Seeking Fortune Elsewhere
by Sindya Bhanoo
reviewed by Rajpreet Heir
“Do you understand the sadness of geography?” reads the epigraph to Sindya Bhanoo’s stunning debut short story collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. It’s a question posed by Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan–born Canadian writer who also writes on diaspora. Memory is often a place in these stories about South Indian immigrants and the families they’ve left behind. Whether in Pittsburgh, Eastern Washington, or Tamil Nadu, Bhanoo’s characters reckon with the pain of growing apart and tally the costs of leaving. Longing motivates the characters: for dead or distant loved ones, for adventure, for stability. Longing impels them to challenge gender norms and move past grief. Even the more “fortunate” characters are not immune to the pull of the past and the competing desires to claim and surrender power.
“Three Trips,” one of the finest stories in the collection, is about paths untrodden. Heartbreaking and graceful, “Three Trips” reveals the intergenerational effects of one brother’s decision to leave India for America. The creative choice of narrating the story from the perspective of the daughter, Taruni, works especially well—her curiosity about her family provides a slow reveal of key details.
When we first encounter her, it is 1990 and a nine-year-old Taruni is traveling with her mom, dad, and little sister from Pittsburgh to India for the first time. There, she becomes inseparable from her cousin Padma, whose dad Chithappa has a gambling problem which Padma knows how to hide—also, his dental practice isn’t doing well, he is drinking too much, and his wife is threatening to leave him. The distance between Taruni and Padma’s upbringings is addressed through stunning dialogue. As a host gift, Taruni has picked out an intricate Mary Poppins–style dress. After Taruni unwittingly shares that Padma’s father is having an affair, Padma upbraids Taruni for this innocent gift by saying, “Well, Amma says all of you have forgotten how to live in India,” adding, “Who brings a white dress here? How will we keep it clean, with all that dust?” Taruni’s privileged upbringing is reflected back at her during this brief exchange. Later, as a freshly minted college graduate, Taruni visits her uncle and realizes, “It was cruel, unfair, for fate to give two brothers such different lives. Chithappa had managed a cheap joy ride, but my father had the real adventure.” Instead of vilifying her uncle for the hurt he’s caused, Taruni recognizes the limited opportunities he’s had by remaining in India.
In the O. Henry Prize–winning story “Malliga Homes,” from which the collection’s title is drawn, an elderly woman is living in a retirement home in Tamil Nadu, away from her daughter Kamala in Atlanta. Kamala rarely visits her lonely mother, who is the narrator of the story. While Kamala is happy about having moved to America on her own years back, her mother is less than thrilled about moving into a home alone after her husband dies. She considers the home “a place for those who have nowhere else to go.” Living in Atlanta doesn’t interest her either; she yearns for old customs, for a time when children lived close to their parents and did not move away “to seek their fortunes elsewhere.”
Conversely, another long-married woman in “No. 16 Model House” seeks independence after decades of letting her husband make decisions on her behalf. Again, Bhanoo chooses to center the story around a woman disregarded by her family. For years, Latha has been underappreciated in her role as a caretaker for her kids, her ailing mother-in-law, and now her grandchildren. Her husband’s aunt Binny, sensing this, decided to leave the family house to Latha. When her husband urges her to accept a developer’s proposal to demolish the beloved house and build a new low-rise apartment building that will include a flat for them, Latha takes the developer’s deal, but chooses to preserve the garden she loves, resulting in a smaller apartment for them all and thus defying her husband’s wishes. Latha is resolute in her small rebellion, even as she recognizes her limited influence: “But this is her house. This one time, she has power. She feels something wicked zip through her body.” In being true to herself, Latha transcends her past and the position of disempowerment she has occupied for so long.
As a collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere achieves a level of poignancy most writers can only dream of. A veteran journalist, Bhanoo’s handle on tight storytelling is a strength in this lean collection. Her straightforward writing style allows for a unified flow, keeping the focus squarely on the difficult questions these eight stories ask about dislocation. Through her adept storytelling, we see just how complex the immigrant experience can be and how asserting one’s individuality can grant characters a way out of the past—or lead them back to it.
Published on June 7, 2022