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Sunday, July 5, 2009

IN HANUMAN'S HANDS

By Cheeni Rao

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Harper. 399 pp. $25.99

A descendant of generations of Brahmin priests, Cheeni Rao chose a tragic path to enlightenment. "Drugs gave me the power to hear the divine in the way my ancestors had," he writes. His powerful memoir, "In Hanuman's Hands," describes in harrowing detail Rao's troubles with crack addiction and the spiritual awakening that led to his recovery.

As a university student in Chicago, Rao embraced drugs, sex and crime. In one heartbreaking scene, his grandmother catches him doing cocaine in her bathroom: "It's a new kind of snuff," he tells her, "just like what Grandfather used." His family eventually abandons him. At the depths of his despair, while high on crack in an alley, Rao is visited by the spirit of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who shows him the way toward a cure. "After my family disowned me over the phone, tears and pleading replaced by the tough-love click," Rao recalls, "it was Hanuman who held me in the alley and told me I wasn't alone." Rao's encounter with the divine elicits a new respect for the Indian stories of his youth; the tales held dear by his ancestors and immediate family inspire him to reexamine his poor choices. It's little wonder Rao, who eventually graduated from the University of Chicago and the venerable Iowa Writers' Workshop, has become such a great storyteller in his own right.

-- Andrew Ervin



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