The eight stories in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, Sindya Bhanoo’s exquisite debut story collection, paint a portrait of characters struggling to make sense of the lives they have been given and trying to figure out what, exactly, lies within their control. The stories take place in India and in the United States, in the late 20th century and in the contemporary moment, and Bhanoo uses both the first person and the third person point-of-view to come close to her characters’ hearts and minds. The point-of-view characters range from old to young, female to male, Indian to American. Each of the stories creates a new world for us to inhabit—a few stories are tangentially linked—and the cumulative effect is rich and layered, an intimate look into these characters’ lives. It is rare for all the stories in a collection to feel equally realized, but this collection manages to do just that.
“Malliga Homes,” the opening story, which won the O. Henry Prize, is set in India, in a retirement facility. The first-person narrator is a widow, a relatively new resident at the facility, and she is trying to find her way alone. Her daughter, who lives in America, insisted that she move to this place, but has not yet come to visit. It is telling, perhaps, that the story begins with a death:
Mr. Swaminathan died as he was walking back to his flat from the Veg dining hall after dinner. He was ahead of me on the path, and I saw him slow down. His gait changed from a fast stride to a slower, hunched walk. His left arm went limp. He lost his footing and crumpled to the ground. If I had not been swift, I imagine, he would have hit his head on the concrete. There would have been blood.
In this opening, we see that the narrator’s inner strength and belief in herself. We know, from the start, that this is not a woman, regardless of her age or marital status, who will be pushed around; she is also, perhaps, not a woman who can truly acknowledge her own weaknesses. She explains that everyone in this facility is upper middle-class, that they are all here because they have “lost sons and daughters to Foreign.” The wealthy in India do not need to live in such places—their children will care for them as they stay in India; they do not need to leave as “they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.”
In a small, insular community like Malliga Homes, appearances are everything. It is the facade that matters. At one point, the narrator goes to the home of the widow of the man who died at the start. She has recently learned that the woman’s children are returning to India from abroad, that the family will be reunited. She is envious, of course, but cannot admit that to herself or to anyone else. Instead, she enters the woman’s flat to look around. It is almost as if she hopes to find an answer there, to find and borrow the good fortune that has come to this other woman. Instead, she finds an empty apartment and, perhaps, a bit of self-awareness.
The struggle for families to stay united after an important break appears throughout the collection. In “Buddymoon,” a divorced woman goes to her daughter’s wedding, only to feel throughout as though she is on the outside looking in. In “His Holiness,” a girl’s father has become a guru, switching out his academic clothes for robes, his photograph now in the place of honor in the home. And in “Nature Exchange,” Veena—who is the granddaughter of the narrator in “Malliga Homes”—must learn how to move on after the tragic death of her young son. Often—but not always—family steps up to care for their own, even if it is painful, even if it is hard, even if it is only for a fleeting moment.
“Three Trips,” the final story in the collection, mirrors the opening story, but this time considers the rupture from the viewpoint of those who have left. The story is a triptych, each segment detailing a trip taken by Taruni, the narrator—another first person story—from when she is a young girl to when she is a woman in her early twenties. The first is her family’s initial trip back to India, for her father to see his father and brother, for the narrator to meet her cousin. The second trip is to California, where the cousin and her mother have moved, and the third trip is back to India again to see her uncle, but this time the narrator is alone. A coming-of-age story, but one that is focused on trying to understand what happens when a family splits apart.
Taruni is told to call her cousin her sister, and while they become fast friends, it is clear, even to a child, that life in India is vastly different than what she knows in America. India is home and yet not home; her cousin is her sister, and yet she is not. When she returns later, as a young adult, the fracture lines that she had observed earlier have deepened; she can now understand how the two worlds are so very far apart. Her uncle looks at her, as she tells him made-up stories about his daughter, “his eyes in search, it seemed, of both the past and the future, even if he knew it was my own invention.” The sadness and grief is palpable, and yet there is hope, too, because Taruni innately understands his need for the family to be as one.
Throughout this lovely collection, Bhanoo allows us to see, through her exquisitely drawn portraits, the pain and suffering that occurs when families are pulled apart, when a need for a better life necessarily leaves others behind. There is grief and loss here, but there is also understanding and support; there is love running underneath it all.
About the Reviewer
Laura Spence-Ash’s debut novel, Beyond That, the Sea, is forthcoming from Celadon Books in March 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, New England Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. Her book reviews and critical essays appear regularly in the Ploughshares blog.