May 6th, 2009

Joo Dee army

Ashram Sweet Ashram

A couple years ago I was friended by rachelmanija for no good reason. I think maybe it was for my Heroes posts. But one day I clicked over to her profile and discovered she had written a BOOK! A book! A published author was reading my journal! I felt special. Anyway, we eventually became LJ friends, and then we met in L.A. and I slept on her floor. All of this is to say that I am about to review her book—a memoir—and I am kind of biased.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India, by Rachel Manija Brown—whew, that was a mouthful—is about a seven-year-old white girl whose parents take her to Ahmednagar, India to live in an ashram with disciples of Baba, a spiritual leader (deceased at the time) who claimed he was God (and Jesus and Krishna and Buddha and just about everyone else). She is the only foreign child there. At the ashram, she's surrounded by wackaloons whose explanation for everything is "Baba's will," and at school, she's surrounded by kids who throw rocks at her for being an outsider and teachers who beat her for not uncapping a pen.

It's a very funny book! I don't know why I didn't expect it to be so funny, but it came as a pleasant surprise. After reading the first chapter, I knew it was a book I'd have a hard time putting down. I know from reading her posts that she has a great sense of humor, so of course she can tell a funny yarn or seventeen about her wacky adventures in India. It was fun to see India from her outsider's perspective—especially since I kind of come from the same perspective when I visit. She mines a lot of laughs out of the strange mannerisms (the shake/nod), multipurpose euphemisms ("He is out of station"), and crazy drivers. Her tone is not mocking but bewildered. She was a very precocious, cynical child, which makes her an interesting tour guide.

I was reminded somewhat of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as both are about a kid trying to fit in in a different culture. They also have a similar narrative structure. Fishes doesn't really have a strong narrative throughline, exactly; rather, each chapter is sort of a little short story describing a particular character or group of characters or relating a specific anecdote. I didn't mind because, as I said, the book is very funny and the stories are entertaining, but after about 200 pages, I began to get a little frustrated, wondering what the purpose of including each chapter was. How did they all fit together? Was this incident really important for her growth? Memoirs are weird because life isn't always narratively satisfying. I had to stop looking for a clear story and just appreciate it as a collection of interesting experiences that were a formative and memorable part of her childhood, whether or not their influences were clear and defined or not.

Not to say that there isn't a story. As you would expect, Rachel's relationship with her parents grows and develops over the course of the book. As does Rachel, of course. She becomes obsessed with Indian history and, while the people around her idolize Baba, she idolizes stalwart soldiers who stood their ground and fought and died for what they believed in. So she fancies herself a soldier. And the image of a little eight-year-old girl trying to survive her childhood by becoming a soldier is just too cute and adorable. And sad? Maybe a little sad.

I did enjoy, of course, learning all sorts of new things about my friend! Like, for instance, that she was born Manija Brown (everyone calls her "Mani" in the book), and she legally changed her name to Rachel later. (Of course, now I think she should legally change her name to Rachel Ninja Brown [tm telophase].) And she apparently has an AMAZING memory since she remembers every single book she ever read and exactly when she was reading it! Also, what everybody said when she was seven. Memoirs are weird. I mean, can you make up dialogue? (Dude! You're not allowed to lie to your own memoir! A— Are you?)

I recommend a lot of books, but I never bother to assist you in purchasing them. Until now! For, lo, Rachel Ninja Brown is offering her memoir at a special recession discount. Click for more details and a better description of her own book than I have provided. If we have not enticed you enough, I leave you with the dedication, which is one of the best dedications I've ever read:

If you're opening this book for the first time, it isn't dedicated to anyone yet.

But if you've already finished reading it and you've turned back to the beginning, feeling a little less lonely, a little less strange, or a little more cheered than you did when you began, then you will know: I wrote it for you.