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Book Review: Cheeni Rao's In Hanuman's Hands


Just when you thought the memoir genre had been exhausted, here comes In Hanuman's Hands, an ingenious book by an exciting new writer. Cheeni Rao is an Indian immigrant who comes from a long line of Brahmin priests, but grew up in a devout Hindu family in Chicago. Rao describes his upbringing, and his subsequent fall from grace, in a multilayered story that takes in, and somehow meshes, the cultures of street-level America with the spirituality of India, which is no mean feat. In the process, he also fits together two favorite types of memoir -- the spiritual quest and the drug addiction saga -- while finding common ground between psychotherapy and the pantheon of Hindu gods. That's a lot for any writer to pull off, but young Rao does it.

As a college student, Rao fell into a whirlpool of drugs, criminality and sex. At the nadir of his downfall, he was "visited" by Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god best known from one of the Indian epics, The Ramayana. At that point, Rao accepts that Hanuman, who keeps reappearing, is the key to his survival and recovery. Rao takes readers through life at a no-B.S. halfway house; relates stories passed down from his ancestors; and in stirring, sometimes hallucinatory prose, details his own ongoing struggles to fight his inner demons and find balance. Rao's account of combining modern therapy with ancient approaches to discipline (he tells a therapist that he's getting straight because "that's what Hanuman wants. He'll kick my ass if I fuck up again") is revelatory, as is this extraordinary account of immigration, loss, and redemption.

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