May 182010
 

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost
by Rachel Manija Brown, 2005
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

My horse had stumbled on the field of battle, breaking her leg and throwing me. The cavalry had ridden on ahead and been slain in that last desperate battle.

So it was that I, a calvarywoman without her horse, had come late and yet just in time, the highest-ranking officer yet living, to rally the troops and hold the breach. Fighting on though mortally wounded, I had kept my feet until the enemy had retreated. Only then allowing myself to fall, I sank to my knees in that bloody field, and said–

If it hadn’t been for Mom, I would have kept on daydreaming, oblivious to a sight even more dramatic than the one before my mind’s eye…A car was partially off the road, on its side with its windshield shattered. A man lay sprawled on the road in front of the wrecked Ambassador. His head was also on the road, but several yards away.

Once we’d driven far enough that neither car nor corpse nor head could be seen, I broke the silence.

“That man was decapitated,” I announced, pleased with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use the word in casual conversation. “That means his head was cut off. I’ve never seen a decapitated body before. Have any of you?”

She was named Manija Mehera Brown. Manija is a Persian name, meaning “precious jewel.” American classmates called her “Money”; Indian classmates called her Mani-Mao, Kitty-Cat. From an early age she knew she would change her name, eventually choosing Rachel after Rachel Summers in The X-Men. Age seven to age thirteen, she lived in India, where her parents went to live in an ashram. Because she had to go to school, Rachel spent much of her time at a Catholic school called Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior Convent School. It was the only English-speaking school in the town of Ahmednagar. But though she walked twice every weekday under “an immense painting of an anatomically correct veiny heart, wrapped in thorns and bleeding realistically,” and although she would be so traumatized by the teachers’ punishments that in adulthood she would be asked by a combat veteran which war she’d fought in, the stifling religious miasma in which Rachel spent her childhood was mainly that of the ashram.

(Spotting Baba’s face was a common hobby at the ashram. Urmila saw it in the black-and-brown mosaic of a burnt chapati and kept it in a box until it fell to dust. Harry Carroll crushed a scorpion against the wall with his shoe, and lo! Baba’s face appeared in the smear of arachnid guts and tread marks. He wanted to preserve it as a memorial, but his wife Grace, who said she could see a face but it didn’t look like Baba’s, removed it from the wall with a disinfectant-moistened sponge.)

Rachel née Manija was the daughter of left-wing Jewish parents, her father a red diaper baby and her mother a hippie. Specifically, her mother was a “Baba-lover,” the official term for a disciple of the Parsi Indian mystic Meher Baba. But though she was a Baba-lover before her daughter’s birth, “Da-nonna” Brown was up to giving Rachel a relatively normal childhood until the age of seven. Rachel read constantly (getting in trouble with a teacher for “pretending” to read The Miracle Worker at age three), kept many pets, and enjoyed the company of other children from diverse backgrounds. When her parents took her to Ahmednagar, she was just old enough to be able to make comparisons between her old and new worlds. She was also old enough to catch lies.

Rachel Manija Brown would eventually perform the greatest act of justice toward herself and her Indian peers by immortalizing her Ahmednagar in her haunting, quirky, and very subtle memoir, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost. It tells a taut and terrible story in the droll, episodic style of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which Brown herself has acknowledged as her model. Like most memoirs by abused children, it performs the most delicate balancing act in its treatment of Brown’s parents. It’s likely Rachel wouldn’t have had an easy time in America either, though without absorbing so much of the madness of another culture that she would have little in common with peers who’d experienced only the madness of parents. As she writes of her family, “[i]t was like a cosmic scale weighing Mom’s hysteria against Dad’s imperturbability to maintain a universal balance.” Brown’s mother comes off as not being in touch with reality; Brown’s father, as so committed to his wife’s minimal stability that he was prepared to follow her to an ashram, never considering any obligation to his seven-year-old daughter or, indeed, to Da-nonna’s long-term well-being. This was the reality for young Rachel; explanations, to the extent that there are any, come much later. Reflection is implicit in the many opportunities for it that are given the reader; it is not usually spelled out. The book is so dense that it is tempting for a reviewer simply to tell Rachel’s story. But the distinction of Brown’s memoir is that what happened to her becomes less important than the way she tells us about it, both in keeping us reading and in bringing home the depth of trauma she suffered. The unique personality that emerges from her narrative is sufficiently compelling to provide its own suspense element: instead of turning the pages to find out the next awful thing that happened to Rachel-Mani, we read to find out who she is becoming.

