Reading Like a Writer: Setting and Sensibility in White Dancing Elephants
Setting and Sensibility in White Dancing Elephants
From the collection White Dancing Elephants, Chaya Bhuvaneswar's "Jagatishwaran" is a quiet story about a man stuck in his own life, perhaps due to mental illness, who is living with his parents when his sister comes to visit. The way this character describes the world around him is related to key shifts in his inner life throughout at various moments in the story.
The story opens with a passage of barriers and negations:
In the back of the house there is a corner room that does not open onto the lush and well-tended garden. Its shutters are indolent eyelids opening and closing with the wind. Light comes in small beams from the courtyard where pots are being washed. A woman is sweeping dirty water away from the steps outside the window. At a certain spot behind the empty teak wardrobe that barricades the door, all noises from the courtyard and the kitchen it adjoins are muffled by thick wood. Crouching there, it is not possible to hear the women shouting at each other, mistress to servant and back again, scolding and fretting, cramming the small house full of nervous life.
Flat on my stomach, facing the wall, I can look at my paintings.
The most colorful images tell what is not there: the "corner room does not open into the lush and well-tended garden." This makes the garden into a kind of ghost for the reader. I picture it, know it exists in another part of the house, and then push it aside. The motion required of my brain to do that might be as important as the non-image. Compare it to the dirty water being swept away. The same thing happens in the final sentence with, “it is not possible to hear the women shouting at each other, mistress to servant and back again, scolding and fretting." It is not possible to hear them in the space but also impossible not to hear them after this description. Still, knowing I shouldn't, my brain dismisses the sounds, sweeps them away.
Look also at the phrase, "all noises from the courtyard and the kitchen it adjoins are muffled by thick wood." The word, "muffle," is onomatopoetic, of course, making me hear the not-quiet-noise. However, the structure of the sentence (the noises are X) makes me expect to hear the actual noise. Instead I run into the barrier of "thick wood." When the next sentence does the previously described trick of negation, I understand the absence of sound more acutely because I’ve just hit my forehead against that thick wood barrier.
The passage is full of things being shut, blocked, or swept away, such as, "does not open," "shutters," "indolent eyelids opening and closing," "sweeping dirty water away," "barricades the door," "muffled by thick wood," "crouching," "not possible to hear," "scolding and fretting," "nervous life." The paragraph is shouting "Leave me alone!"
Instead of complying, I'm intrigued, wondering who is shouting at me to keep out. Notice the "I" hides for the entire first paragraph. No main character is introduced at all. There is mention of a woman but I don't learn what she thinks or feels, and there is no sense that the story will be about her.
Because it's unaligned with a character, I initially wonder if the voice is omniscient, or even objective third-person. When the "I" emerges in the second paragraph, it's a surprise. I realize the character has been hiding from me, effacing himself behind the dense description of his hiding place.
The timing of the first person's effacement and emergence is significant. In a short story, a whole paragraph is possibly the equivalent of a whole chapter in a novel, and the first paragraph is largely regarded as the most important. Therefore, this effacement is definitely long enough to be noticed, but not so long the reader gets frustrated or disbelieves the "I" when it comes. The effect is that of a character actively shutting out the world, including the reader, then slowly deciding to let me in just enough. The most exciting aspect for me is the way the opening convinces me of the character's agency—that's he's doing this on purpose.
But we don't stay forever in the mindset of isolation. Look at this paragraph that comes later on:
At times I stay past the late evening, missing dinner at home but not needing to eat. I stay for the morning, sensing the presence of women waking and stretching their smooth, bare arms in flats above and below me, hearing children fighting downstairs as if they whispered in my ear, and the dogs from the street below as if from a great distance away. I hear bangles jingling from downstairs where sugar in coffee is burning, the smell stronger passing from the downstairs windows to where I stand on the sturdy balcony, waiting for the night to pass into morning, listening to the woman in the room behind me as she unwinds the sari from her slender hips.
Walls and borders have a very different meaning here. Women are in flats above him, a whole ceiling between them, but he still senses them. The same happens with the children downstairs who he hears, "as if they whispered in my ear." When the far away noise comes close enough to touch his ear, even through the floor, it becomes intensely intimate. They are touching his body.
It's not just sounds, but smells, with, "sugar in coffee is burning, the smell stronger passing from the downstairs windows." Scent is a more intimate sense than sight or sound (except for that whispering). We must take tiny physical particles into our bodies to smell an object.
Taste and touch also require direct contact; both are evoked. I taste the coffee and the burnt sugar. I feel the heat on my tongue. Words like, "stretching," and, "unwinding," activate the muscles of my arms, making me feel the motion and the tension of those movements. It's all happening in the body.
The "I" is not effaced in this passage. Rather, every sensation is filtered through it. (Filtering is often frowned upon in writing classes, but I promise it can be well used.) We are never allowed to forget that everything we learn in this passage is coming through both the narrator's thoughts and body. He doesn't just know these details of the space but experiences them through his senses.
What does his body sense but other bodies? Those women who are, "waking and stretching their smooth, bare arms," are physical. I can see the arms and feel their smoothness. Even more sensual is, “the woman in the room behind me as she unwinds the sari from her slender hips."
There are still barriers in this passage with so many walls and floor and ceilings, but they are permeable organs through which the character communes with the world. It's like the floor and ceiling of the building have become the narrator's own skin. Even the first sentence, "missing dinner at home but not needing to eat," contributes. The reference to hunger makes us think of bodies, but denying it puts him in a different sort of body, which is perhaps the entire building.
How different from the cramped corner in that first paragraph!
Now, consider the same character is speaking in both places, but his sensibility has shifted from closed to open, protected to exposed, reclusive to welcoming. Setting and a particular voice's description of it, has illuminated a major change in the character, or possibly a complexity or revelation. These are soft, internal happenings, but the dramatic shifts in the sensibility of the narrator mean that it's still a very dynamic story.
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.