During the three years he spent as a student at Williams from 1992-95, Cheeni Rao was consumed by a whirlpool of sex, drugs and crime that escalated to the point that he was unable to graduate. His memoir In Hanuman’s Hands, published in the spring by HarperOne, documents Rao’s descent into drug dealing and addiction, and the spiritual journey that eventually allowed him to graduate from both the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god referred to by Rao’s mother throughout his childhood, became Rao’s guide. The book blends fiction and memory, ancestral Hindu India and the present-day U.S. into an exploration of ephemeral encounters between addiction and spirituality.
Rao was a troublemaker even before college; he narrates that one of his worst crimes was burning a house down in an act of vengeance. His reasons for going to Williams, then, were not his own aspirations, but rather his parents’ expectations for him to be a perfect pre-med student. When school began, Rao was overwhelmed by his decision and had little interest in Williamstown or his courses. Instead of enjoying the first-year festivities, he was confronted by race and class differences: At a party, one of Rao’s opponents “dug into a pocket and flipped five crisp hundreds on the table with a laugh” while playing poker. His self-consciousness about being an Indian minority increased around girls, feeling that, after he hooked up with them, “I had filled their Indian quota.” Rao wanted to be known as the cool guy, not as “monkey legs,” the nickname he was given for his long legs in high school.
Throughout the memoir, Rao doesn’t name the College, but for Eph readers, certain descriptions will instantly imply the school. On the topic of Sawyer Library’s monkey carrels he writes, “I couldn’t imagine ever stuffing myself into one of those little coffins with their hard wooden seats.” He jokes that J. Crew and L.L. Bean were “the school uniform.” Rao’s tone seems sour when describing his time at Williams, but he later realizes that “the College cared.”
“Williams had a lot to offer, but I just wasn’t ready for it,” said Rao in an interview. “I had no idea what the school was about, or its reputation . . . I had no idea what kind of opportunity I’d been presented with. I think that I would have gone off the deep end with partying and troublemaking no matter what school I attended because that’s what I was really primed for at the time.”
Rao began dealing and doing drugs on campus while stealing from his closest friends. His emotional struggles are particularly poignant for a Williams reader because his faÃ§ade of satisfaction with his habits hides a familiar trope â€“ the burdens of the desire to succeed yet have fun; a demanding family; worries about the way the world perceives you. Rao became addicted to coke and marijuana, convincing himself that they were better alternatives to binging alcohol. “Drinking was bad for the liver, and my dad was right â€“ I needed to be more careful,” he writes. “No way was I going cold turkey just because he thought I should.”
His drug addictions spiraled out of control when he was unable to get help. He fled to Chicago while under pressure from his suppliers and was eventually expelled from the College for failing to address his academic probation. Rao had the option of making up classes and then returning to Williams to complete his degree, but he later attended the University of Chicago instead.
Rao’s drug use was more than rebellion against his parents’ expectations and his frustrations with the College â€“ it was a portal into the spiritual world. “The needle was my conduit, full bodied, to the Gods,” Rao wrote.
When he found himself homeless after leaving Williams in 1995 and hustling on the streets for quick fixes, Rao received a visit from the Hindu gods Hanuman and Kali, with Hanuman pushing him to the path of good and Kali to the depths of evil. The ancient spiritual characters that were passed on to Rao from generations of family tradition became the forces that guided him toward self-help: “Roaming the nights with Hanuman gave me a better chance of surviving the darkness. He was someone to talk to, someone who listened.”
Rao’s erratic behavior was likely difficult to come to terms with, let alone articulate, but his writing is as enticing as it is emotional: With a quick pace and high stakes, readers will eagerly turn page after page. “I was not my body,” he writes about fleeing Williams, “We were tight cords of muscles with skin like stone and steel-wire hair. Our tail gave us balance. The wind lifted our steps. And the night, our friend, cloaked us in her mystery.” No reader could overlook the lonely protagonist at the heart of In Hanuman’s Hands. As Rao narrates, “I had nothing. No friends, no future, no hope for happiness except for what the needle could provide.” This reality haunts even the most dramatic narrative, like when a crackhouse where a child was raped burns down, with sadness.
In the interview, Rao explained that writing In Hanuman’s Hands has helped him confront the issues he avoided for years. “When you’re hustling, it helps to be able to keep moving, not get sucked into feeling sorry for yourself or getting trapped in nostalgia,” he said. “I’d locked a lot away, and over time, as I was rebuilding my life, those memories of the horrors had begun leaking into my dreams, poisoning my waking life. I realized that I had to confront my past, open up all the doors and process what had happened and what I’d done, no matter how painful that would be.”
After treatment, today, Rao admits that he still feels the urge to cause trouble in his life. “Unless I’m careful, unless I’m vigilant, I have a unique ability to get myself in trouble . . . that’s the Kali in me that never backs down,” he said. He does not see Hanuman anymore, but remains spiritual.
Rao is currently the director of The Iowa Book Doctors, a business for mentoring writers. He is also writing a novel and a collection of short stories and has sold the movie rights to In Hanuman’s Hands. “Writing’s my addiction these days,” Rao said. “If I don’t keep that pipe lit, I have a tendency to get back into my old habits of juggling flaming chainsaws with demons.”