Open Book

In Hanuman's Hands
(HarperOne, 2009) by Srinivas “Cheeni” Rao, AB’98

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07

Cheeni Rao, AB’98, was born into an immigrant Indian family in Chicago. Rao’s father saw his father, grandmother, and grandfather suffer from illnesses and, despite his prayers, die. So he lost his faith and abandoned the family’s priestly tradition of serving Kali, a dark and vengeful goddess.

When Rao went away to college at an East Coast liberal-arts school, he too broke away from his family’s values and their strict hold on him; instead of becoming a doctor like his father, Rao sold drugs to his peers, ultimately becoming addicted to crack. Yet through drug-induced hallucinations, Rao, already fascinated by Indian folktales, found himself drawn to his ancestors more than his father ever was.

Rao was especially fond of the Ramayana. As a child he read comic books that featured the hero, Rama, fighting his enemy, Ravana. When his parents kicked him out after he was expelled from college, he found himself visited and guided by Hanuman, the monkey god who helps Rama defeat Ravana.

Excerpted from In Hanuman's Hands:

In the past, when my ancestors tended the temples, the Gods spoke to them, reminded them of their sins, protected them, and guided them on a path that would lead to our family line’s eventual salvation. My father had abandoned our ancestral temple and forgotten how to hear the Gods. But that night, as I lay in the hospital bed, my mind afloat on a chemical sea, drifting between the shores of my world and the transcendent, I realized that the drugs gave me the power to hear the divine in the way my ancestors had. It was the crack pipe that enabled me to see the reason for the curse, that I was part of the cause of it. The kiss of the needle revealed my dharma. I would need to find a God that would forgive me.

It took me years, but I finally found one in Chicago in an alley behind a tacqueria.

Reprinted from In Hanuman’s Hands by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. An essay by Rao appears in the Core, the College magazine and supplement to the Jan–Feb/10 Magazine.

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