Brown’s style at first seems artless, with bubbles of sardonic hyperbole sometimes replacing precise description in places where today’s memoir reader, used to imagery, might want the latter. But after a while one grows accustomed to the jerkiness of the narrative and eventually experiences it as a reflection of a child’s innocence, true, but also a child’s impatience and lack of reflection. It is this which distinguishes Brown’s book from many other memoirs of displaced childhood, in which the voice is more clearly adult. Yet few young adult works feature a heroine with Brown’s ambivalence about her own relative privilege. Race is an inescapable topic in this book. Brown was indirectly abused through her parents’ negligence but directly abused by members of a society in relation to which she was still privileged in terms of nationality, race, and class: eventually her parents could make the decision to leave, or send her home. The parents of Darshani, a poor girl crusted with sores whom Brown befriended at Holy Wounds, could not. Thus though they figure distantly in relation to the immediate crisis in which Rachel found herself, her parents become enormously important as ciphers of power in abeyance. They take on almost the same relationship to Rachel as the First to the Third World: we are forced to look at them and ask, they could behave differently, so why don’t they?

The memoir of which this reader is most reminded is Joel Agee’s Twelve Years, also the story of a bright Jewish child uprooted by his parents’ acting on their idealism. He was the son of playwright James Agee and his ex-wife Alma Neuman, who remarried a German Communist and followed him to what was then East Germany. Agee’s memoir is more finely written than Brown’s, and consequently more distanced from the impressions of the child Agee was. Agee also suffered much less in the way of physical hardship and threat. But Brown’s book resembles Agee’s in its refusal to tell a sad story, or to objectify the experience of those with whom she grew up. Eventually, Brown found out that her mother was the victim of her own father’s sexual abuse. Brown does not take this revelation as the prompt to excuse Da-nonna but rather to expand the implications of Da-nonna’s behavior into a reversal of her original favoring of her father: “I believed that he was willing but unable to help me out. This made me prefer him to Mom, whom I thought was able but unwilling.” As she learns more about her mother, she comes to see the reverse as the truth. This and other discoveries within the memoir represent a larger process than personal reckoning. It is, instead, the creation of a political autobiography.

“‘You are so adorable!’ people would exclaim and pinch my cheeks. I ignored them. I was a tragic hero, a valiant warrior. I was tough and brave and doomed, but I was not adorable.” Though the humor of Brown’s writing is worthy of praise, too many reviewers have done the equivalent of pinching her cheeks. And it is tempting; everything would be so much easier if Rachel the child can be explained away as a tragic victim of her parents’ foolishness, though she was that. Nor is she unaware of cultural dissonance as a way in which she was especially unfortunate, though saying so risks supposing that the same horrors are fine for people of color because “they’re used to it.” It’s rather to say that being assumed to be privileged, as the only child at the ashram and the only white child at Holy Wounds, Rachel lacked even the consolation of solidarity, let alone the appearance of misfortune that could have brought some to feel for her and a few, those in power, to do anything, as they would presumably have done for an American child who was suffering in this way—and whose implicit privileges would have been seen to set her apart from Indian children. She was beaten and made to stand in the hot sun, but Rachel was also reading everything she could get her hands on, including the genteel English boarding-school stories of Enid Blyton; never mind that every child in India also was reading Blyton, “the girls destined for arranged marriages with men three times their age, the children who hid with their parents when the religious riots broke out, the overprotected urban kids who always had an adult or three checking up on them.” By her teens Rachel knew more about Indian history than most white people learn in a lifetime, but Rachel’s grandmother rounded on her father and “badgered him to return to America and sometimes even hinted that he was an irresponsible parent to bring me up in a Third World backwater. That suggestion must have struck home, for it never failed to send him into a rage.”

Rachel’s response is ambivalent: “On the one hand, I agreed with her. On the other, go Dad!” “Go Dad” could mean many things, and one wishes it had been a little better explained. To be sure, Brown avoids a direct explication of the contradictions of her history in favor of a cumulation of details, and the many lyrical invocations of her imaginary self as an Indian woman warrior, compared to the limited options she has in real-life Ahmednagar and the even poorer ones open to native Indian children in the town, tell much more than most college term papers on critical race theory. This is so because Brown writes deliberately from the child’s perspective and thus often with the child’s disinterest in being seen to be well-meaning. “When I was in America, I missed India’s countryside and my freedom to explore it, but once I was back in India, I missed India’s lack of rock-throwing kids and ruler-wielding nuns.” The glimpses of the adult Rachel Brown on her return to India are thus especially precious, as when she is recognized by a troop of young people who immediately begin to shout “Mani-Mao” and throw stones at her vehicle. In a few sentences, Brown conveys her tangle of emotions in facing a lot of kids who would never go to college or own a book, but of whom she is afraid.

