Here is the Ramayana on drugs. It is a far cry from the black and white world of the evil Ravana and the squeaky-clean Rama, the pious Sita and loyal Hanuman. A Ramayana where a lustful Ravana, burned out on angel dust, kidnaps Sita, his mind clouded over by passion and desire. Where Rama and Lakshmana, wandering, frustrated and helpless up and down India looking for Sita, dull their pain with endless joints and pipes. And then Hanuman enters the story, a "hardcore ex-con tattooed" Hanuman who rallies his drugged-out monkey army with a big, happy substance abuse recovery-house reunion. What follows is a war - of monkeys and junkies, everybody high, everybody in a fog, in a fuddle, on cocaine, on LSD, a tangled disarray of tarnished minds and bodies. A war of relapsed junkies, and only Hanuman has the cure: the Sanjeevani herb.
is Cheeni Rao's Ramayana. This is how he imagines it, his mind and body
wasted, destroyed, his life a horror-story montage of arson and petty
theft, lies and deceit, a bumpy ride gathering speed down the thorny
road from "soft" drugs to snow-white, baby-powder smooth crack cocaine,
from a comfortable home in the Chicago suburbs to the drug-infested,
dangerous streets of Chicago. From his mother's cooking to Dumpster
trash. From what some might consider a version of heaven, to his very
own version of hell. A tale of South India gone horribly awry. The
aberrant Indian immigrant story that nobody wants to talk about, a
dark, twisted deviant's saga, a black morality tale that happens to
others - Blacks, Whites, Hispanics - anybody but Indians, who have it
all figured out, the straight-and-narrow path to success, the right
values, a crystal-clear view of the proper passage from cradle to grave.
If only it were that easy, that straight-forward.
Cheeni Rao tells his harrowing, hair-raising tale in beautiful, moving words in his memoir of myths and truths, In Hanuman's Hands. His was a family of Brahmin priests, from the coastal Karnataka area that borders northern Kerala. For generations, his ancestors were the caretakers of the Kali temple in their village. Kali, a vengeful, jealous goddess, restlessly seething with long forgotten slights and broken promises, resurrected an ancient curse on Cheeni's family when his father, seeing no future for himself in tending to the goddess and the paddy fields of his village, sought his fortunes in a medical career in a foreign land.
That curse took root in Cheeni. And only one person had the power to dislodge it, neuter it, replace it with something more powerful and uplifting: Hanuman. The war between good and bad, between the destructive powers of Kali and the path out of that morass, is, in Cheeni, one between Kali and Hanuman. And it is drugs, especially cocaine, that grant him the ability to talk to them, to sort out their clashing dialogues, to calm the screaming chaos in his mind.
His was a typical Indian immigrant's life, to the extent that any life is typical. His father, a successful, revered doctor, his mother, a shadowy figure who is never fully fleshed out, but who is clearly unhappy. He was expected to excel academically, and he did. Like so many Indian kids, he was forbidden to date, to "hang out", to do all the things that American children were allowed to do, things that only made these Americans end up being miserable and confused.
It is the clash of cultures that every Indian kid growing up abroad has to deal with. It is not easy for anyone. The parents, so assured, so confident, sometimes annoyingly, sanctimoniously so, that their methods and values are the best, superior because they have produced proven results, stand like solid, unmoving rocks on a seashore. When they are small, their children lap at their feet like gentle waves, caressing their hearts and egos. And then, with the force of a tidal wave, the teenage years hit. They crash on the rocks, their parents, with the terrifying power of a tsunami. What is the parent to do? This is when some of their most deeply held beliefs - many of them unquestioned, unexamined - are threatened. What do you do if your child comes home with a tattoo? Surely, that must mean that he is on drugs, teetering at the edge of horrible depravity, staring at a pit of vipers, into the hollow eyes of the god of failed dreams. What do you do if you catch your friend's daughter holding hands with a boy, giggling, blushing, bursting with the sweetest emotions of adolescence? Surely it has to follow that she will become a bad girl, of loose morals, sleeping around like those Americans, sex-crazy and debauched.I know what many Indian parents would do. Scream, yell, mete out punishment with a heavy hand out of all proportion to the "crime", bemoan the day they set foot in America, all those sacrifices and starving days and nights in vain, such ingratitude, it must be the Evil Eye or some long ago curse coming home to roost.....Rarely is there compassion, a seeking of middle ground. There is judgment, harsh and unrelenting. Through the maelstrom of adolescence, many parents stand firm, unbending, their convictions and beliefs as solid as ever. If they are lucky, the waves will die away gently, subsiding to a sullen, foamy roll, leaving a line of burst bubbles on the shoreline. And these parents will feel vindicated that their methods worked, that their formula for success succeeded. That in a strange land filled with temptations, drugs and sex, they achieved the ultimate goal, producing clean-cut doctors and engineers, scientists and bankers.
If only it were that easy, that straight-forward.
Rao went to college - an elite, top-of-the-line liberal arts college
deep in the woods of Massachusetts, determined to break out of the
shackles his upbringing had choked him with. The pages that described
the goings on in his college brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my
throat. Is this what goes on in American colleges? Is this what happens
when you send 18 year olds away from the safe cocoon of their homes and
families, where they had their decisions made for them, where they
flourished and thrived under the nurturing love of their parents, to a
faraway place in the middle of nowhere, no supervision, no curfews, no
rules (rules, yes, but who cares about them?), unfettered freedom? Does
doing any of this stuff make them bad people, their upbringing, faulty?
Who is to judge?
is not about judging anybody or any life. It is Cheeni Rao's story,
told in clean, powerful prose that brings his narration to life. It is
a descent-into-drug-hell memoir with a difference, a spiritual core, a
warmth and honesty that will envelop you in sadness edged with hope. He
is thrown out of college, thrown out of home, he scrabbles along the
byways of hell, and slowly pulls himself and his life back together. He
tells it without whining, without self-pity. And what I liked most
about the book was that he never blamed his parents for what went wrong
with him. Yes, he describes his upbringing, the expectations, his
heritage, the complex, combustible mix of the various worlds he
inhabited and inherited, their burden so heavy that for years he tried
shaking them off until he realized that they were in him, an integral
part of who and what he was, that he would have to learn to live with
Cheeni Rao realized: it is not that easy, that straight-forward.
The title for this post was inspired by the name of Cheeni Rao's website: http://monkeysandjunkies.wordpress.com/
Here are the details for the book:
In Hanuman's Hands: a memoir by Cheeni Rao, published by HarperOne.