John Gardner, it is said, once claimed that there are two basic plots: one in which a person goes on a trip and the other in which a stranger comes to town. I kept thinking about this while reading Sindya Bhanoo’s debut book of short fiction, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. Realistic stories about Indian Americans often involve the fusion of these plots, and Bhanoo’s are no exception. The person who migrates from the subcontinent to America may feel like she is going on a journey, yet to the people around her, she becomes, perhaps too often, the stranger who came to town.
At the same time, displacement is only occasionally dramatic in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, which is composed of eight slice-of-life narratives. Many of the book’s themes are familiar within the robust tradition of Indian American immigrant fiction. Dislocation. Aging. Generational difference. Losses incurred in migration. Parenting across a cultural divide.
Seeking Fortune Elsewhere favors the zero endings of Anton Chekhov and aims toward the emotional, if not the stylistic, lineage of Jhumpa Lahiri and Akhil Sharma. Bhanoo embraces reportorial simplicity and plainness, elevating the psychological nuances of small moments not by the use of complex language or epiphany but by a focused attention on the day-to-day.
Meaning is cultivated by the placement of objects, although these details don’t accrue significance in the same way, for instance, as the candles in Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter.” Instead, Bhanoo uses Fitbits and sparkling green dresses and WhatsApp groups to ground her stories in a contemporary environment. It’s a prose sensibility that favors the concrete and literal; when there is symbolism, it can be too on the nose, as in the otherwise striking “Nature Exchange,” where the mother of a seven-year-old school-shooting victim finds “a dead monarch with its wings intact, and half a mouse skull.” More effective is “Buddymoon,” where a woman, noticing the agnosticism of a ceremony at her daughter’s wedding, realizes this is “happening not because her daughters have rejected Hinduism or Indian culture, but because…the girls have no real culture at all. No traditions of their own.”
Such an agnostic ethos, aptly characterizing the way an older generation of Indian American immigrants once felt about their second-generation children, gives way in Bhanoo’s collection to a notable psychological acuity.
Short story writers are often advised to place the work they believe is best at the beginning of their collections, but in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, it’s the middle where the stories get more unusual, more specifically Tamil. The most fascinating effort here is “Amma,” which takes its title from the nickname for the politician Jayalalitha, who started out as an actress before spending 14 years as the chief minister of India’s southernmost state, Tamil Nadu. Bhanoo’s narrative makes use of real-life incidents, including one in which the artist Shihan Hussaini sculpted Jayalalitha’s head from his frozen blood. Interestingly, however, the author reimagines her protagonist as a pudgy schoolgirl, telling the story in the voices of her supercilious classmates, who collectively recall, from the vantage point of middle age, their relationship to her after she’s accused of corruption.
Bhanoo’s collection gains in momentum and fluidity as it builds toward its deeply moving final story, “Three Trips,” which offers a devastating—and achingly recognizable—account of a family’s return trip to the city where a girl discovers her beloved uncle’s affair, an affair her cousin asks her to keep under wraps. In Tamil culture, cousins are sisters, a closeness the girl’s parents encourage until her aunt abandons the uncle, taking the cousin to live in Hercules. Years later, after the cousin, startlingly, refuses to acknowledge her, the narrator reflects on the experience of eating airport ice cream: “I dipped my pink plastic spoon into my ice cream and brought it to my mouth. I kept eating even though I didn’t want to. It was cold and sweet and creamy, everything ice cream should be, and yet it tasted like nothing at all.” It is in these sorts of quiet, almost vestigial gestures that Bhanoo’s writing is at its most evocative.
The collection takes its name from the opening story, “Malliga Homes,” in which an upper-middle-class Tamil woman who lives in a retirement community observes that “the offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.” Her own daughter left for America years before, a choice she finds mystifying. The stories here, then, are not so much about those, like the daughter, who choose to leave as they are about those who had to watch them go.
The appeal of Seeking Fortune Elsewhere resides in its gentle trust that culturally faithful stories can and should slip easily across borders.•