Brown is to be credited for not making her book entirely about toilets and fans when she could get away with it in too much of American culture and when the most delicate aspect of Brown’s story is also the one to which she is most unequivocally entitled, because she was a child. It would be no reflection on her character if she were to make her entire memoir a variation on the funny-horrible postcard genre of which she gives us brief, potent doses to relieve the tension: “Vladimir got out. But only as far as the less favored of Ahmednagar’s two commercial hotels, the cockroach-ridden Chandra, which was mostly notable for a menu featuring Uncle Chips, Happy Chips, Plane Chips, Cronchi Chicken Ball, Veg Ball with Cronchi, Tomato Soap, Chicken Soap, Veg Soap, Chicken 65, Roast Leg of Lamp, and Leeches with Ice Cream.” Given Brown’s humanitarian concerns and distinguished record of progressivism and antiracism, another “out” for her would be to explain away her particular misery as a byproduct of American cultural colonialism, the punishment for her parents’ condescending belief in a welcoming India. She does not take this path either, though it might be the most tempting. (And it is true that her ashram was populated to a large extent by foreigners, and among them mostly white people.) As she tells her story, with noble honesty, she was an American child who also grew up as an Indian one, and she knew just enough to know which country was easier for her to live in.

When Rachel was in her teens, she begged her father, now separated from Da-nonna, to take her back to America; when she had won her freedom, understandably counted in terms of “Cokes and hamburgers and cold milk and cookies and Hershey bars,” her troubles had in some ways just begun. “I had fled the country without a second thought for the other kids at Holy Wounds. In my entire stay at Ahmednagar I had never, not once, done anything to stand up for them.” Given that she was at their mercy, and physically attacked by them almost every day, it would be difficult to separate out their ignorant malice from the shortsightedness of the parents who believed these things would not happen or who, if they did happen, saw them as the inevitable price on the privilege of living in India, though nearby Pune offered amenities including “non-abusive schools.” Nor would it help that Da-nonna would continue to live in India and grow so used to it that on a visit to America, a cell phone would strike fear to her heart because it looked like a scorpion. “Mom was an adorable immigrant in her salwar kamiz, bravely navigating a land that had grown up without her, and I was her ungrateful citified daughter.”

As she matures a little, Brown as she remembers herself moves somewhat from being lost in India to being lost in her parents’ India. One recurrent trope of the memoir finds Rachel begging a driver to stop to rescue the victim of a road accident; in this case the victim is “an adorable little puppy.” (This is a weakness in the prose: on occasion things are described in the sort of jerky, value-laden adjectival style that makes sense in email, but tells the reader too much about how he or she is supposed to react, detracting from Brown’s usual subtlety.) The vehicle of course doesn’t stop, Rachel’s pleas to turn around are in vain, and she spends the trip “counting camels and car crashes. By the second week of the journey, I was up to fourteen camels and thirty-nine wrecks, most of the latter on ghats.”

I was sick of Gods. Gods were the indirect cause of all my problems. If we had to look at statues, I wanted to see the statue commemorating Rani Lakshmibai, the queen who died fighting the British in the war that is known in England as the Sepoy Mutiny but in India as The First War of Indian Independence. Or to the Marantha queen Tarabai, Shivaji’s daughter-in-law, who carried on the fight against Aurangzeb (by then extremely old and extremely frustrated) after her husband’s death.

I resented everyone’s insistence that I look at the pretty pictures instead of staying in the car to read about how Baji Prabhu and a few hundred soldiers had fought a vast army to buy Shivaji time to escape their doomed fort. The wounded Baji Prabhu had held on to life long enough to hear the cannons sound from Pratapgad, the signal indicating that his king had reached safety. And then he had died, his task complete.

Brown’s style is extremely objective, at times resembling commentary on a graphic novel. The clipped style creates a silence around the more harrowing episodes that forbids hackneyed responses of pity or dismay, allowing instead for contemplation. Thus it is also through an accretion of detail that one finds not everything in Brown’s story is dismal. There were nature (described with moving love), boyfriends in time, and above all books. Some of the books were taught at Holy Wounds, others found in the ashram library, where pilgrims of all kinds left books behind. Brown became especially devoted to the martial history of India and to its national hero Shivaji, with whom she identified very much.

Nobody had intended for me to develop a passion for military history. I was supposed to be passionate about God… But the space in my brain reserved for obsession, which they gave to God, filled instead with dreams of history and heroism, of the bloody reality, the elegant legend, and the points where they intersected. Perhaps it was the gap between what people told me my life was like and how I actually experienced it that made me fascinated by the contrast between history and legend, between ideals and reality. Or maybe I just liked stories about undersized underdogs who kicked ass.

