A tragic event is never easy to chronicle. More so, when it has to be fictionalized so that the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. So almost, no one can tell what actually happened or whether the author went through what is documented or not. The same is the case with the book that I finished reading last week – “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner. The book largely stirred me and almost made me gasp for breath in most places. You will know why when you read the book and discover its power, the writer’s ability to weave a heartfelt and yet hopeful story.
“In the Shadow of the Banyan” is all about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, where an estimate of two million people lost their lives. The book’s protagonist is seven-year old Raami, whose world and childhood is shattered the day her father brings news of the Civil War’s triumph on the streets of Phnom Penh, the capital city. Soon the family’s royal privileges are taken away (they are but royalty), and they have to flee their palace, their home, their country, only to be haunted by memories and what each family member faces in that time.
For me, the book was a heavy read. But obviously given the content, I had to almost keep the book aside for some time and then get back to it, but more so because I was too overwhelmed to read further. Raami’s voice is almost Vaddey’s voice, as the author also had to run away from Cambodia, did not know English and yet educated herself in the United States of America and is where she is today. The book is based on memory and experience and yes it is close to the author’s life and yet Raami’s voice is not lost or diluted. The book does not let you forget tragedies that took place (even if it didn’t happen to the author) and rightly so. I was just astounded by what evil lurks in men to commit the crimes that they do. I was left with that thought way after I had finished reading the book.
Ratner’s writing is stark and she does not leave out anything and at the same time the description of a land torn and its people left in despair will leave the reader wanting to know more about Cambodia and Khmer Rouge. The brutality, the violence and the tenderness is present in equal measure. What rises above of this is that there is still hope, which of course worked well for the writer and maybe for many more like her.
For me, all I can say is that there are very few books like, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” that provide the much needed comfort and hope in difficult times. One can relate to it no matter what and as you close the book, you feel a little more hopeful, a little less angry and a little more belief in humanity through the eyes of a seven-year old till she turns eleven. A beautiful read. Be prepared though to cry a little.