Exploring the art of prose


Orchid, Excerpt from Orchid: A Memoir by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Image is a color photograph of a white orchid in shadowed light; title card for the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest Winner, "Orchid, Excerpt from Orchid: A Memoir," by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s “Orchid,” which is an excerpt from Orchid: A Memoir, is one of three winners of the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest, guest judged by Sarah Fawn Montgomery.

Richly detailed and structurally complex, “Orchid” is a powerful standalone piece from a necessary book. With an overarching metaphor that links various threads together while also allowing themes to bend and blend, to cover great distance of space and time, personal and familial history, this essay undertakes a vital exploration of inheritance—racial identity, gendered expectation, family trauma, language, and madness. “Brown. Working class. Survivor. I distinguish the enmeshed identities, of Brownness and class status, because of how I fall between them,” says the writer, whose distinctive voice guides us through a story of strength and survival.  —Sarah Fawn Montgomery


“Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”  ―Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


Chapter One: Orchid Tattoo

1. …granulation tissue

Granulation tissue is cell growth, after a wound, that knits together what’s been torn apart; that can be “exuberant,” resulting in a raised, dark scar (like a thick keloid on Brown skin).

Or granulation tissue as temporary covering—quickly absorbed without a mark.

As long as the wound isn’t cut open again; as long as there aren’t shards of glass, or other embedded foreign bodies that could reinjure, or a recurrent, heavy stress—healing can happen without even hints of a bruise.

But secrets, like foreign entities forced down deep into a body—those can give rise to bruises too and mark the skin. Healing for a while when forgotten, they reopen, without warning. Like the secret of what my mother is. Secret of how my father hated me.

Consider granulation tissue in relation to tattoos. Granulation tissue is what forms after ink has been injected into a deep layer of skin. How paint—how pain—becomes a permanent decoration, a form of invincible closure.

When I am fifteen, summer before I first get away from my parents, the summer before I go to live for two months in the Mojave Desert with a group of other high school girls and half a dozen white men in their twenties, all of them stoned most of the time, I am walking down Main Street in Flushing, New York. Following the crush of families, commuters, coming from the library, alone. Sober, always, without question, not only in the sense of drugs but also in my contemplations.

You seem so tormented by life, near-strangers will write in my high school yearbook.

In a clean air-conditioned library reading room that is so much safer than my house, I’ve been looking at paintings of flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe. An Orchid. That day, inspired by others’ skin, I consider getting an orchid tattoo, an unthinkable act in my family. Creating a scar on my young virgin skin means damaging what they think of as property—but creating the right scar could protect me. In front of me: Latina girls, Korean-American women, thin white girls in halter tops, arrays of dark-blue or bottle-green tattoos ornamenting paler skin than mine. Moon-pale and fortunate, canvas for the intricate, earned designs. Contemplating their naked skin, I feel a thrill. If New York is a place where I can wear a miniskirt, which I couldn’t have in 1980s India, not on the street and not in some relative’s house, with “family in India” a parallel universe of restriction and pathology from which my parents drew authority, why couldn’t I get a fucking beautiful tattoo? I stop at the tattoo parlor that I’ve passed every day for years. See a big lavender orchid tattoo image in the window. Read:

The people who make orchid tattoos do not accept any authorities and study only on their own experience. Sometimes they make fatal mistakes, but do not regret them and it is as if they forget about them though the despair remains deeply in their soul.

2. …orchidaceae

My very first orchid was a gift during college—I can’t recall from whom, only the white flower, solo, brave and delicate, its petals flat, its roots that can be smothered by too much water.

I remember how my mother, when she came to pack up my dorm, speculated on who gave me the orchid. How it became a symbol of my young beauty—a source of pride but at the same time, a thing to hide, to mock. A beauty she’d keep for herself. Or taint enough so no one would want it.

Brown. Working class. Survivor. I distinguish the enmeshed identities, of Brownness and class status, because of how I fall between them. I am Brown but considered “light” in the South-Indian community—not light enough, ever, to be mistaken for white, but “Anglo” enough, in my features, so that a white British classmate at Oxford asked me (at a party with several other white people) if I was Anglo-Indian. This ethnic ambiguity is a feature of my face, of which my family was especially proud. Not that this physiognomy has ever been visible to most Americans, who see my Brownness as categorical. Not that actually having a white ancestor would make anyone in my family proud; that would have been a cause for desperate shame, a physical sign of defilement, a prompt for sickened silence about what can never be undone (the rape of Indian women by British colonialists or, even worse in my parents’ eyes, sordid affairs between Brown girls like me and one of them, the outsiders, the mleccha, the unclean ones, the thieves, the white men who should have never even known we existed).

