All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, by Rachel Manija Brown

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

I liked All the Fishes Come Home to Roost quite a lot.

It’s the nonfiction memoir of a girl who was taken by her parents at age 7 to live in a commune, or “ashram,” in India that had been founded by the guru Meher Baba. She lived there for five years before returning to the U.S. to join her father shortly after her parents broke up and he left India. Over the course of the rest of her childhood, she returned to the ashram for visits several times to see her mother.

I did some minimal reading about Baba to better understand this book, by the way, and my superficial impression is that he was probably more sincere than a charlatan, at least somewhat crazy, but mostly probably benevolent. I gather he was more the type to try to help the poor and lepers and such than to try to get rich off of gullible followers, so not as laughably execrable as, say, that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh guy.

Which is not to deny that his followers are mostly pretty loopy, as evidenced by this book. In fact, it wasn’t at all clear to me what they actually do. He seems to have focused at least to some extent on doing “good works,” but the ashram is more like a monastery where people just sit and talk about religion and how great Baba is without actually going out and doing anything.

For a good portion of this book, maybe the first third or so, I was appreciating it almost solely for its humor. It starts as pretty much a series of anecdotes about a little girl’s misadventures in India with a bunch of loons, and that’s mostly quite well done.

Some of it is laugh out loud funny. Our introduction to India, for instance, is an account of a trip to a supposed resort area she took with her parents at age 11. (Parts of the book are out of chronological order.) They end up hiring a vehicle to drive up a treacherous mountain road. Unfortunately the driver is a dwarf or 12 years old or both (different members of the family remember it differently), and cannot reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel simultaneously. Her whole way of telling it is quite good; she’s skilled at this kind of comedy writing—lunacy as perceived by a little girl who somehow has more sense than almost all the adults she encounters.

I also particularly liked her first meeting with the ashram denizens, one of whom, a goofy holy man, laughingly insists she is his “little mummy,” which no one else reacts to as if it is the least bit odd.

I shot a “Help!” look at Mom.
“Go with him, Mani,” she muttered through clenched teeth, “He’s one of the mandali.”
He’s a sixty year old man named Coconut who thinks a seven year old girl he just met is his mother, I tried to telepathically convey to my mummy—mommy—Mom. He’s a nut.

But the deeper it gets into the book, the more you sense there’s a lot of pain and residual anger to it.

At first it seems like the plucky little heroine is holding up surprisingly well, enjoying finding humor in her bizarre surroundings. But, as the author describes late in the book, it was a conscious literary choice to present things that way. She notes that earlier drafts where she tried to get deeper into her negative feelings and analyze her parents and their behavior psychologically and such came across as boring and whiny, so she decided to turn it into a comedy.

So it’s not so much that the little girl version of her was bemused by it all and making note of all the most outrageous, funny stuff so she’d have something to write about later. It’s her adult self that decided to present the events that way to create a more successful book.

Ultimately there’s a dark quality to this book. No matter how funny she tries to make it in retrospect, this is the story of a little girl who was mostly miserable for a good portion of her childhood. She was afraid, angry, at times even suicidal.

And she didn’t always handle it all that smoothly or maturely. You have to give her credit for honesty, because if you really think about the girl she describes, she was a pretty unpleasant, ill-behaved child, more bratty and difficult than even the average adolescent.

Yes, there’s the obvious excuse of her surroundings, that it’s not fair to expect much better from her. But when you get right down to it, her parents and the people in the ashram were much more delusional than malevolent. In their own peculiar way they treated her lovingly and tried to give her what they thought was a good childhood. They were inept at it to some extent, but she seems to give them little or no credit for even trying.

How intolerable is it, after all, that old Indian people like to pinch her on the cheek and make a fuss over her? Or sure, it’s kind of a pain when you come back as a teenager, and people concerned about how your behavior comports with their moral system worriedly ask you inappropriate personal questions about whether you’re still a virgin and such, but is it really that horrible?

