Saturday, 2 October 2010

Book of the Month: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost (Rachel Manija Brown)

In the early 1980s, a precocious seven-year-old girl left California and, together with her parents, boarded a plane to India. She spent the next five years in Ahmadnagar, a provincial town in western India, in the state of Maharashtra. On the outskirts of this sleepy town was, still is, a spiritual commune formed by Meher Baba, the self-declared avtar of his age, one of the many mystics from India (a land that disgorges more gurus than Afghanistan does Talibans). During her stay, the little girl, named, to her eternal embarrassment, Manija—an ancient Persian name for precious gem, also the name of a female disciple of Meher Baba—was the only child in the ashram that was inhabited by some very curious individuals who, if they were not entirely out of their minds, did not appear to be entirely within them.

Five years in an Indian ashram obviously left a deep impression on the mind of the little girl, and, thirty years (and possibly several therapies) later, she has produced an engaging, highly readable memoir: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost. Uprooted from her idyllic childhood in America, little Manija Brown, the involuntary resident of the Baba-ashram, sets about making sense of the strange world she is unwittingly hurled into, with the enthusiasm of Alice in Wonderland. While Ahmadnagar has its occasional moments of excitement—for example, when a man who, having taken a vow of rolling across India, for reasons fathomable probably only to him, rolls into town, its inhabitants, instead of taking him to a place of safety (and arranging for an urgent psychiatric assessment), declare him to be holy and seek his blessings—it would be safe to conclude that it is not a happening place. Indeed Brown finds Ahamdnagar mind-numbingly stupefying—it is the kind of place where if an aeroplane goes overhead people rush out of their houses. There is no television in the ashram, all the movies in the cinema are in languages she does not understand, the Indian-style toilets (holes in the ground) are populated by giant rats, there are no facilities for hot showers, and the seasons consist of ‘unpleasantly hot, unbearably hot, and, for three months every year, soaking wet’. Brown is not allowed to visit the town library; stepping out of the ashram compound, in any case, can be a life-threatening experience as the entire population of the children of Ahmadnagar seems to have decided to use Brown as a target to practise rock-throwing. The ashram-society, Brown informs, was divided into ‘residents’ (almost all Americans), 'mandali' (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘inner circle’) comprising Indians (with an average age of hundred and eighty five) who were close to Meher Baba, and 'servants'. The 'residents', Brown recalls, in keeping with India’s cast system (which does not appear to be all that different from the class system in the West) did not mix with the 'servants'. Every year the commune was visited by pilgrims looking for inner peace (and, in some cases, lost marbles).  A few went spectacularly mad: such as the Hungarian Vladimir Vladimir who arrived one year dressed like the late Meher Baba declaring that he (Vladimir Vladimir) was indeed he (Meher Baba), and, as a reward, was beaten up black and blue by the Indian policemen (at the behest of one of the senior mandali) with a force and energy that would have had chairman Mao nodding with approval. (The readers are relived to learn that the duplicate, along with his consort (who shared his delusion), was eventually committed to an asylum in a nearby city where the treating psychiatrist got very excited about the rare case of shared delusions and declared her intentions to write a monograph on it.) Unable to adjust to a culture which she finds as different from her parent-culture as chalk is from cheese, not being allowed to fraternize with her peers (who wouldn’t accept her as one of them any way), Brown finds solace in reading about India’s colourful history. In particular she is fascinated by the heroics of Shivaji, a popular seventeenth century hero, an Indian Robin Hood, who fought battles, politically as well as on the battlefield, against the supposedly invulnerable might of the Mughals, and went on to establish his own kingdom, which, in the eighteenth century, grew into a pan-Indian empire. She also likes to read about women warriors from India’s history. Like a hungry caterpillar Brown absorbs these tales that are grisly yet strangely stirring.

The school into which brown is enrolled plays a major role in blighting Brown’s already unhappy existence in Ahmadnagar. She is enrolled into a private—rather than public—Catholic school where the subjects are taught in English as opposed to Marathi, the local language which Brown does not understand and can not speak. In this school, named ‘Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Saviour’, Brown, Jewish by birth and a Baba-lover by parental decree, encounters teachers and nuns straight out of Adam’s Family, and children who would make the bullies in the Lord of the Flies appear tame lambs in comparison. The teachers forever are in search of innovative and gory ways of torturing pupils—at one time Brown, with the rest of the class, witnesses the terrifying spectacle of the class-teacher frenziedly and repeatedly knocking the head of a boy on the stone-floor till he passes out and suffers an epileptic fit—while the bullies amongst children steal Brown’s belongings, pour ink on her back, and, when stuck for ideas, throw rocks at her. Brown admits that she was not the only pupil who was subjected to corporal punishment—the nuns just wanted to wring necks and weren’t fussy about whose necks they wrenched; if anything she got punished less than the Indian children— and, for the classroom bullies, she was just one amongst many whom they tormented; but this knowledge—that she was not the only one to suffer the excruciation—did not make the pain bearable. Her parents appear to be surprisingly oblivious to Brown’s plight—her mother claims, years later, that she genuinely did not know that her daughter was so desperately unhappy at school—, perhaps because of the knowledge that the only alternative available, a public sector Marathi school, was, if that was possible, worse than the Catholic school.