It was a point of family pride, especially on my father’s lighter-skinned side, that I could be mistaken, on any level, for “part white,” “nearly white,” “almost as good as white,” especially if, with effort, I spoke without “an Indian accent,” and not even a Queens one, but instead with a careful imitation of the flat, precise diction of the Leslie Stahls and Diane Sawyers and Candice Bergens of American TV, speakers of what I considered “Blond English” whom I watched fervently as a girl. Convinced of their absolute worth, much less convinced about my own.

On the phone, I could pass as upper-class white, ideally, an ice blond (because of how easy I found it to sound cold, how natural it was to fall into my mother’s way of speaking), so much so that my father forced me to be the one to speak to “outsiders” whenever possible, starting from when I was in my teens—even as he ridiculed me for “putting on the airs” of speaking an English he couldn’t, and even as my mother (whose English was highly refined but Indian accented, more so when she was in a rage, which was often) called me by the derogatory “patti amal,” a Tamil phrase for “know-it-all” that’s meant to call to mind a five-year-old with unattractive spectacles, unpopular elementary schoolgirl who acts like a granny. Whenever I seemed certain of anything or advocated for what I believed were my rights (not to be touched without my consent; not to have my breasts discussed and mocked by my mother, who joked repeatedly, as if she had a verbal tic, that I had “a big chest”), my mother would use the Tamil phrase for me, of condescension and contempt. Patti amal. I still hear its knowing echo, well along into adulthood; still worry about “sounding too sure” of myself.

3. …pestilence

Back in India, on my mother’s side, my grandfather was a civil servant of the Raj, a judge who studied for multiple language exams, each one a way to increase his pay grade. He was a symbol of a privileged, if ambivalent “class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” most of them Brahmins, who realized Macaulay’s racist vision of creating local agents of empire, British in every way (the British thought) except their race. My mother, along with her sisters, was educated to have a profession. My uncle grew up and became a diplomat, though lacking in wealth or connections, was only ever sent to Eastern Bloc countries to shiver. Servants were a given in my mother’s childhood home.

Yet growing up, I only ever attended schools that were free, because my father remained unemployed for much of his life despite striving, constantly, for a job where he felt respected, where he could be safe from the childhood poverty that haunted him. I understood that we were poor most clearly when I was sent to summer camp in the public housing project two blocks from where I lived, where I passed as biracial Black and white, because there were no other Indians, and I lived in a house across the street from the most poorly funded school with the lowest test scores in our district, a house that was even closer than the projects were to the town sewage dumps, our small neatly kept house with its small Ganesha image on the door a reliable receptacle for curious, ever-bold legions of large rats.

The elephant-headed god actually rides a rat, who was once a powerful, voracious demon, now transformed into this little pest by Ganapati (whose name, roughly translated, means “the general,” lord of the troops). The rat is an animal symbol of greed, stamped out by the welcoming and filial god, and our rats were indeed greedy and inquisitive, peeking out from holes in the walls and under appliances, constantly shifting their home base, relentless, adapting, victorious in gaining access to every uncovered pot of food, every crevice. I envied the creatures as much as I hated them. They were so impervious to my mother’s disapproval, to my cold fear. To my father’s jeering taunts and shouts as he made much of his valor, when he had killed one overnight, triumphant and loud the next morning. Sleek, fast, unashamed, those rats did whatever they wanted.

I didn’t. But one thing I did, maybe (probably) because I wanted to get as far away as possible from a life plagued so constantly with rats, is that I began, in my midteens, to observe madness, around me, in my family, along with moments in my life when I felt free of it. Why not get exterminators? Move? Do something? Various people (mostly white people) have asked me these questions. Why not hire contractors to close up all the ratholes, block their access? Make the house feel safe and clean again? My mother’s voice, bitter and enraged, saying, “I found rat shit everywhere,” about some part of the house she had believed was safe from them—or full of grief uttering the two Tamil syllables, “Yel-li,”one word, a proper name, the rats like a single person, like one force. The many vermin like one spirit, devouring the house, brushing against me in the night when they found ways into my room: dark masses guarding the kitchen against the dark, or being the dark that we guarded against. Tails high in the air as they strutted around the top of our stove. And yet my mother insisted change was not possible, not yet and maybe even never, though nearly every night, we could hear the rats scratching, scratching, patient, oh so horrifically patient, through the thin walls that, maybe for only one more night, protected us from them. Reading the novel 1984, I had to leave my school classroom when we reached the rat scene, then take deep breaths and tell myself to substitute another word, goblins, so Winston Smith’s terror wouldn’t trigger mine. Despite my suffering, the rats remained an inexplicable given—that is, until the day my mother determined it was time for she and my father to sell our house, years after I’d left for college. Only then, through unclear means, did she install a foolproof way to keep them out, a buttressing, complete refashioning of the walls of the house. Only then did our house become a convenient, cozy place to live. Only long after me and my brother could no longer benefit.

