death to grapple with the disappearance of his sister; the betrayal of a friend who sleeps with her best friend’s husband leaves her feeling conflicted; growing up estranged from a father, a sister and her disabled brother reunite after years. 

It’s a many-headed pain the reader must navigate, but oh, it’s worth it! In the stories that deal with rape, sexual assault, or violence, Bhuvaneswar renders things more than just relevant and timely. When she exposes her characters, it feels like an awakening. In “A Shaker Chair” a psychotherapist is caught off guard when one of her young patients ends up sleeping with the therapist’s father as revenge, thus reminding her of her own sexual assault. In “Orange Popsicles,” Jayanti, an international student, afraid of losing her scholarship, cheats on a test by taking help from a boy. But things take a turn for the worse when that boy rapes her to shut her up, certain that he will get away with it. “Good girl,” he tells her. “I’ll feed you a lot more of my horse c*** unless you shut your mouth.”  

But they’re timely too. It may be a cliché for a book like this to speak so precisely about this moment in the wake of #MeToo, but it’s also accurate. Bhuvaneswar doesn’t look away from the pain, and she dares you to do the same. Her sentences are largely elaborate descriptions paired with tight dialogue, with brisk asides to check in on the emotions of her characters. It’s a curious precision—down to a formula almost—but it allows the stories to work in unison. “I mean, like if they come to you and say there’s a way to save your scholarship, by putting it all on me, you won’t do it, will you?” Dave thinks in Orange Popsicles. “Because you know my lawyer would take you down, you’re completely in this mess, and if you don’t keep your mouth shut I’ll start talking about how you begged me to help you, that you offered me a free fuck. You can’t imagine you’re the first to make the trade. And I’ve gotten A’s in every other science class this year. I’m a star in the biology major. My Dean says that I’m headed for a top ten med school. You can’t exactly say the same.” There is a great sense of importance here: it is important to read these stories because they ring so true. 

There’s a lot that could have gone wrong here—but it doesn’t. White Dancing Elephants is important, but not self-important. Portraying so many lives and so many women may be impressive, but what really keeps one reading is the rawness and the ugliness, the painful depth. What could have gone immensely heavy-handed, doesn’t.

In “Talinda,” the narrator, Narika, has an affair with her best friend’s (Talinda’s) husband, George, and discovers that Talinda is dying. Deepening Narika’s betrayal is the knowledge that the two friends were also once lovers. Narika fights an inner battle, and struggles to do the right thing while simultaneously finding the courage to follow her heart: “I have done my good deed for the day, I tell myself. Sitting with her for hours, at the doctor’s. It doesn’t make me good for a second, but it was something she needed.”  

The pain, for Narika, is ambivalent. She sinks in and out of guilt, and simultaneously contemplates Talinda’s early death. We, too, are torn. This is, after all, a person who is remorseful but daydreams of her future with George after Talinda is gone. As she waits for Talinda in the hospital, she regrets it all; she could have been a better friend had the circumstances been different. She wants forgiveness from Talinda, but perhaps also approval for her actions. As a reader, one can sympathize: we are  just as conflicted as her.  

This is a story about a friendship, and what greed, love, and humanity portend for it. It cannot be easy for George and Narika to deal with Talinda’s sickness, which perhaps caused them to get together in the first place. The relationship between the women makes it harder not to feel sorry for them. “She put a hand on Talinda’s cold, white one, noticing as she always did the difference in their skin color. But this time it seemed like a ghastly difference between a living and dying thing—Narika’s rosy-golden-brown hand, unlined, against Talinda’s pale one.” Growing up without fathers, these two girls had found one another in high school and grown to love one another. Narika had always been attracted to Talinda. But, in the end, when Talinda wants to be with her, it is too late, even if there is love between them. “‘Why don’t you fucking let me sleep,’ Talinda says, rolling onto her side, but she doesn’t slap my hand away when I come close enough to smooth my bedclothes over her. ‘In a little while I’ll call my husband, and he’ll come here because I ask, because it’s right. And he’ll ignore you. And you can break up with him then, fine. Sure, you will. But meantime, Narika, let me sleep. I mean, really, can’t you? Leave me alone to goddamn sleep.’” 

Above all, Bhuvaneswar’s collection is daring—each story capable of transporting you to their specific settings, while simultaneously throwing you off-guard with brilliant endings yet making you reel from the hurt and sorrow. Nothing about the stories or characters seems obvious in her worlds, but White Dancing Elephants is genuinely honest about its characters. Even when the plot feels muddled, there’s a fealty to the characters that it doesn’t squander. The tiniest of details allow the reader to pause, and to prepare themselves for what is coming next, a brief respite from the horrors that are yet to follow. One minute Bhuvaneswar indulges the reader with beautiful prose and descriptions, and the next she throws them off balance.  

White Dancing Elephants is an astonishing debut. The plethora of unexpected twists and surprising endings may be what keep the pages turning furiously—but the real sense here is that Bhuvaneswar has captured all our most profound losses and our most painful agonies. It’s as if she’s telling us: No matter how hard it is, we must look.

Sanjana Sadique is a Bangladeshi writer living in New York. She is currently working on a novel.