Anuja Varghese’s debut collection, Chrysalis, offers 15 shapeshifting stories that transport us to sex clubs, food courts, small towns, and haunted motels where women reclaim their lives.
The opening story, “Bhupati,” tells of a new father who suddenly begins to care for his backyard shrine to the goddess Lakshmi, even though he is not devout. The first sculpture of Lakshmi is struck by lightning, charring the goddess’s face. The second is also struck by lightning, setting fire to all of her eight hands. On his third try setting up the shrine, Bhupati buys several Lakshmis, both small and large, from Toronto’s Little India, and they, too, are struck by lightning. In the final paragraph of the story, the focus fully shifts to Bhupati’s wife, Maneesha, to reveal that she had been praying for lightning. Written with brevity and humour, this story of misplaced care, divine intervention, and arranged marriage sets a powerful tone for the stories that follow, all of which place women at the centre of transformative experiences.
In “Remembrance,” a woman adds her own story to the urban legend of a haunted motel in a small town en route to Niagara Falls, where a man was murdered. “Everybody thinks they remember what happened,” the narrator says. “Everybody tells the story a little different. … I remember it a little different than everybody else.” She recalls working at a gas station when a woman both “foreign” and “familiar” stops to buy chocolate ice cream. “I remember I thought you were wearing some weird pajamas at first—these baggy, bright purple pants with a matching top, long and shapeless.” Any South Asian reader would recognize this outfit as salwar kameez, but Varghese’s description allows us to encounter the woman in the same way as the narrator, without spelling out the significance of her identity . In just a few pages, Varghese sketches the presence of a racialized woman in a small town – a woman who has just shot her husband. The retelling prompts the narrator to recall the domestic violence her own mother experienced, forging a story that follows the shape of memory: reflexive and circular, yet also sensuous and detailed.
“Milk” cuts a fierce streak too. A brown girl, Anju, gets bullied by a white girl, January, who dumps milk into her backpack in the girls’ bathroom. When Anju witnesses January having sex in the woods, the dynamic between them shifts to reveal the surprising intersection of racism and desire.
The final story, “Chrysalis,” follows a Montreal-born woman who is grieving the death of her mother. Married and living in Toronto, Radhika routinely catches the train to visit her mother’s grave and to see her lover in Montreal. On the train between the two cities, we catch glimpses of her desperate need to transform her life and herself. There is violence in the story, though it is never named; it only becomes clear toward the end, as Radhika buries her wedding ring.
Every piece in Chrysalis is as subtle and punchy as the eponymous final story. Varghese’s women are like her words: brutal, elegant, and resonant.