Books would be as much of a defense and escape for Brown in Los Angeles as in Ahmednagar, following her return. Her life in America would continue to be difficult; naturally she did not fit in with other American children; and like a lot of young outcasts, she found some reflection of her differentness in science fiction and fantasy. It is not a surprise to learn that she played Dungeons and Dragons; it is to learn that she played it in Ahmednagar, where a person might not imagine her doing so if (like me) she was told, in her own red-diaper background, that nobody acquainted with the true suffering of the world outside of America would bother with imaginary swords and imaginary blood. But Rachel did. She got an annoying American kid to accept a D & D character named Flower-Flinger the Puking Elf (or, as the boy pronounced it with his lisp, Elpth). She arrived for a visit with her mother clutching The Mists of Avalon like a shield, mentions Barbara Hambly, and tells us that when an adult (later her stepmother) first showed signs of knowing what Rachel’s life was like in Ahmednagar, the coded message—her deliverance if you will—was found in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, the story of an abused girl. Although reading itself was an escape, fantasy literature was more of a validation. “It was hard to be gripped by first crushes and squabbles with parents when my everyday life featured madmen on the loose, decapitated corpses in roads, and teachers with a license to kill. The metaphors of fantasy, in which a lover’s heart might literally be made of stone, childhood might literally last forever, or your neighbor might literally be a monster, resonated with how my life felt from the inside.”

Brown has been a consistent force in the internet wars regarding racism in science fiction and fantasy, making it all the more of interest to speculate on whether she began to adopt an Indian identity over the years in Ahmednagar and how much it might have owed to fantasy, to Western influence, or both. It is hard to tell these things exactly, and in any case no one is to be judged in adult terms for the fantasies of an abused child or to be censured for presenting them as they were. So any observations on the identity formation at work in All the Fishes Come Home to Roost are to be taken as just that. Inevitably Rachel’s identity became a mixture of Indian elements and Western fantasy, fused around heroic elements:

If I was forced to stand in the sun, I was a prisoner of war, and I would stand and not collapse. If the teachers hit me, I would not pull back my hand or flinch away and make a sound. I would be brave. I would stand and fight when I could, and if I had to run because I was outnumbered, it would only be to fight another day. I would never forget how brutal and harsh my life really was. I would not let anyone brainwash me into thinking that what was done to me and the other children was right. I would not give up. I would not go crazy. I would not let them break me.

I would be silent.

She knew that she was still relatively privileged. “Girls were hit less and less hard than boys. I was hit less and less hard than the Indian girls.” She also had a chance to learn some things that thrilled her. “Year after year, the Indian history class provided stirring tales of rebels and tyrants, heroes and villains, dismemberments, disembowelments, disinterments, last stands, daring escapes, woman warriors, and giant lizards. Some of it was as apocryphal as George Washington’s cherry tree. But several of the least likely stories turned out to be entirely true.” Though she had to conform to some details of femininity imposed by the school and by Indian culture, wearing skirts, closing her legs, and keeping her hair in braids, she had much more of a chance to identify with the heroic elements of Indian culture than girls whose destiny was early marriage: “If I couldn’t go a day without being beaten, stoned, and humiliated, I needed a way of seeing myself and my life that lent me some scrap of dignity.” And although Shivaji became her hero, Rachel did not fantasize about being a man. “I was a woman warrior. Not a general, not a queen, just an ordinary cavalrywoman in Shivaji’s army… I had seen that dainty little women like Mrs. Joshi could be capable of horrifying violence. Girls stood their ground under the punishing sun while bigger, stronger boys passed out. Indian history was filled with accounts of women who fought. Tarabai, Rami Durgavati, Chand Bibi, even Phoolan Devi, the bandit leader who became a member of parliament.”

But being female would provide the occasion for her almost to be finished off. Despair comes with a climactic episode, when she is tied up and left for Malik the holy man to fondle, symbolic of everything her parents have done to her already—rendering her impotent and leaving her at the mercy of a culture’s most backward representatives. “I had thought that to have one’s will broken was a metaphor. But something snapped like a small dry twig.” Rachel came close to suicide, holding a knife to her throat shortly after the tying-up: “Baba was love, they said, but no one who loved me and was all-powerful would have let Harry tie me up. Baba said life was a dream, but no dream-knife had ever felt as hard and cool or smelled as faintly of garlic and metal as the one I held in my hand.”

