“Do you know why I named you Vattaaraami?… Because you are my temple and my garden, my sacred ground, and in you I see all my dreams… Perhaps it’s natural for a father, for every parent, to see in his child all that’s unspoiled and good. But if you can, Raami, I want you to see it in yourself. No matter what ugliness and destruction you may witness around you, I want you always to believe that the tiniest glimpse of beauty here and there is a reflection of the god’s abode. It is real, Raami. There exists such a place, such a sacred space. You have only to envision it, to dare to dream it. It is within you, within all of us.” ~ p. 72
At the start of “In the Shadow of the Banyan”, narrator Raami is only seven years old and the first-born daughter of Neak Ang Mechas, a Cambodian prince. Her life is filled with privilege and love, given freely from her family and from the many servants who help to care for everyone in her household. However, all that is quickly disrupted with the arrival of the Khmer Krahonm – the Khmer Rouge. Very quickly, her family is evacuated from their palatial home in Phnom Penh, and sent to live in the country with millions of others. As familiar faces begin to disappear and the realities of their new existence begin to sink in, Raami’s life and that of her family becomes a nightmare that is all the more horrific in that it lies in truth. Author Vaddey Ratner was only five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and this book is based on the her experiences and the experiences of her family and friends.
“The problem with being seven – I remember myself at that age – is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little. So you imagine the worst.” ~ p.94
Raami is particularly hard-hit when her father is recognized, and taken away from the family for ‘re-education’. He has known that his time would be limited, and his daughter overhears as he begs his wife to let him go. Raami, being only seven, cannot see why it is a danger for him to remain with the family and is devastated by his loss. Eventually, as Raami and her family are moved about they country, they lose track of each other, and the resulting isolation is more painful than the starvation and hard work. Sent to work in the fields for the benefit of ‘the Organization’, Raami, her mother and her baby sister struggle to survive. The work is difficult, and food is scarce; many people succumbed to disease, and medical help is virtually non-existent. Over time, you see how the adult family members become numb, focusing only on survival for their immediate family. Raami struggles to understand; by not knowing the true horror of what is happening, she can only seeing how things directly affect on her own life. She cannot understand why her uncle and cousins are not allowed to remain with her mother and sister, and thinks that she is responsible for her father not remaining with the family. As the family is moved from place to place, Raami’s life becomes more narrow until we see the minute-by-minute struggle for survival she is forced to endure.
While at Book Expo America this year, I heard author Lois Lowry speak about the evil that we are able to inflict on each other in the name of being “right”. Ratner’s book also speaks to this, choosing to view the events of the revolution through the eyes of a child. It is through Raami’s eyes that we witness families being separated, individuals being shot for disobeying orders, deliberate and systematic starvation, families being separated for “re-education” and the loss of hope in people’s’ eyes as they see their lives shattered in front of them. It is almost too much for us as readers to bear. Still, Raami retains the belief instilled in her by her father that there is good in the world, even as she herself loses those she loves best. At times, it is only this belief that keeps her going, especially when the horror seems insurmountable. As an adult reader, we know from history just how terrible things became in Cambodia during the 1970’s, and it is this prior knowledge that colours our reactions to Raami’s recount. When terrible things happen to Raami and her family, we are reminded that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that many worse things occurred. When there is kindness shown to her, it is all the more remarkable when compared to the reality of her daily existence.
The characters within the story are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Despite the horrors of the revolution, the people in Raami’s life are still capable of kindness, and they help each other to form a new kind of “normal” in unusual situations. When everyone is crammed into the local school and forced to share space with each other, she begins to note how people band during times of great difficulty and stress, such as the loss of a child. Raami is a very real character, and her evolution is difficult to follow, but necessary to acknowledge. She starts the process towards adulthood at this time, making observations about how people treat each other and assimilate in order to survive. She sees how her mother denies all those qualities that might make her stand out and subject to criticism and critique, while other citizens take the power they have been given and use it to inflict misery upon others. Raami must make the very grown-up decisions for herself about how she wishes to survive and live her own life.
“And so, as I navigated the human terrain, as I negotiated for my survival, I began to discern what Pok had wanted me to see that day … If I was to survive my uprooting and transplantation, I must grow and stretch myself as a young rice shoot would. I must rise above the mire and muck, the savagery of my environment, while appearing to thrive in it.” ~ p. 186
This isn’t an easy book to read, as you will have already surmised. The discussion of the “re-education” and genocide that marks Cambodia’s past is hard enough to read, but to see it through the eyes of a young child makes it that much more painful. I’m very glad that Ratner chose Raami as the narrator, as the innate hopefulness of a child is necessary to counteract the atrocities encountered within the book. The story flows well, but I was forced to put it down several times as I couldn’t keep reading what was happening, heartsick at the losses people endured. Still, I kept coming back, as hopeful as Raami that she would eventually escape the ‘muck’ and rise above, hopefully with someone she loved beside her. This is an incredible story, and one worthy of discussion and notice.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is available from Chapters/Indigo, Amazon and your neighbourhood independent bookstore. This copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review.
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