IN HANUMAN’S HANDS: A MEMOIR by Cheeni Rao. Harper One. April 2009. Paperback. 416 pages. $25.99
My father is a person of discipline. Rise at five, bed at ten. A 30 minute walk by the beach every morning, and an hour of prayer every day. As part of his prayer routine, he writes the words “Sri Rama Jayam” through the entire length of a notepad, which he maintains for this express purpose. I was encouraged to do the same as a kid. Let the power and grace of Lord Rama bless you every time you invoke his name, my grandmother would tell me. I have, over the last 20 years or so, been on and off the Sri Rama Jayam wagon.
My father, however, has been on the wagon ever since he started the practice. He may not be able to tell you if it has any salutary or sanguine effects on his health or wealth, but he will tell you that it brings him some peace of mind. Faith is its own reward.
Faith is the subject of Cheeni Rao’s memoir, In Hanuman’s Hands. In this debut, Rao, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, delves into the hyphenated lives of second-generation Indian youth, the avowed purpose of liberal arts education, American college life and its inextricable links with the dark underbelly of society. But the memoir is also a commentary on the complexity of the Hindu religion, of faith and the rendering of faith in contemporary American society.
Rao comes from a long line of priests who worshiped the Goddess Kali and performed services at her temple in Southern India. Rao’s father manages to break the cycle, abandons his temple duties for practicing medicine in the west, becoming “devotee[s] of logic, engineers and doctors sacrificing faith at the altar of science.” The author grows up in a typical suburban desi family, with three siblings and a grandmother far detached from her moorings in the village. This setting should now be now familiar to most readers of Indian-American writing: devout, hard working parents, teetotalers to boot, bound together less by love than by a sense of duty, with kids pulling in straight As, forced yearly visits to the homeland, and so on.
College signals a clean break from immigrant suburbia, and offers a whole new life experience to Rao, who plunges headlong into drugs, sex, and cliques. But his life becomes increasingly complicated when he takes the partying and indulging to an extreme, and he becomes both a victim and an accomplice in the murky world of drug dealing. In Hanuman’s Hands is about Rao’s struggles with his inner demons—drugs and the ensuing health issues—and the outside world—his growing disenchantment with friends, family, and school, and occasional brushes with hoodlums.
Rao grows up with constant reminders of his family’s history with the Gods. His father, after all, broke the tradition of god service, became a doctor, and helped his siblings resettle in the United States. Through his battles with drug addiction, Rao pitches Hanuman against Kali, a Hindu version of the good cop and bad cop perhaps, with Hanuman exhorting him to see the light at the end of the tunnel and Kali goading him to succumb to his addictions. As to whether this is hallucination-induced divine intervention or a metaphor for the struggles that beset drug addicts is uncertain. But that does not detract either from the reality or intensity of Rao’s struggles. If anything, the device serves to draw the reader into a deeper embrace with the story; I found myself hoping against hope that Rao would pull through.
The memoir weaves in and out of three narratives: Rao’s detox years in a half-way house, his years in college as a drug dealer and addict, and the stories about his childhood and family history. The juxtaposing of characters from theRamayana with the seemingly ephemeral, troubled life of the young author seem to evoke the sensation of being on an acid trip, rendering the reading of it at once surreal and personal, and his drug induced hallucinations more immediate. In Rao’s contemporary Ramayana, Ravana is “hopped up on angel dust,” kidnaps Sita, and Rama and Lakshmana, unable to bear the separation, end up “puffing joints and huffing pipes, talking about all the shit they’re going to do when they find Sita.” Hanuman is a tattooed ex-con.
It takes much chutzpah to reinvent the heroes of the epics as heroin-ed losers, but it is also the product of a brilliant mind that sees through the heroism and offers an imaginative reinterpretation. The great epics are our collective received wisdoms, or smriti—that which is remembered. While not quite theVedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata contain within their myriad stories many morals for the everyday man and woman, some, which traditionalists will argue are still applicable today. Rao’s interpretations or reinterpretations of theRamayana—seeing himself at times as Rama, his lover as Sita, and at his roommate and other antagonists as Ravana—are seemingly perverse, yet thoroughly modern and appropriate treatments of the epics. Indians, specifically Hindus, are continually exhorted to follow the path of dharma, of the virtuous Rama, obedient and loyal Lakshmana, and dutiful Sita. Perhaps, in our exhortations, we forget that ultimately the epics are of a certain historical and cultural context, and that a dogged following of the scriptures can at times be at odds with the rigors of reality.
On a side note, this juxtaposition has been tried before, albeit in different settings. While Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is a satirical interpretation of Indian politics through the prism of the Mahabharata, Rao’s is a more personal and disturbing treatment. Disturbing not in the content, but rather in the effect it has on the reader: When do each of our own actions evoke Rama, and when Ravana?
Rao’s memoir is a great read in many ways. It is an honest account of the author’s struggles, but more importantly it is a novel and hitherto undocumented account. The story of a smart immigrant kid, who falls on bad times and finds himself on the streets, is a story beyond the stereotype—one well worth reading.
Girija Sankar is a graduate student in Atlanta.