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A Classic Immigrant Struggle

Reviewed by Poornima Apte Email Reviewed by Poornima Apte
August 2009
A Classic Immigrant Struggle

One day when author Cheeni Rao was still in elementary school, he came home battered after a run-in with school bullies. His older sister took him aside and essentially gave him this advice: Fight. Learn how to throw a punch. It’s advice that Rao, the author of the compelling memoir, In Hanuman’s Hands, really internalized. He learned to fight back, be tough and ask questions instead of merely taking things as they come.

The clash between the Old World and the New, between Indian parents and their Indian American kids has been the stuff of South Asian literature for quite a while now. Authors like Jhumpa Lahiri have farmed this fertile ground to good effect. But Rao’s powerful memoir shows us how extreme this clash can become—and how one can sink to the depths of drugs and depravity and still make a heartening comeback.

In press interviews for this book, Rao has said that his parents were stuck in the India of the ‘60s and that those values didn’t transport well to America. As he grew into his teens, he started asking questions: How was it that his religion—Hinduism—taught him to treat everybody equally, yet, his parents had no problem deriding Americans. “We were told that our religion accepted all people and believed in the innate goodness and equality of all beings, but then told over dinner about the dangerous blacks in America, the devious whites with their lawyers, and reminded that if we ever married any of those people our family would have nothing to do with us” Rao writes. Worse, if he argued, he was labeled as “hormone-fevered.” Then there was the instance where his parents packed away his sister to India just because she received one phone call from a boy. Rao just did not understand it. “My constant fighting, my occasional back talk—these were signs that the Rakshasas already had a firm grip on me. The only way to save me lay in convincing me that I wasn’t doing enough with my life, because fear, pressure, and guilt were good things that kept people from the traps of idleness,” Rao reminisces.

This collision of values made Rao burn inside and he says he was constantly at war with himself. Once in college, his foray into drugs made the “war fully realized and manifested.” In Hanuman’s Hands essentially traces Rao’s journey through his drug addiction and back and is an honest portrayal of all its attendant struggles.

It is important to stress here that while Rao writes honestly about his clash with his parents (more specifically his father) and their extremely conservative values, he never directly makes the leap to blame them for all his problems. Neither should we.

Yet not much else is revealed for why he would head into drugs and seek refuge in escapism. Recklessness was probably an important factor. “None of [the parents’] warnings about what was dangerous, what would lead to trouble, had anything to do with personal experience, and none of the consequences they warned me of ever seemed to happen to the high school kids I saw,” Rao writes. In other words, addiction could not happen to me, he probably thought. Drugs were probably just one on a long checklist the young rebel wanted to experiment with.

Rao firmly believes that his family’s god, Hanuman, was watching over him in his darkest hours and his spirituality was the sole source of support even when all other doors were closed. The memoir is interspersed with details of his family’s history in India, their origins as priests and their touchy relationship with Goddess Kali.

As Rao writes about his college days and experiments with all kinds of drugs (and dealing), he also paints wonderful portraits of his roommates: Salvatore, an Italian student with a good heart and Jonas, a devout Christian who tries to steer Rao back onto the straight and narrow. The careful reader will be struck by the similarities between Jonas’s Christian conservative family and Rao’s own.

As difficult as this book might be, it is also very funny and touching in equal measure. In one telling scene, Rao recounts a ceremony during his senior year in high school, when many of his Indian American peers got up on stage and announced where they were going to go to college. Pretty much all planned on pursuing an engineering or medicine variant and got plenty of applause. When Cheeni got on stage and announced his plans of attending a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, the silence was palpable. “They couldn’t look at me. They were ashamed, and in that moment, I learned to hate my own people,” Rao writes. One’s heart goes out to this teen who is desperate for some level of acceptance from his family and community at large.

There are some instances when Rao’s arguments don’t quite work: For instance, he seems to excuse his addiction by labeling it a curse (interestingly enough, here’s where he thinks like his family) while criticizing his fellow addicts for their helplessness. “I was the victim of a curse, trapped by forces beyond my control. [The fellow addicts] had choices, but insisted in believing they were powerless,” Rao writes. You wish for his own sake that he doesn’t believe in what seems to be an all too convenient and vague explanation for his own misdeeds.

Hopefully many Indian Americans will read this wonderful book and do a bit of soul-searching of their own: As parents, where do you give, how do you adapt to your children’s hyphenated selves? Conversely as children of immigrants, how do you make peace with irreconcilable differences in outlook and values? Apart from the fact that the book is very well-written, In Hanuman’s Hands is worth reading because it is as an important milestone for the Indian American community. In showing us the darkest moments of one of our own, it allows us room to breathe—to acknowledge that there is room outside the confining “model minority” straitjacket.

Most important, it shows that you can fall all the way to the bottom and make a comeback. Rao’s terrifying journey through drugs and homelessness all the way to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a remarkable and touching one. This searing and immensely readable memoir is ample proof that America truly is a land of second chances. Especially if you have Hanuman by your side.

by Cheeni Rao, HarperOne, 416 pages.

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