I don’t know that she wanted me and my brother to suffer. But by eight or nine, I understood—deeply: she didn’t not want our suffering. Presented with that spectacle, sweet substance of our childish, ample tears, she’d savor it—she’d mine our discomfort for moral meaning, the carrying out of divine punishment, or else use it as an opportunity to urge us toward strength.

Madness—a word that in the harsh realm of my family home, held powerful sway. To my child eyes, madness was the foreignness of India—crazed-looking holy men, emaciated and sunburned. Their mouths pouring red from chewed-up betel leaves, spitting red saliva easily mistaken for blood, letting wild snakes crawl all around their scrawny necks. My maternal uncle looked somewhat like this, my mother’s youngest brother, who I only understood years after meeting him suffered most likely from schizophrenia, though he never consented to any objective assessment, and even this diagnosis was a guess by my mother, who wasn’t a psychiatrist, made on the basis of how my uncle muttered to himself, often angrily, and how he accused my grandmother of poisoning his food (though, convinced of his psychosis, my grandmother did sprinkle his food with lithium as local doctors suggested, those doctors apparently unconcerned about informed consent).

But I was selfish, when it came to madness. Madness, as not me, was my ticket to freedom. Observing madness made me understand that I remained, and would be, whole.

It was my family’s madness that liberated me, not as a state of being but as a point of differentiation I could hold onto. Observing my uncle wearing dirty rags, gesticulating, ranting, spitting in the face of my sane and tiny grandmother, and also noticing, in the background, an aunt who in her early forties grew a short but full beard, seemingly unconcerned enough to simply pat her face powder over it, bleaching her mustache but not the dark grizzle of beard on her chin—I saw madness as emphatically, alluringly, not me, and wanted both to bring it close and push it far away.

Any kind of madness was fascinoma—a term I didn’t actually learn until I was in my twenties and in med school, but had intuited by the age of nine. The same age I was when a white teacher scolded me for constantly “raising my hand” (spiritual sister of the kindergarten teacher who said I needed to be “taken down several pegs” because of “how bossy” I was, how I compelled several little white boys to follow my lead, even into disobedience—like I was the white boys’ Pied Piper). The same age where I became known in school for being a “crybaby”—none of the white counselors suspecting, or at least asking, why I came to school in tears so many times, or could start waterworks without warning, when classmates bullied me even mildly, like one imposing white girl, mostly harmless, asking if I had “staring problems,” or another gaggle of girls, not all of them white but all of them extremely pretty, who giggled behind their hands when I wore a skirt and showed my still-unshaven legs.

There was my second-grade teacher, exclaiming, impatient, for me to “stop being so sensitive!” and crying one too many times. But I didn’t need any other person, child or adult, to shame me for my tears. I lived and bathed in shame, only aware, from a distance, that there were people who lived without its constant constrictions.

Fascinoma—a term for disease that thrills medical minds. The idea of an event, affliction, or even an entire person, being so interesting, the degree of interest is considered an extreme, the sheer level of difference from any norm a signifier of pathology. I visualize a fascinoma as more than an ordinary collection of cancerous cells, more than the usual ambiguous flap of skin somewhere nobody accounts for. The fascinoma of my family was the madness I observed, sometimes with detachment, other times with fear—but never quite the fear that I’d match that madness, because all I needed was books, locked doors, places to walk. I was happy to be left alone. Dying to be.

“The fascination of what’s difficult”—that poem by Yeats:

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

In movies, madness can be the sap. Madness, rather than a contaminating force, a type of pestilence, dark rats of chaos trailing death and screams, is often portrayed instead as unpredictable but potent intoxication, dervishes whirling, artist smearing paint on a canvas, creative fever dream. Pretty blond girls laughing up a storm, kicking their heels—Drew Barrymore, manic pixie dream girl. Or January Jones in Spinning Out. Mother with bipolar disorder, up in the middle of the night and setting up a tent and marshmallows on sticks for a campfire, delightful and fun though erratic, the bright color her daughter yearns for.

