Cheeni Rao’s head was full of chatter. Though outwardly a good Indian-American son (a stellar student-athlete from a Chicago suburb), the lanky teen was plagued by violent impulses that caused him to pick fights, break into houses, and even torch a building. One of the few things that could quiet his destructive inner voice was drug use, as he discovered early in his college career. But that method invited mayhem of its own. Rao’s rapid descent into addiction, drug dealing, robbery, and vagrancy is the subject of his memoir, In Hanuman’s Hands.
“Our family curse is a forgotten secret,” writes Rao early on. But in a vision experienced during a near-fatal overdose, he discovers not only the existence of the thousand-year-old curse but the penalty: For the hubris of one distant, unknown forebear, the family is compelled “to wander the lands aimlessly in search of a God that would forgive us.” This curse was suppressed during the generations when the family served as priests to the vengeful goddess Kali. But when Rao’s father rejects the hereditary obligation of priesthood to become a physician, the curse is sparked anew. It then falls to Rao to discover his own divine forgiveness—and he is plagued by destructive urges until he finds it.
Enter the Hanuman of the book’s title—a playful Hindu monkey god whom Rao considers his lifelong protector. Starting with the day Rao toddles off a playground and into the path of an onrushing car, he writes, his horoscope “show[ed] eleven times when I was fated to die, and each time Hanuman stepped from the shadows and took me in his hands.” A figure glimpsed only fleetingly during Rao’s childhood, Hanuman becomes a physical companion during the depths of the author’s addiction, eventually helping him to identify and understand the voices that torment him.
Leaving aside this divine manifestation, segments of the book are clearly invented. Rao acknowledges altering names and situations, and there are many passages whose undeniably stylish writing is accompanied by the reader’s own internal voice, asking, Did this really happen? Long chunks of dialogue are reported in quotes, including conversations that occurred before Rao was born. His accounts of discussions with Hanuman have the same observational tone as his descriptions of confabs with his suitemates at an elite East Coast college or with fellow addicts at a Chicago halfway house. This lack of distinction between the real and the fancied can distract the reader from an otherwise dramatic and cinematic tale that ably crosscuts among Hindu myth, Rao’s family history, his college, the streets, and his attempts at recovery.
Some of the book’s best moments are Rao’s wryly jaded descriptions of worlds he once sought desperately to fit into. In lighted dorm windows, he sees “the forlornly studious enshrining themselves within a tomb of books stacked on their desk, short-lived couples throttling their romance with the noose of remembered wrongs.” Inside the room of a privileged friend, rows of expensive shoes “marched from one baseboard to the next,” while wooden chests burst with “a menagerie of bric-a-brac crapperie.” Rao doesn’t spare his younger self from this same disdain. “My biggest enemy was the asshole that shared my own skin,” he writes.
In Hanuman’s Hands seems less a memoir than an autobiographical fable. And on that score, it convinces. By not only confronting but befriending his demons, Rao negotiates a truce with the forces that have plagued him. In so doing, the flawed hero of this latest addiction saga may have found a fresh path to redemption.
Margaret Guroff is a features editor at AARP The Magazine and also editor of powermobydick.com. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches writing at The Johns Hopkins University.