Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Memoir: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

My husband bought me All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India by Rachel Manija Brown for Christmas this year. It was one of dozens of books that I'd circled in the Bas Bleu catalog that I left lying around the house in strategic places. He made a good choice in selecting this funny, moving memoir from my overflowing wish list.

Rachel Manija Brown tells the story of her bizarre childhood spent at an ashram in India. Until age seven, her life was relatively normal, growing up in Los Angeles and nurturing her two loves, animals and reading. Then her parents, followers of the Indian guru Meher Baba, decided to move to Ahmednagar, India, to live at a commune with other Baba lovers. Rachel suddenly found herself torn from everything familiar, living an isolated existence among religious fanatics.

There were no other resident children at the ashram, and Rachel's enrollment in the local private school (the only option for an education in English) doesn't help much. "And so, despite being Jewish by birth and a Baba-lover by parental decree, I was sent to Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior Convent School." Rachel is an outcast at the school as the only foreigner and the only student who doesn't speak Hindi or Marathi, the local language. She also discovers that the nuns and teachers at her new school have a sadistic penchant for corporal punishment.

While many aspects of Rachel's childhood in Ahmednagar are appalling, she tells her story with an endearing wit that highlights her resilient spirit. She has plenty of fodder for her humor, as she describes her bizarre life in a remote area of India. In the first chapter alone, we encounter a gnome-like taxi owner who welds the car engine while her family is sitting in the backseat and the taxi's driver, a man so short that he can't reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time and doesn't seem to know how to work the clutch, as they take her family on a harrowing trip up a mountain. And these aren't the strangest characters she meets in India, by far.

It's impossible not to compare this book with Augusten Burrough's Running With Scissors. In fact, Rachel herself explains in the last chapter how Burrough's hilarious and horrifying memoir inspired her to write her own. She learned from him that she could recount her more disturbing experiences with plenty of humor to keep from alienating her readers. It's a rare talent, to move readers smoothly from laughter to horror and back to laughter again. Rachel Manija Brown manages this approach handily, pulling it all together with her unique voice into a funny and compelling book.

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