We already know that this was not the end because we have encountered the adult Rachel in several flash-forwards. One of the happier discoveries of these flash-forwards is that Rachel became a feminist, and realized after a while that the world of Indian male heroism would have been closed to her, as in one encounter with an Indian mcp: “It occurred to me that Shivaji’s peasants-turned-soldiers had probably been a lot like Khan, pushy and hostile and always jockeying to prove their manhood. If Tanaji could meet me, he would despise me as a poseur.” The inability to strike any pose marks her as a true outsider everywhere, since all natives of cultures assimilate by learning how to present a face. This extends to her unwillingness to sentimentalize the role of truth-bearer, always a temptation when the survivor of an abusive family speaks out. Brown knows her truth is only hers and thus partial, fierce though she can be in defending it. She also knows that the value of the truth has little to do with the dignity of the teller, also a hard lesson for the tellers of painful stories. “I might not be Shivaji’s brave commander, but perhaps I was Guru Gobind Singh’s water bearer. Or maybe not a soldier of any kind, but a war correspondent keeping the stories from going untold: a publicist for India’s ruins, like Shivaji’s faithful dog.” The phrase, “a publicist for India’s ruins,” is so haunting that one is tempted not to explain that Shivaji’s faithful dog did not exist, but was dreamed up to make a monument to Shivaji more marketable. This is one aspect of Brown’s life at the ashram, as a mascot whose official role was to make her family’s story seem like one of sweetness and light. Identification with Guru Gobind Singh’s water bearer provides a viable way out, because the story is one of a man who escaped death by his compassion for the injured on all sides:

After one battle, a Sikh water bearer was seen giving water to the wounded and dying men of both sides. Other Sikhs who saw this became angry. They reported him to their leader, Guru Gobind Singh. So the Guru called the water bearer to stand in front of everyone and asked him if it was true. The water bearer said yes, it was. The men who had reported him waited to hear if he would be executed, or only flogged and exiled.

“Instead, the Guru gave the water bearer a box of healing ointment. ‘Take this,’ he said, ‘and tend to all the wounded soldiers, no matter which side they’re on.’”

“That’s a great story,” I said.

Brown actually comes off as having a gift for happiness, akin to the “talent for life” that Terrence des Pres noticed in some survivors of extreme experience. The child has emerged to attack life as a warrior born, while balancing the immense contradictions of her background like a book on her head. We leave her as she is poised to go forth, tough, fragile, frugal, and brilliant, with a very real appreciation of her life as it is now. It is not the end of the story, of course. The book was written in Brown’s early thirties and represents a relatively early stage of her adult rapprochement with her past. The book ends with a maybe wry, maybe sneering quip offered Rachel by her father, in the form of the well-known cartoon: “Dear Mom and Dad. Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.”

Rachel Manija Brown writes as if she knows she will be dealing with Ahmednagar for the rest of her life. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is deliberately unresolved and even incomplete, a dashing first pass at the author’s demons, and a letter of introduction for what is to come. It is near enough to perfect in places to make one frustrated in others where a sensitive final edit, removing a few infelicities and repetitions of phrasing, might have made it even harder-hitting; it also reads at times like a book which has been cut down too far from a longer book. Despite the ease of the author’s style, the book takes patience, hopping around rather than telling a linear story, which I believe is deliberate in its mimicking of the chopping-up of the mind in trauma, and not a fault. But in another sense, there is a quality of completeness to this work that one will not find in many memoirs. After finishing it for the review, I found myself sneaking back to reread pages I found especially funny or poignant, a giveaway that All the Fishes succeeds on its own terms as an entertainment. It may seem odd to compliment the author of such a difficult story in this way. But Brown plainly meant her story in this book to be entertaining, and it is sometimes part of healing to observe the effect one’s narrative has on others. One can hope that she will have many opportunities to relish the sight of readers wincing, laughing, but also reflecting in response to her memoir: reflecting on the compromises we all make with our upbringing and with extremity, the resources we bring to these compromises, and their implications for our relationship to the rest of the world.

Absorption in a book, the scent of rain on moss, hot mint tea drunk outside before dawn, water pistol duels with Rupali, the weight of history in the gray stones of Sinhagad, the luscious perfume of a fresh-plucked lychee, Walter’s hands boosting me up a tree, a gecko’s golden eyes, the haunting melody of the Muslim call to prayer, the blaze of stars in a sky undimmed by electric light–those things were real and meaningful and precious. How could I stop wanting more of them? Why should I?

How could I sacrifice the rest of this day? I was safe at home, and nothing terrible was likely to happen until tomorrow.

I got up, replaced the knife and the chair, and picked up History of the Marathas.

I could always kill myself later.

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