Cheeni Rao, In Hanuman’s Hands, (Harper One, 2009)
Cheeni Rao’s In Hanuman’s Hands is a fictional memoir that treads familiar ground with various nuances that set it apart from its precursors. Set in Chicago, In Hanuman’s Hands reviews the young adulthood of a man named Cheeni, the fictionalized version of the book’s author. The story follows the descendant of Brahmin priests and son of Hindu immigrants through his descent into drug addiction and subsequent recovery. There is much to enjoy throughout the 400-page span of Rao’s book, but it’s difficult to walk away from the experience without feeling shortchanged. Hands is a skillfully written memoir that, despite its enthralling nature and its various idiosyncratic nuances, flirts with cliché.
Entertaining, well-wrought, Hands moves from Cheeni’s drug-filled, sociopathic youth, to his recovery from a crack habit. Sections radiate with contemporized Hindu myth, traditional Hindu stories, and fictionalized accounts of Rao’s past. Religious iconography and narrative often spills into the story. Hindu gods like Hanuman, the Monkey God, and Kali, the Goddess of Destruction, visit and interact with Cheeni, so that mythology and memoir mate, hybridize. The breadth of Rao’s knowledge of Hinduism and his insightful application of its stories and central figures provide Hands with a strong formal integrity, which distinguishes it from an ever-growing array of addiction/rehabilitation stories.
While the spiritual aspects of the book provide a vivid framework, there are also more ephemeral nuances that add to the thoughtful structure of Rao’s memoir. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, adding to the skillful pacing of the story. The book closes with a series of quotes from figures such as Buddha, Anaïs Nin, and Nelson Mandela and the “Shri Hanuman Chalisa,” a poem/prayer for Hanuman the Monkey God. All of these aspects help contribute to a rich reading experience, yet Hands has a familiar feel that works against its more dynamic aspects.
Rao’s memoir bears a number of nuances that distinguish it from James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, most notably the infusion of Hindu religious mythology, the racial overtones and the various details of its main character’s life story—but there are also marked similarities. Both In Hanuman’s Hands and A Million Little Pieces blur the distinctions between memoir and fiction, allowing their author to enhance or diminish aspects of their respective personal histories. Both books address drug addiction and the consequent difficulties of rehabilitation. And both book covers equate drugs with candy: on the light blue cover of A Million Little Pieces, a hand is coated in ice-cream sprinkles; on the cover of In Hanuman’s Hands, also a shade of light blue, a windup monkey follows a trail of brightly colored, candy-like pills. The covers not only illustrate similar themes, but suggest a shared marketing scenario: to package personal misfortune in easily consumable, charismatic writing.
Whether or not one believes that Hands is a necessary, vital piece of writing, there lies within the prose a thoughtful, sensitive mind, trying, and often succeeding, to create a book worth reading.
Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.