Except the movie of madness that my parents starred in, the unspooling inside my house, was more like the movie Shine. In the 1996 movie, Geoffrey Rush plays an Australian piano prodigy whose talent can’t protect him from his own father. Boy in a tub, nude, shielding himself from blows.

My father, hitting my brother with a belt, aiming a heavy glass bottle at my head and lifting it to throw, until I ran barefoot out of the house for nearly three city blocks, blocks littered with broken glass, a distance that allowed me to survive, but could never have been far enough.

My father, shouting a prayer to God to “strike him blind if he is lying” as he lied, denying that in a moment of anger he’d cut my hand open with a knife. But I wouldn’t stop remembering that night. I was in my early teens, not long before I wanted that tattoo but couldn’t go into the parlor, too scared to cut my defiance into my skin.

My father, a sworn enemy of dancing, unable to witness any pure joy in the body without mocking people dumb enough to wave their hands for joy—my father stomping energetically, trying to “scare” away the rats, defend his bed from their rapid, incessant invasions. Breathless and laughing whenever he killed one, not merely by stomping but by chasing it into one of the dozen glue traps strewn around the house.

For my father, madness always raised the stakes. He seemed to envy its raw power. Madness was really a marker of resolve. His madness proof that he meant what he said. If he told me, “I will make you rue the day you set forth on this earth,” he meant it. If he said, “I will destroy you,” he wasn’t being dramatic, or maudlin.

Not that there weren’t moments of comedy in my parents’ movie. My mother in particular, had jokes:

You have a fat chest! (She would poke, stroke, uncomfortably fondle my said anatomy.)

Spank! Spank! (My mother would slap my bottom, including before I had a chance to get fully dressed, not only when I was four or five years old, but twenty-one, up to age twenty-seven when I resolved never to be within the same four walls as her, ever again.)

Remote control! She would exult, gloating at how easily she got my brother to do things. The first time, when I was about thirteen and he was eight, she explained the joke, but then, over decades, it became her shorthand for gloating, her claim to victory and power over someone—something—where, by definition, as “mother of special needs child” she was powerless. Trembling recipient of white doctors’ mercy, instead of herself being a wise dispenser of manna, serene Eastern doctor. Mother goddess.

My mother’s terror: I never understood it all, and even then, only slightly, when I myself was giving birth. What it is like to be told: Your newborn baby had a stroke. If this had happened to a stranger when my mother was a pediatric resident, it would’ve been spoken of with hushed eagerness, untrammeled curiosity. My mother, a young doctor, turning the pages of large medical books, stopping at color photographs, the blood vivid, of burst arteriovenous malformations, aneurysms in the brain, types of centers that couldn’t hold. No unknown horrors; how confident she must have been, an academic medalist during her medical training.

My mother believed she knew the body—yet it was a body that surprised and betrayed her. The unthinkable, postpartum surprise that became my brother’s life came during half-sleep, during her recovery from childbirth. Words like hypoxia and brain damage. My mother, lonely in the hospital bed (my father home, talking with friends); my mother, blaming my father for the rest of their joined lives, for calling his friends with so much pride to see his newborn son, thereby exposing my brother to the evil eye that caused him to endure a severe stroke. My mother, alone for those few moments, facing my brother’s new reality. Completely alone until she came home, told me to go away, be quiet. Waited for me to become old enough to help, to be her confidante. When I was six.

And yet I found my way into a normal, seductively boring, comfortable life. House, kids, husband, and soon a dog. Suburbia. Respectable practice. Activism to end homelessness and poverty. Rhodes Scholar. Loving mother. Fairly racy sex life (only three “relationships” but lots of, well, good times with people I was with only a few times). And until I was twenty-seven and left home for good: a devoted sister. A person who helped my brother learn to take the bus independently, apply for jobs, date a girlfriend.

How was it possible? I actually don’t know. All those years with my parents, I believed I would escape, yet couldn’t picture any other life beyond their grip.         Then day by day, a life they never let me imagine, intruding upon this life occasionally with threats. The threats were frightening at first—I will curse you I will tell your in-laws you are an immoral daughter I will destroy your career—but in time took on a slapstick villain quality.

