434: Conversation With … hot young Indian-American writer Cheeni Rao on crime and a family’s spiritual wisdom

THERE ARE TWO WAYS TO INTRODUCE “IN HANUMAN’S HANDS,” the gripping new book by hot young (he’s only 35) Indian-American writer Cheeni Rao:

Introduction No. 1: “In Hanuman’s Hands” is a visceral, R-rated half-memoir, half-jazz-riff on temptation, addiction and the drug trade, penned by an author who admits he’s still drawn toward that darkness on a daily basis—in the tradition of James Ellroy, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

Introduction No. 2: “In Hanuman’s Hands” is a deeply moving family story about crossing oceans, cultures and generations to weave together a new kind of future—from the toughest spiritual strands of the past. In the tradition of … Well, it’s hard to think of religious models for this kind of book. Cheeni Rao’s wounds as a real-life recovering addict and one-time homeless drifter are as raw as a hundred other writers who’ve explored these themes before him—but very few of those memoirs end up with the kind of stirring affirmation about the strength of family and faith that we find in this new tale.

    So, is this a “book,” a “memoir” or a “tale”? In the end, it’s all three. I like the words memoir and tale, though. It’s autobiographical reflection, so it’s a memoir. And it’s also a tale—much like “Black Dahlia,” “Naked Lunch” and “On the Road” are tales that blend memory and fiction. Cheeni says this book is very close to the documented history of his life—but he also admits that he “blacked out” during certain phases of his homeless life and he reconstructs scenes from his ancestors’ lives back in India that sometimes are startling and sometimes are stirring. But he wasn’t there when these things supposedly happened to know for sure.
    You may be wondering from Introduction No. 1: Is the street-life portion of this book as good as other classic tales of temptation and dissolution? Let’s see if readers of crime-and-addiction literature still are drawn to this book in 10 years before answering that question.
    But what certainly is remarkable here—what leads us to highly recommend this memoir with all its sharp edges and tough language—is the spiritual hope that emerges in the end.
    Midway through the book, reading an extended passage on how Cheeni’s mother and father met back in India and navigated the complicated customs of arranged marriages to pursue their love for each other—that’s the moment when we know this book is … well, it’s truly and tenderly unique.


    DAVID: Let’s sketch in a few biographical details for readers. You were born in this country to traditional Hindu parents. Back in India, your ancestors were among the priestly class and, here in this country, your parents are professionals in other areas. Your Dad’s a doctor. You were a straight-A high school student with talents in theater arts—but you also developed a secret life of addiction and crime. In 1992, you enrolled in Williams College in Massachusetts. You were a pre-med student, but you got very involved in the theater program there. And, tragically, you also got very involved in parties and substance abuse.
    Then, three years into your time at Williams, drugs and alcohol sent you into a tailspin that knocked you out of school and eventually led to hard-core addiction, crime and even periods when you were sleeping out in the open on the streets. Eventually, you began to restore your life and you made it back to the University of Chicago, where you got your BA in 1998, then you did graduate work at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This novel is a memoir of your family, going way back in their history, but also it’s a brutally honest look at your painful years of decline and recovery in the 1990s.
    CHEENI: That’s right. When I was still at Williams, my family thought I was going to become a doctor. I didn’t include this in the book, but while I was still at Williams, I got involved in the Asian theater project on campus. I worked on ensemble stuff. I started writing plays and I also directed. So already this route was opening up for me of writing and sharing my experiences in this way. There were so many things you could never talk about in my family. This all built up inside of me, and sitting in science classes memorizing formulas wasn’t allowing me to express what was really going on inside of me. I felt alienated from the outside world, especially from my family. I couldn’t communicate with them honestly about my life.

    DAVID: Like a lot of immigrant families from minority communities in this country, your family wanted you to become a professional. Even though your ancestors were of a priestly class back in India, in this country the adults became doctors and engineers. I’ve seen this in Muslim communities in the U.S. as well. Those professions become a standard of success.
    CHEENI: In our community, you’re given those two choices—you either become a doctor or an engineer. There are some members of my family who still do stuff related to the priesthood back in India. But in order to escape poverty and to transform their lives and provide for their families here, they needed to take on these new skills and learn these ways of making money in the U.S. They wanted the stability these professions represent. I remember having a conversation with my father about the law. I thought at one point that I might want to become a lawyer. He didn’t think I should. He said, “Oh, I don’t know anything about being a lawyer.” Families follow traditions they know about.
    DAVID: Now, you’re a full-time writer and editor. You live in Iowa and have a successful business working on many different manuscripts for writers and publishers. Is your family OK with that?
    CHEENI: I think I got the leeway to become a writer because I was so badly broken by all that happened to me after Williams. When I finally started to put my life back together and went to the University of Chicago, my parents kind of hoped I might still pursue medical school—but their expectations for me had dramatically lowered. Just becoming a productive member of society again was enough. As long as I wasn’t out there doing drugs and being a criminal anymore, then they could be OK with what I chose to study.

