In the nearly ten years in which i have maintained The Reading Life i have never seen as much attention given to a debut Short story collection as that given to White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar. So far i have posted on four of her marvelous very creative stories, all have death as a core factor and deal with the interaction of persons of Indian background with western countries.
I have just finished Reading The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrup Frye. He talks extensively and very learnedly about the various ways in which myths are used to structure literary works. In all three of the stories I read prior today we can see Bhuvaneswar very profoundly use ancient Indian myths not only as part of the rhetoric structure of her stories but she shows us how people retreat into deeply rooted ancient archetypal myths to help with the otherwise unfathomable aspects of their lives. She overlays the ancient myths with modern reality.
Early European commercial ventures into South and South East Asia societies by England were fronted by The British East India company. The Portuguese and the Dutch also gave near sovereign power to trading companies. Human beings were among the items traded. John Bull was a slaver and a rapist. Most colonial explorers and traders were single men. Of course, as the narrator of this story tells us, they wanted women,either as wives or slaves. Slaves from India were regarded differently from African:
"Small for his age then, easily bound, Heitor was brought by ship and force, by sons of spice traders, by members of large prosperous companies, brothers of men who had settled in Goa, the place in India where the first human remains of the Old World were found. Those traders had married the most beautiful Indian women they could find, converting them to Christianity with jewels stolen from their own ancestors. Heitor was sold for an elite price to work for the nuns of Evora, and their novitiates. Indian, Chinese, Japanese slaves were bought and sold in Portuguese as males, than African slaves, and thus allowed to work in the convents. As a child, he was striking for his quietude, forming a graceful harmony with the aggressive potential of his prematurely hard and strong limbs. Beginning at the quick, observant, diligent age of eight, Heitor was saved from harder labor, given to the convent’s Indian gardener and its cook. They were nowhere to be found on his last night. The men, lovers, were hiding for fear of being chained. They were both drunk and in despair that they had not foreseen his fate."
Heitor was sentenced to death for sexual contact with Portuguese nuns. There is an interesting plot in the story. It also turns on sexual relations between enslaved persons and Europeans.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2,and featured on the Other Storiespodcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.She is a practicing physician.
This story is part of our Stories by South Asian Women Project.