From a great distance, nowhere near where he lived, I laughed at my father. Made sati jokes about my mother when my father died. And yet, before he died, spent months talking to his nursing home staff and visiting him there when he could barely speak. And with my mother, have already set up home nurse’s aides who’ve visited her, who stand ready to help if and when she ever needs it.

I am a fascinoma, an orchid. Rare flower growing in some secret Himalayan mountain glade. Psychiatry tells me I don’t exist—that children of parents who were truly mad, the way mine were, whose rage was ravenous, whose touch invaded and controlled, for years, shouldn’t be able to make their own way in the world the way I did, for long years even without formal “therapy” (though I was always close to friends, teachers; others in power who helped me). People with the “attachment issues” I suffered shouldn’t have been able to form all the attachments that I have, including a marriage and primary romantic relationship lasting over two decades and beloved children who know beyond a doubt I adore them. People who were brutalized, the way I was, shouldn’t be able to “pass” as the daughter of “loving parents,” nor to be someone who offers professional comfort to others. A psychiatrist. People who have had pain inflicted so decisively upon their bodies—I mean physical pain, the body in despair, shoved; pushed down short flights of stairs, so that, while I escaped broken bones and head trauma, I was startled, frightened, often into silence; slapped repeatedly with eager hands; punched with a closed fist full of simmering rage. My hand cut open with a knife, my father’s response to hearing me, at age fourteen, closing the door of my bedroom and uttering loud curse words to myself in the way I now know, from studying medicine, is part of what textbooks call autonomous development. The day I knew I would escape—chased with a glass bottle, out onto the street, my father muttering that he would “smash” me, his threat oddly indolent, more like, “Watch out, I’ll smash you down once I make up my mind,” sliding away into vagueness.

Not liking the way I stared at him with real disgust, he threatened me with a hot iron—how perceptive he was, my dad, knowing exactly when my fear turned into a contempt with its own damning, cruel power. But the insults—I still don’t see why those should leave a scar. “Stupid,” “lazy,” “ugly,” “ungrateful wretch,” “lacking in discipline,” and “disgusting” (my father’s usual expression, in Tamil, for this was sherrupunatham, or, “smell of a whore,” which he was convinced did come from me, radiating and contaminating the whole house, even though I often showered twice a day).

I didn’t even need to go to med school to believe that “such people”—such people, meaning me: victim, survivor, words I’ve learned; but unlucky, cursed, the words I feel—would have been expected to have post-traumatic stress, except I don’t, maybe because, long before I learned what narrative therapy even was, I wrote and wrote in secret journals, writing down everything my parents did, nearly always right after the violation occurred, never suppressing any memory. Never lying to myself. Knowing I’d get out. For real. Constructing worlds I stepped into, somehow. A diorama become real. But how?

As an adult outside my parents’ house, I’ve also never been in violent relationships (only three intimate relationships in as many decades), never tried drugs, maybe tried drinking champagne or wine fewer than ten times in my whole life, and don’t feel a loss. Also: Never been diagnosed with mental illness, even though I’ve gone to see therapists and even been evaluated by old white male psychiatrists considered “standard bearers,” telling them all I had been through, including about my mother.

Some of those old white male psychiatrists have been like fathers to me. I have loved them with one side of my heart, even while I look at all white people with fear and distrust.

In addition: I’ve never knowingly betrayed a friend, never threatened another human being (except my mother, whom I threatened I would report to the authorities if she attempted to do to my daughter what she did to me). I’ve never had an altercation (easier to have no bar fights if you never drink). Never sued anyone or wanted to; never burned, cut, or tried to hurt myself in any way; never deliberately humiliated anyone (though after the fact, I know I have). Never woken up with self-destructive, nameless rage (I know the names for what I feel).

I see all this neverness as absence, not “goodness”—absence of a certain kind of wound. Yet the wound did happen to me. I’ve never denied the fact. Seeing the raised eyebrows, still kept on revealing my family’s history to friends, potential boyfriends, even medical colleagues, most of whom didn’t bother to hide their revulsion. Here is a note written to one of my residency psychiatry supervisors, to whom I disclosed what happened to me, dimly aware that I ought to:

My marriage, my friendships, they’ve been really okay. I feel real safety in this house. The truth is, I’ve felt safe for years now. It brings me joy to help people. That feels okay. Whereas I don’t know where the piece fits: My mother. My origin. I’m standing in a crater left by a volcano that went off and left me deaf, numb, afraid, uncertain, full of self-doubt and guilt. I’m standing in this crater and it’s vast and desolate. I am alone yet there’s a monster chasing me. What if this monster chases my children someday?

