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seeking fortune elsewhere

12 december 2023

Characters in Sindya Bhanoo's impressive short-story collection Seeking Fortune Elsewhere seek fortune elsewhere – specifically, they are Indians who seek their fortune in the United States, with permanent bittersweet consequences for their families and their very identities.

Some of Bhanoo's stories are pretty searing, and they get even more searing as the volume goes along. "Buddymoon," the book's longest story, is one of a painful life: a woman who has come to America for an arranged marriage and then been abandoned by her husband – and then in turn abandoned her kids in Washington State for a new relationship in California, that ends in yet another abandonment. When she returns to Washington for a daughter's wedding, she realizes how completely alone she has become.

In "Nature Exchange," the mother of a child killed in a school shooting can't give up on her son's dream of trading found objects for points toward natural-history-collection prizes. It's a story about the impossibility of healing under some circumstances, and a smart and compassionate one. The volume closes with "Three Trips," as a once-close family grows finally apart over decades filled with bad choices and deliberate cruelties: though even here, a small connection helps keep the hope of understanding alive.

In "Malliga Homes," the collection's prize-winning first story, a woman ages in a retirement community near Chennai, increasingly cut off from her dying friends and her family near Atlanta. Age is also a theme in "A Life in America," where a powerhouse research professor succumbs to disgrace when he's accused of exploiting his immigrant graduate students over decades. The professor sort of has and sort of hasn't taken advantage of his dependents, and the realities of culture and patronage mean that the students were more or less eagerly complicit in the exploitation. But alongside from the injustices the story evokes, a parallel story emerges, of the professor's descent into a kind of accelerating mental debility, which strips him of the perspective he needs to weather his professional problems.

"No. 16 Model House Road" is about change within suburbanizing India, though we remain in a world where Indians have global connections as a matter of course. Here, a couple argue over how best to turn their crumbling but well-loved house into a real-estate developer's windfall. It's a sad story, but one in which the protagonist gains a bit of agency that offsets her emotional losses. A similar mixed dynamic suffuses "His Holiness," a story where you're not quite sure who the title refers to. The protagonist's Indian father has succumbed to dreams of winning disciples as a religious leader, but he seems anything but holy. Meanwhile, a elderly Anglo-American turns out to be the doer of random acts of kindness that merit the title role.

Bhanoo, Sindya. Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. New York: Catapult, 2022.