REVIEW | Jenny Bhatt's Each of Us Killers
Existence is predicated on work. An exchange of goods and services for a nominal fee that hopefully delivers a survivable profit. In capitalist societies, work is the new religion, endlessly consuming, often necessary, and never quite providing desired sanctity. That is until the human story behind the laborer or business is explored as it is in Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt (7.13 Books). This short story collection showcases labor as a reflection of South Asian identity across the globe.
The collection as a whole is a story of survival in the workplace and an intimate portrait of the human stories behind the labor. From Urmi, a yoga instructor struggling with her aging body to Heena, a middle-aged single woman who starts a home baking business as an escape from her abusive ex-husband in California, the collection immerses the reader into the deeply complicated lives of characters trying to make a living while simultaneously discovering something greater about themselves and their purpose. Heena summarizes this struggle between two lives through her innovative new cookie recipe:
"My first experiment was a simple customization of the traditional nankhatai from my hometown … My recipe yielded an American-sized soft and crumbly version encrusted with pistachios and aromatic with saffron, cardamom, and nutmeg."
Bhatt’s characters are often stuck between worlds – India or the United States, tradition or innovation, work and home, life and death. What unites them all is the allure of success that starkly contrasts the mundanity of their labor. Rafi, a boutique worker, serenades a customer who tries on a sari and is rebuked by his boss and delegated to dressing the mannequins. Decades later, Rafi still eloquently recalls his act of bravery at work:
"He wondered, staring at the rows of mangoes before him now, about the exquisite hopes of youth and how, in time, life eats into them."
Like Rafi, Bhatt’s other characters are grounded in challenging realities, yet their aspirations to improve their lives leap off the page. Neeru, a housekeeper, tries on expensive lehengas at the home where she is employed, and Nik and Meg are willing to offer a bribe to obtain a lucrative contract. Regardless of the nature of their respective work, Bhatt has an uncanny precision of revealing the desire and humanity in the characters’ pursuits. Bhatt’s admirable ability is profound considering the geographic breadth of the collection, spanning labor in India and the United States.
The assorted geographies are matched by the diversity of the prose as Bhatt engages with unique techniques and points-of-view, including the transcripts of a detective’s investigation in Return to India, a termination letter for the Hindu God Vishnu in Separation Notice, and the first-person purgatorial perspective from a couple who has passed away in The Waiting. Bhatt also incorporates flash fiction in the collection in Twelve Short Tales of Women at Work, offering devastating snippets of prejudice, harassment, and discrimination endured by women in the workplace. The subtlety of these stories mirrors the brevity of the author’s sentences, as illustrated in the first flash piece:
"Meeting after all these years, she tried to recall exactly why she had left her job at that firm. He was a vice-president now. Then, he interrupted her while she laughed over someone else’s joke – with a hand rubbing her bra strap long after she had stopped smiling."
These twelve tales highlight Bhatt’s talent as a writer and her intuition for the moments that inspire discomfort and displeasure in the reader. The prose that make the reader cringe are upsetting and disturbing, but also undeniably real and true. Placing characters in rugged and complicated struggles illuminates the reader’s sympathy for their plight. The engaging characters make this collection an attractive read for those who have rooted for the underdog or have themselves clamored for a professional break that could improve their own lives.
Another strength of Bhatt’s collection is its exploration of South Asian identity in the workplace through a wide lens instead of the traditional representations readers are accustomed to in literature and media. Bhatt seamlessly crosses boundaries between white- and blue-collar professions and masterfully balances the reader on either spectrum of labor through contemplative characters and conflicts. An architect, housekeeper, street food vendor, rickshaw driver, baker and others all represent the South Asian experience in India and the United States. The scope of both the geography and occupations are a result of Bhatt’s imaginative spirit that prioritizes relatability to the reader, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The global pandemic has transformed traditional notions of work and thus rendered this collection all the more relevant today. If work is crucial to identity, then those identities have been misshapen and mauled during the pandemic. Considering the current uncertainty surrounding work, this collection might induce nostalgia or serve as a call to end reliance on work for self-discovery. Bhatt’s collection ultimately illuminates the humanity behind labor and the purpose that is sometimes discovered because of work, but other times, in spite of it.
Pardeep Toor's writing focuses on the complexities of being a first-generation South Asian in North America. He won the 2019 Frank Waters Fiction Award and the 2020 Kevin McIlvoy Creative Writing Endowed Fellowship at New Mexico State University. His fiction has appeared in the Midwest Review.