To her apparently it was, as she responded rudely to what she took to be their rude questions and even had a temper tantrum about it. One of them then went to the extreme of humbling herself in a letter of apology, acknowledging that it had been wrong to ask her such questions. To me, she’s the one who comes off looking petty in that exchange, like they’re being caring toward her—albeit in a fumbling way—and she’s being a little shit about it.

Again, not that there aren’t aspects of her time in India that are genuinely traumatic, where her being angry and miserable is not an overreaction. Certainly the worst is the nightmarish Catholic school she’s sent to.

On top of the physical and psychological abuse that is meted out to all the students there indiscriminately just by the nature of the institution, she is singled out for additional abuse and scapegoating for being an outsider. Not just as some kind of temporary hazing thing either. It sounds like for years she had zero school friends and had to endure kids taunting her and throwing rocks at her. Not just at school, but any time she was recognized in the little town outside the ashram.

That’s a pretty big deal. Groups of kids throwing rocks at someone on a daily basis isn’t like an occasional snowball or water balloon or shot from a squirt gun. It’s not just that through some unlikely fluke throwing rocks at a person could significantly hurt her; it’s to be expected that it would, and surprising that it didn’t. Maybe she’s exaggerating or maybe they always missed on purpose or something, but that’s seriously dangerous behavior.

The sections about the school are the most chilling parts of the book, where regardless of the tone there’s a limit to how much humor you can find there.

I found myself wanting her to take more of a stand against that, and to elicit the help of her parents.

Sometimes when children are tortured at a school like that, the parents are full collaborators. Children are sent to military school and abusive religious schools and such precisely so that any rebelliousness will be pounded out of them and they’ll learn the “discipline” of sticking to society’s version of the straight and narrow or else. To tell parents like that about the suffering inflicted on children at these institutions would be pointless—they already know about it and see it as a necessary means to a desirable end.

But that’s not her parents. They don’t strike me as people who want her to suffer “for her own good” at the hands of cruel and crazy people. They seem more clueless about it all. Even years later they insist they had no idea she was being mistreated at the school.

She presents this as just another frustrating and humorous thing about them, but it seems to me she made only a minimal effort to communicate to them what she was experiencing there.

In her perception she made at least some effort to tell them but they shrugged it off because they were too wrapped up in their own religious nuttiness to really be paying attention to her, so she just dropped it and suffered.

I just think she needed to break through their distractedness for something this important. Maybe it would have taken flat out refusing to return to the school once she realized what she’d be subjected to there. Would they have been so intent on not hearing her out that they would have physically dragged her kicking and screaming to the school and had someone hold her down in the chair?

I really doubt it. As I say, I don’t think she was in the nightmarish position many children are of having parents who actually want their child to be treated that way. I think it just hadn’t gotten through to them what was going on at the school, and so she should have made a lot more of an effort to convey that than just to feel sorry for herself and endure it and then complain about it later in a book.

But let’s talk more about her parents.

She says she stepped away from making the book too in depth an examination of her parents and their motives in favor of a lighter approach, but as a reader I couldn’t help but speculate about these things regardless of what limitations she chose to put on herself.

Her mother is easier to figure out: she’s simply a kook. She was a small time Hollywood actress hippie chick who was probably sexually abused as a child. She found a guru father figure she understandably preferred to her own father, and got caught up in a cult at a young age and never looked back.

She wanders through the book muttering her mantra of “Baba, Baba, Baba” nonstop, as pitiful as she is ridiculous. Still, despite being a ditz with her head permanently in the clouds, as I said earlier I felt throughout the book that she had a genuine love for her daughter and was always trying to do right by her. I found her to be a mostly sympathetic figure.

The author’s father too seemed to have benevolent intentions toward his daughter and really not to be a bad person.

He was more of a mystery most of the way though. The mother can more easily be dismissed as clearly mentally ill, but the father comes across as being a pretty sensible guy with a lot on the ball.