Young Brown is a keen observer of the peculiarities and frailties of those around her; and the adult Brown has a wonderful gift of narration. The conclusions she reaches are sometimes revealing, sometimes superficial, and always interesting. By far the most fascinating characters are Brown’s parents—her mother Da-Nonna and her father Joey, both confirmed Baba-lovers. Da-Nonna, we learn towards the end, is still living in the Ahmadnagar ashram; Joey returns to America after five years, having found a new soul-mate in the ashram, and their home in America is adorned by no less than eighty nine photographs of Meher Baba. Brown’s depiction of her mother has a touch of theatricality and farcicality about it. Da-Nonna is the stereotypical Westerner, who, unhappy with her lot in life, possibly damaged by traumatic experiences in her childhood, embraces the benign sect of an Indian mystic and its not-wholly-original philosophy with the avidity of an alcoholic clutching a bottle of whisky. She swallows all the fantastic stories of Meher Baba’s powers and his nifty deeds in previous incarnations (which include Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Zoroaster and most mythological figures from the Hindu pantheon), sees Baba’s face in the bark of a tree in the ashram’s compound, is overcome with happiness and gratitude when asked to serve tea to the senior mandali, and has the unshakable belief that Meher Baba is God. While Brown’s mother throws herself into the daily life of the ashram, its rituals and intrigues, her father is a somewhat detached onlooker at the periphery of the Baba-world and whiles his time pontificating with fellow Baba-lovers on whether or not life is an illusion. This man is not gullible, he is habitually inclined to scepticism, he describes himself as an agnostic; yet he travels across half the world and lives in dusty Ahmadnagar for five years. Years later he confides in his daughter that he agreed to go to India to keep the family together as his wife had made up her mind on the matter and would have gone on her own had he disagreed. Then there are a host of secondary characters, all permanent residents of the ashram, whose behaviour, judging by Brown’s account, ranges from eccentric to clinically insane. Ratanji, the librarian, has pathological hatred of all children, and keeps himself busy by grunting outside Brown’s window till late in the night; ‘Malik, the Mast’ is forever searching the ground and collecting items that are visible only to him, and such is the unpredictability of his behaviour that the mandalis feel compelled to put a notice outside of his hut advising women to keep their distance; ‘Coconut’—he is round, brown and hairy—a man in his fifties, insists that seven year old Brown is his mother because it is the Kaliyuga (The age of Kali, bad times, according to Hindu beliefs) age and ‘anything can happen then.’ Overlooking this disparate, ragtag collection of misfits and eccentrics is Meher Baba, rather his portrait, for he died, or, as his followers say, left his body, years before Brown was born. Although Meher Baba, a Zoroastrian by birth, declared himself to be God, he was careful not to start a religion; certainly his philosophy, such as it was, appears to have borrowed liberally from Hinduism and Buddhism. He also took a vow of silence when he was in his thirties—apparently because he was misunderstood in all his previous incarnations—and communicated in a sign language for the next forty-five years, till he died. Towards the end of his life, or, as his avtar as Meher Baba neared its conclusion, he spent his time by giving his disciples tasks such as killing all the mosquitoes in the commune’s campus (which suggests he was probably au courant with public health issues, or wanted to impress upon the disciples’ minds the futility of these tasks and by extension life, or had given up on the local pest-control measures) and asking them questions such as what they would do if he asked them to kill their children (which suggests that he was indeed God, or had read the Bible). The 1960s were boom times for Indian gurus, and Meher Baba was no exception; his popularity reached its peak in this decade, and among his followers at the time was Pete Townsend of the British rock band The Who. Townsend wrote songs inspired by his devotion to Meher Baba. He, Meher Baba, is the Baba in Baba O’rielly and it is probable that Townsend had him in mind when he wrote Parvardigar (an urdu word for God). Meher Baba’s tomb in the Ahmadnagar commune is visited every year by scores of Baba-lovers of whom there are apparently more than 100,000 in the world. By the time Brown comes to live in the commune Meher Baba formed in the 1930s, more than a decade has passed since he left his body, but the ashrmaites behave as if he is still alive. There is a consensus that anything and everything happening in the world in general, and the devotees’ lives in particular, is Baba’s wish. If something good happens, Baba gets the credit; if things don’t go according to plan, Baba is testing you. Baba’s name is on everyone’s lips—‘it is used as punctuation, as a greeting, as an exclamation, as a goodbye, and as a prayer.’ Brown’s mother uses the word ‘Baba’ in her speech the way some might use the word ‘f**k’. Brown clearly is not a believer in all the stories surrounding Meher Baba, neither is she particularly enamoured with his hotchpotch philosophy; however, either because of consideration to the feelings of the ashrmiates, not least her mother, or because of her humane disposition, she does not ridicule Meher Baba and his philosophy which, all things, considered, is essentially benign. Brown tends to view the love of some for the Baba-cult as a form of obsession, which, she implies, like all obsessions, is fundamentally arbitrary. She writes: 'We all have mental magnets for obsession . . . waiting to encounter an idea or person or practice of the opposite charge.' Her mother’s 'magnet was an exceptionally strong one, and it attracted her to Baba.' While Brown can’t identify with the object of her mother’s obsession, she can empathize with the obsession. She writes: ‘...when I was a child, I was obsessed with animals. Now I’m obsessed with martial arts ... some people are obsessed with Star Trek, ferrets or a person they’re stalking. I can understand the fascination even if I can’t understand its object.’ She admits that she probably ‘lacks the God-magnet’.

Wryly funny in parts, an undercurrent of pathos permeates the memoir. You can’t help noticing how isolated, and unnatural was the existence of the little girl. She spent five years in India, yet marooned as she was in the ashram, the diverse Indian culture simply passed her by. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is an engrossing, bittersweet account of the five years of the author’s childhood that—we are left in no doubt of this—was less than wholesome, told in a manner that is witty, ironic, humane, compassionate and genuinely affecting. Brown is definitely a one to watch.