Share Your Thoughts
It happens with acquaintances. We see someone rather unique at a gathering and are certain that we’ve met before. We speak to them, and if we are fortunate, they reciprocate the memory of a past meeting. Can this re-connection happen with a book? Happily, I experienced such serendipity with the opening story of Sindya Bhanoo’s collection Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, published in March by Catapult.
The first sentence of “Malliga Homes” said to me Hello, we’ve met before. “Mr. Swaminathan died suddenly, as he was walking back to his flat from the Veg dining hall after dinner.” Being a vegetarian myself, that detail of the “Veg” dining hall had lodged itself in my reading memory. I sensed that I might have previously read this story.
But how was that possible? I had in my hands a galley copy; the book had not yet been published. I recalled Bhanoo’s writing in The New York Times, but that was in the “Science” section, as far away from short fiction as a Big Mac is from my lips.
Each sentence renewed our connection; the story spoke to me. I spoke back in its margins. Had I previously read it in one of those little literary magazines? Had Sindya been in a fiction writing class with me?
‘An Image Gets Stuck In My Mind’
Suddenly, on page 16, there was a bolt of certain recognition. “I wish to hang up, but I think of my husband, and his palm on mine. I soften my tone.” It was as if I was at a social gathering, and that acquaintance introduces her husband. He says Namaste in that reassuring, unforgettable way, and you are sure that you’ve met before.
I know this couple I exclaimed. How could I ever forget that spousal palm gently warning one to not trespass a boundary?
Interview With Sindya Bhanoo
India Currents: Sindya, congratulations on your collection of stories. Before we dive into your marvelous short story collection, can you tell our readers about your life outside of writing fiction? Where’s home for you?
Sindya: Currently, home is Austin, Texas but many places in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere were once home- Pittsburgh, Eastern Washington, Northern California. My parents are from Tamil Nadu, and I have spent a lot of time there as well. My work as a journalist has taken me around the world. My sense of place, as a result, and perhaps home as well, is scattered. (The veteran reporter has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post)
IC: What comes first for you when you are writing a story? Setting? Character? Plot? Theme?
Sindya: Almost always an image. Usually an image gets stuck in my mind. I use that image to enter the imaginary world and investigate the lives of my characters. In “Malliga Homes,” it was a husband’s hand over his wife’s. I knew, too, that the wife was a widow, that this was her memory. In “Amma,” it was a caravan of Ambassador cars. The whole process takes me a very long time. If you know a better way, please let me know.
IC: How do your real-world experiences inform your fiction? In other words, have you lived in all the settings you write about? In what way are your characters modeled after people you have known?
Sindya: Some stories are set in places I’ve lived, but not all. My characters are not based on people I know but tiny fragments of my life might be found scattered throughout the book. My fictional worlds become very real to me and they transcend whatever kernel of truth I might have used to start the story. When a character takes on a life of their own it is a magical moment in the writing process. Generally, though, I do start with a tiny piece of reality. In “No. 16 Model House,” for instance, I knew that I was entering a world where many family homes were being turned into multi-story buildings with flats.
A Quiet Gem
IC: Is there a novel you return to over and over again? Who are you reading right now?
Sindya: I love the work of William Trevor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Edwidge Danticat. Right now, I’m reading Howard’s End by E.M. Forster, a book that is over 100 years old. I’m also about to start The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chen.
IC: Before we close, let’s talk about the story with which I opened the book review: “Malliga Homes.” Thank you for this quiet gem, an accomplishment of understatement and melancholy, which won the O. Henry Prize.
Sindya: “Malliga Homes” has received an overwhelming response. It’s been a joy to hear from readers from around the world. The story is about a lonely widow in a retirement community in India, whose daughter lives in the United States. I think it hit a chord because it came out during the pandemic and so many families dealt with the kind of separation that my main character, Kamala, faces with her daughter.
IC: What is one piece of advice that you wish someone had given you before you began writing fiction?
Sindya: It takes time. So give it time. And observe the world as closely as possible.