But why, then, is he too in this cult and willing to drag his young daughter halfway around the world to live in an ashram in Third World conditions? I guess he was just kind of tagging along because he loved his wife and wanted to support her and didn’t want to conflict with her and tell her she was wrong, and because he saw this as the only way to keep the family together. When the author is an adult, that’s roughly what he tells her.

Yet he also repeatedly throughout the book presents himself as a believer in the Baba cult. He delights in discussing philosophical aspects of the teachings (a lot of it’s empty and offensive “Everything that happens is good because everything that happens is Baba’s [God’s] will” malarkey), and shows no ambivalence about any of it.

Then again he also describes himself as an agnostic. Not, though, in the sense of having doubts about this religion, but more in the sense that this isn’t technically a religion, and therefore you can believe it a hundred percent and still be an agnostic.

I suppose really his attitude is more like that of most social believers in conventional religions. A lot of people go to church every Sunday, and if you asked them they’d say they believe all the stuff you’re supposed to believe as a member of that religion. And they wouldn’t so much be consciously lying, but just compartmentalizing that part of their life—going through the motions, mouthing the required phrases, taking it for granted their children should be raised in that religion, but not really believing believing it, the way they believe two plus two equals four, or water is wet.

For him I think it was more a matter of becoming a member of this group for social and familial reasons, and accepting its tenets at some superficial level, but not in the “true believer” sense that his wife did.

Again, not that he was consciously faking it. He remained a believer even after leaving his wife and returning to the U.S. (with a woman who was also a member of the cult), but he was more the kind of casual religious believer that most folks are—nonchalantly affirming all the teachings of their religion but only selectively allowing them to have any effect on their other beliefs and their behavior.

I suppose you could blame him a little more for allowing his daughter to suffer the way she did, since he seems to have had more tools to know what was going on than her crazy mother, but I found him mostly a likable guy.

It’s kind of interesting, and sad at a certain level, to read about India from this author’s perspective in between reading all the books about Gandhi I’ve been reading lately. The picture of India painted here is really pretty bad.

It’s not just a handful of nuts at an ashram. If anything the dubious goings-on there are less objectionable than the rest of what we see of the country.

In this book, Indians are consistently stupid, lazy, insane, corrupt, incompetent, conniving, horrifically unsanitary, and occasionally cruel but more often callously indifferent. These traits are presented in an exaggerated way for humorous purposes, but even allowing for that, it’s a pretty dismal portrait.

You have more of a sense reading this the terrifically uphill struggle Gandhi was engaged in to reform this whole country. Fighting for political independence from the British was not his overriding goal, but instead an integral part of an overall effort to uplift the people of an entire massive country, morally, economically, and otherwise. It’s no wonder he was constantly harping on the importance of toilets, subsistence crafts, basic self-respect and respect for others and the like, as he really didn’t have a lot to work with and had to build them up from square one.

When you read something like this, you better understand the enormity of the task, but also that his efforts were far more unsuccessful than successful. Expecting contemporary Indians to guide their lives by principles of truth and nonviolence, or even to behave as minimally civilized human beings, just because of what you know of Gandhi, is like expecting Americans or westerners to turn the other cheek when faced with violence and love their neighbors, just because of what you know of Jesus.

The majority of people never emerge from the cesspool of human behavior, or they rise from it briefly and immediately sink back down, regardless of the rhetoric of the moral reformers to whom they pay lip service.

I would have slightly preferred the author to have told the story in chronological order. I’m fine with having the perspective of her at different ages—in fact I think it’s a good thing—but the way that is done through occasional detours from strict chronology I at times found a little confusing and not too satisfying.

On the whole, though, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is more success than failure as a work of comedy, and it’s more success than failure as a serious work about a traumatic childhood. Those elements maybe don’t mesh together perfectly, and there are various authorial decisions I can quibble with, but this is a good, solid book on multiple levels, and worthy of a recommendation.

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