Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is the title of Sindya Bhanoo’s short story collection, and the concept of “elsewhere” is what roots it. Throughout the different stories, the concept of setting surrounds the characters in a luminous way, bringing forth the rich immigrant narratives that are searching for place.
Displacement is replicated in each story, albeit in different ways. In “Malliga Homes,” a mother finds that her daughter in America has chosen her new life over her mother. In “A Life in America,” an Indian professor becomes a cultural pariah after his close relationship with his students becomes construed as exploitation, a practice from his country of origin. A mother is struck with grief after the death of her son. A South Asian community becomes collectively fixated on a celebrity, a former classmate turned actress, politician, and beauty icon because of who she represents.
For all of these individuals, “elsewhere” and its possibilities remain elusive, but Bhanoo interprets that concept of liberation as one of limitation. Many stories carry despondent tones, focusing on the modern-day alienation and generational division faced by women, between mothers and their daughters. It’s not particularly gratifying or heartwarming to see such experiences; mostly, one can only marvel at the way Bhanoo captures the emotional core of each story.
In “Amma,” a story particularly gripping for its focus on a celebrity named Jaya, Bhanoo compels the reader to understand why one is drawn to figures that remain unattainable. She inserts gossip about Jaya through the uniquely personal view of the characters that are so drawn to her. As she creates these divisions between the obsessor and the obsessed, Bhanoo writes about celebrity as an aspirational dream with a bluntness that taps into a greater theme. What does it mean to seek? In a person? In a place?
Bhanoo’s command of language is meditative and deeply human, allowing pauses in the narrative to emphasize the emotions that come forth. While some of the stories begin sounding much too similar to each other, they’re all distinguishable upon closer examination. Inevitably, some stories — like that of the professor’s, for example — are stronger and more layered than others. In spite of that, there’s a remarkable consistency across each of them. Maybe the way the language sounds becomes a bit repetitive, but what Bhanoo does best is taking the interiority of each individual character and highlighting them.
In an interview with ZYZZYVA, Bhanoo states that her background as a journalist informs the way she writes: that she “favors simplicity and clarity over flourishes that add weight.” It’s a quality that is keenly felt. Bhanoo’s words don’t get bogged down in literary details to the extent that they become incomprehensible. While it could be easy to do so given the depth of her narration, Bhanoo doesn’t sacrifice readability in favor of advanced verbiage.
Everything here serves a purpose. Nothing is for the sake of lyricality and nothing else. Paradoxically, this simplicity makes each word have all the more meaning. It’s a refreshing dimension to these stories, as overall the subtraction of such language fulfills the story instead of taking away from it.
There’s an idealistic, cliché notion of the American Dream here, but it’s framed through its characters, which makes its familiarity powerful. The reader gets a fantastic sense of who these people are through the dialogue, which feels both urgent and wistful all at once. At the end, there’s a newfound understanding of who these characters are in relation to their setting. Seeking Fortune Elsewhere may be ingrained in a sense of diaspora and displacement. But one can’t help but feel that in her brilliant writing, Bhanoo has found her place.