Image credit: Catapult
Sindya Bhanoo’s 2022 debut collection of eight stories about South Asian immigrant women, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (out in paperback this month from Catapult) is as full of hope and joy as it is sorrowful. With a deeply humane command of the language, Bhanoo, a journalist who grew up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants, directs the reader’s attention to the everyday, mundane moments of life and the recollections and memories of occasional visits to India that she expresses through her characters.
Set at the end of the twentieth century and coming up to the recent past in the United States and India, Bhanoo takes the reader on an intimate tour of the lives of normal people and how they sometimes need, or want, to take the not-so-easy path of seeking their fortunes elsewhere.
Bhanoo evokes not the spectacular scenes of people in motion that fill the news, but the ordinary and everyday events that make up lives in migration, and how the lives of Indian and Indian American women have changed over the years. These eight stories are not just about individuals, but a world in motion: they relate departures, absences, and decisions about whether to stay or go. Grief lingers, even in the happiest of circumstances.
Migration means many things to many different kinds of people. “The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere,” says one protagonist, an upper-middle-class elderly woman, in the O. Henry Prize–winning story “Malliga Homes.” The narrator, a widow, Amma, lives in a retirement house in Tamil Nadu and longs to see her daughter miles away in America. Her daughter Kamala, whose wise decision brought her to a retirement community, sometimes reminds her that she is lucky. Amma does acknowledge the luxury of the old age home and the kindness of her fellow 70-year-olds, but she often feels lonely. When she’s not interacting, thinking about the past, introspecting, complaining, or yearning, Amma often walks around Malliga Homes to reach her daily goal of walking 8,000 steps—a small, daily migration in which she never leaves home.
Readers will feel that they are breathing along with the characters in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere and living their lives, and eventually their memories, with them. The story “Amma” is about an ordinary Indian girl, Jaya, and how she eventually goes on to hold a strong political position. Out of respect, she is addressed as Amma (“Mother”) by the people of her region. It revolves around her past, and her reflections on the trajectory of her life.
Similarly, “No.16 Model House Road” is an account of an Indian woman who decides to pursue independence after allowing her husband to make decisions for her throughout their marriage. Latha, a homemaker, stands firm in her small act of rebellion, even though she knows she has limited influence in her own house. Yet she recognizes that this is her house and for once, she has power. Overlooked by her family and underappreciated for years for taking care of her children, her sick mother-in-law, and now her grandchildren, Latha rises above the past and the position of powerlessness that she has been in for so long.
It’s fitting that the last story, “Three Trips,” follows a family’s travel between India and the United States, a journey that Bhanoo made many times and that frames the lives of all of the characters in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere. Nine-year-old Taruni is traveling with her mom, dad, and little sister from Pittsburgh to India to visit the rest of the family, especially Padma (her cousin), for the first time since the migration.
Taruni’s first-person narrative illustrates the effects of her father’s decision to go to the United States on multiple generations. The cultural differences between the two nations are illustrated in food and objects: there is the stuff you only find in the United States, like Tang and Pringles, jars of peanut butter, bags of Hershey’s Miniatures, pens that read “Made in America.” Then there are the things that belong to India: home-cooked steaming idlis and hot sambar, cups of hot milk mixed with sugar and Horlicks, a newspaper cone filled with spicy peanuts, and a grandfather’s tin of chocolate crème cookies. As Taruni and Padma reunite, their exchanges reflect on what different lives they now have.
Readers, regardless of their backgrounds, will empathize, step into the characters’ shoes, and live their miseries and happiness. These are migrant stories, but universal ones too, whether it’s Chand and Raji’s successful marriage or Chand’s failure as a professor in the US, or the experiences of Veena, whose son was killed in a school shooting. Then there is Gauri, a middle-aged divorced woman, who chooses to prioritize herself. She leads life on her own terms, but years later realizes that she has perhaps failed. Why has she not been invited to her daughter’s “buddymoon”—but her ex-husband’s girlfriend has?
Sindya Bhanoo’s accessible writing style also takes the reader to a deeper understanding of how as a society, we celebrate only important people, failing to acknowledge the day-to-day sacrifices made by ordinary people, especially women, who exercise their power privately. Bhanoo has a talent for evoking dislocation, especially in evoking an immigrant experience in an era of cheap air travel and the Internet.
And her message? Leaving home and family behind is a decision that can never be changed and a wound that will never heal. The thousands of miles that separate India and the United States can be crossed, but wherever the migrant is, the distance remains unaltered.
Palak Godara is a MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.