In each of the eight stories in Sindya Bhanoo’s Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, someone is missing—a child, a parent, a sibling, a beloved elder, a family an ocean away. The missing are not always dead, but their absences, whether by tragedy, choice, or inertia, are still haunting. In this luminous and piercing debut collection, every story hinges on the longing created by an absent figure and the characters who try to fill the empty spaces in sometimes surprising ways.
The opening story, “Malliga Homes,” which won a 2021 O. Henry Prize from Granta, is set in the southern Indian region of Tamil Nadu, at a luxury retirement home filled with residents whose children live abroad, including the widowed narrator. Her daughter and granddaughter have not visited in over two years, and her storytelling aches with abandonment. “The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere. Like me, nearly every resident of Malliga Homes has lost sons and daughters to Foreign. That is the reason we live in a retirement-community-cum-old-age-home, rather than with our families.” The narrator’s daughter lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, a place she cannot bring herself to move to, even for family. Recalling a visit years ago with her husband, the narrator wonders, “What do you do with a big, empty house, full of rooms that you do not need? She never talks about this, but somewhere inside of her she must feel it. She is my daughter after all. Her house, with its vaulted ceilings and skylights, it was no better than Malliga Homes.”
Her daughter is part of something larger that’s missing: a family home and belonging. At Malliga Homes, residents are both a source of community and rivalry, ranking their children’s jobs, adopted countries, and frequency of calls or visits. The food is served in vast dining halls where the narrator often sits alone, and she walks the manicured grounds after dinner, not toward anyone or any place, but to hit her fitness-tracker goal. Seeking one’s fortune elsewhere has disrupted the intergenerational home, where:
the old should be with the young, the young with the old. That was how it was for generations: babies sleeping in the armpits of their grandmothers, children sitting atop the shoulders of their grandfathers. Everyone in the same crowded home.
Adding to the narrator’s palpable disappointment and loneliness is the memory of how her late husband insisted they raise their daughter. “He spoiled her. The best school. The best tutors. The clothes she wanted. The books she liked. Let her go to the movies. Let her relax.” It reads as though the narrator is balking at her husband’s reasonable accommodations and displays of affection until she adds, “No need to make her cook with you, he would say. Do not trouble her. Do not upset her. Let her be.” There is a devastating tension between parental love that provides rich opportunity while refusing to impose obligations that could strengthen bonds. While I root for the daughter’s independence, I also grieve for her mother’s isolation, for all her vibrancy and vitality that must now be lived out in a polished and unfamiliar retirement home.