    DAVID: Help me clarify what you’re really saying here, because there are some people writing about your book who blame your problems mainly on your parents’ strict religious approach to life. A Chicago Sun-Times reviewer writes: “All this happens because a young Rao, hemmed in by his parents’ stern Hindu values and his white American peers’ refusal to accept him, predictably bursts.
    “Predictably bursts”? Sounds like this reviewer thinks that a strict, religious family inevitably produced your addictive behavior, breakdown and lawlessness. In many years of reporting on religion, I know a whole lot of strict families who’ve produced admirable sons and daughters. Plus, I’ve read your book and I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Your parents’ inability to talk with you contributed toward your slide into all these problems, but they didn’t cause it. How do you feel about what this review is saying?
    CHEENI: I appreciate the review, but I do have an issue with that point. It’s the reviewer’s personal reaction to my story and I can’t disagree with his reaction. It’s his reaction.
    But the issue with my family—and all families in communities like this—is complex. Our families do put huge pressure on kids. Talking about what’s really going on in our lives is very difficult. The pressures we feel as sons and daughters do have consequences throughout our lives.
    I have a cousin who’s a doctor and he’s confided in me over the years that he doesn’t have the passion for the work that he feels he should. He often wonders if this was the best choice for his life. Because of the pressures and expectations, people force themselves to fit into these holes prepared for them by their families. He’s a doctor now. He wonders what might have happened if he’d had another choice.
    What happened to me—I don’t think it was an inevitable part of my background. In my case there was a lot going on internally that led to my falling apart. The strict upbringing made it so that I couldn’t confide in my family about my confusions. They would just shut down these thoughts I was having right away. They’d just say: You shouldn’t think like that! So, I didn’t have a family where I could be open about these pressures inside of me and they couldn’t help me come to an understanding about what was happening.
    But did my family cause me to fall apart? No, to chalk it up to my family so simply is wrong. My own brain chemistry and my own battles with mental illness all contributed to who I am today.

    DAVID: In the opening pages of your book, you do write some very angry passages about your family, especially in an opening dreamy sequence in which you describe yourself as almost having been “sacrificed” by your family. But, overall, when you’ve finished the book, I think you’ve got an amazingly compassionate view of your family. You’ve got real love for them and you take us through all these wonderful stories back in India because you keep reaching back into that rich heritage for strength.
    CHEENI: I do have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m amazed at their stories, what my father went through in his life and all the challenges my ancestors had to deal with. There’s a lot that didn’t make it into the book. I wouldn’t say I’m Hindu in the sense of doing all the traditional rituals now, but the Hindu way of thinking about life really impacted me. This book is meant as a loving look at these traditions. Yes there are problems. They aren’t perfect, but there is a lot of love that comes through in this story.
    People will say: How could you write this way about Hanuman or how could you reveal these secrets within your family? But for me this is the truest sign of love.
    We are comprised of all these beautiful and terrible moments.
    DAVID: One of the most beautiful passages describes your mother and father meeting, falling in love and making it through the complicated rules of arranged marriage to spend their lives together.
    CHEENI: I heard so many different versions of that story where they would leave out key details and incidents and—yeah it’s a wonderful story that my mother would tell me, my father would tell me, aunts who were living in the same house at that time would tell me. There were all these versions of the story. It’s a beautiful romance in a classical Indian sense. I interviewed everyone involved to try to put it together as accurately as possible.
    In the end, this is a story about love.

    DAVID: I agree with you. That’s why I’m recommending your memoir to our readers. Let’s close this conversation by talking about Hanuman, the monkey-shaped character who expresses various divine attributes in Hindu mythology. He’s very powerful, almost unstoppable—and when you finally broke with your family in your descent into drugs and street life, your mother finally commends you into “Hanuman’s hands,” which gives the book its title.
    I was reminded right away of “The Hound of Heaven,” the famous poem written more than 100 years ago by Francis Thompson, who became addicted to opium and wound up as a ragged, desperate street person himself. He wrote “Hound of Heaven” while still struggling with his addictions in the streets and it later influenced other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien. The opening lines of “Hound”:
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.”

    But then Thompson writes about “those strong Feet that followed, that followed after.” These “Feet” were God’s presence in the form a great, relentless hound who travels with him even into the worst haunts and alleys of his life.
    In your book, you end with this traditional Hindu hymn to Hanuman in an English translation. You repeated this each day as a way to stay focused as you survived the worst and began to recover. Whose translation is it?
    CHEENI: It’s my rendering of it, which I’m sure some scholars may have issues with—but it’s the way I would translate it. When I think of it in English, this is the way the meaning comes to me.
    DAVID: I like it very much. It’d be fascinating to compare the two poems—“Hound of Heaven” and your final hymn or prayer to Hanuman. “Hail the monkey lord, the fountain of power,” you write. “Relieve me of the imperfections that bring me sorrow.”
    You describe him as “Valiant hero, mighty as the thunderbolt,
From you is born good sense and wisdom,
For you are the dispeller of darkness of evil thoughts.”

    And he pursues you wherever you go, however deep you sink.

    CHEENI: His mythology has spread throughout southeast Asia. One reason is that unlike these gods who are so distant, who are these perfect beings way up on high—Hanuman is part animal. He has these weaknesses, but he also has prodigious strengths. And, most important, there’s this idea that Hanuman is eternally here on Earth with us and always will be.
    He has this tremendous compassion. He is the bringer of cures. And that was something for me that really resonated. My mother would tell me: “Say the Hanuman Chalisa,” this prayer that’s at the end of the book.
    I did and it was such a powerful idea to me that the divine is present around you and loves you—and all you need to do is ask for help.
    DAVID: There’s much in your book that will be difficult for some of our readers to deal with—some raw experiences and raw language. So, let’s end this with a reminder of the wisdom from your grandfather in the book.
    CHEENI: He said, “You should never hide what Gods teach you. What they tell us, they need us to share.”


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