Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


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White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

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I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

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