My mother hasn’t been a part, at all, of my two children’s lives. Sometimes I grieve her, and it’s not even the more limited grief of simply not having a “mother.” Sometimes I grieve my actual mother—brilliant, mercurial, energetic, seductive, strong-willed. So smart, her wheels always turning. Above all, strong-willed. Even charming sometimes, the way I have learned sociopaths can be. She seemed surprised that I persevered, resisting her. I knew she was wrong—it was wrong, what she wanted. I knew it never was my fault.

I listen to my trauma patients struggling with their guilt (post-traumatic cognitions: types of altered thought and emotion that I spent years of my training pursuing clinical research about). I listen to them, and while their pain resonates, what I felt was different. I puzzle over why I wasn’t pulled down into the dark. I felt light all along. I felt my mother never could define how I would live. That I’d never belong to her. Why? How? When does a person’s life stay green, grown from ashes? Why did I bloom, when friends who also suffered trauma didn’t? When there were people in my circle—an Iranian-American Rhodes scholar with PTSD who died from an overdose, a famous blond and beautiful writer with cutting and bulimic behaviors, and so many patients who had once attempted suicide—who “questioned whether life was worth living?” (a question I ask patients at least a few times a day). When young women like those written about by Freud, Breuer, then later the 1970s psychiatrist Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery, even lost their voices from trauma? Like Freud’s dreamed-of inamorata Dora did when her father molested her, when she went hoarse. As if my mother, a perpetrator, was the sea witch to my mermaid, wanting to make me voiceless. Except I never stopped singing, loudly. How? Why?

Why does it eat at me so constantly, this question of why?

Science, at least, allows me to know.

For example: Orchids are epiphytes, meaning that with their thick, substantial roots—fat roots—they can grow by attaching to trees, rather than requiring soil. Their plump roots can be aerial, light and floating, impervious to the absence of solid ground, to the lack of the familiar. The heft of the roots tells the health of the orchid; thin, brittle roots are undesirable. Too weak.

Even as I scrutinize and “work on” my Brown survivor body, incessantly, sometimes I’m proud of my “orchid fat roots,” the horticultural term for how epiphyte orchids’ roots are covered with velamen, a form of spongy and resilient epidural tissue, enabling the orchid to absorb nutrients and water from nothing. From even thin air.


CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a practicing physician, writer, and finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection for White Dancing Elephants: Stories, which was also selected as a Kirkus Reviews Best Debut Fiction and Best Short Fiction and appeared on “best of” lists for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue India, and Entertainment Weekly. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Narrative, Tin House, The Sun, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Masters Review, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and has been anthologized elsewhere. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Find her on Twitter at @chayab77.


Featured image by Berlian Khatulistiwa, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

“Orchid” is a memoir excerpt about the experience of living in a Brown femme body as a queer South-Asian woman psychiatrist, a body resembling those targeted by the carceral state that punishes any who resist it, whether patient or doctor.

But “Orchid” is a new story. Not a story of trauma and survivorship, but dreamy flowering. Enduring, strange, evasive modes of growth.

Not simply an American story, or an immigrant story, but the story of a plant with roots that touch British colonial soil, violent topography and luxurious materials—a story of Raj.

In my memoir, I interweave personal narratives of medicine and madness with familial and societal violence, against the backdrop of colonial history, including the Victorian British Raj conception of the orchid as an exotic trophy from colonized nations, but for me, a metaphor for stubborn survival, with orchids the oldest plant family on earth, dating back 110 million years. I use carefully curated scenes and storylines to center my relationships with my parents and my brother, but the understory is larger—fanning out to the history of my colonized family, including my two grandfathers who were already fathers by the time of Indian Independence and Partition, and to their legacies so informed by the rigid social and caste divisions and racial self-hatred specific to Indians during the British Raj and its aftermath.


CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a practicing physician, writer, and finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection for White Dancing Elephants: Stories, which was also selected as a Kirkus Reviews Best Debut Fiction and Best Short Fiction and appeared on “best of” lists for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Vogue India, and Entertainment Weekly. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Narrative, Tin House, The Sun, Electric Literature, The Kenyon Review, The Masters Review, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and has been anthologized elsewhere. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Find her on Twitter at @chayab77.