All the Fishes
Come Home to Roost

An American Misfit in India
Rachael Manija Brown
Part II
Rachel Manija Brown's autobiography brought that summer back to me with force. Her daily nightmare didn't take place in sunny New Jersey but in India, in the boiling hot dusty town of Ahmednagar, in a Catholic school called the Church of the Holy Wounds. Wounding it was.

My nightmare summer lasted for three months, Brown's for five years. Being stoned by her classmates. Being beaten by the nuns. She and the other students being forced to stand in the hot sun until they threw up or fainted; all of them being locked out of the bathroom --- the pestiferous Indian bathroom --- locked out all day because of some imagined misdeed of one of the three hundred students.

Our parents off in another world. That's the key part of these tales, of so many tales of childhood: Great Expectations, Treasure Island, Young Tôrless, Catcher in the Rye --- those people who run our lives and when we tell them the truth, they just don't get it.

When I got home at the end of my summer in purgatory --- I shan't tell you what Mr. Anderson did to me --- and when Misfi got home each day, we were not to be believed. I vaguely recall my dialogue with my mother about Ralph and Mary and Walter. All I can remember her saying is that I had "a very fertile" imagination.

This is Brown's dialogue with her mother fifteen years later: Difficult? There was so much I wanted to say that I choked on it. It nearly ruined my life. I wanted to say, If I tell dates about my childhood, they never call me again. What the hell were you and Dad thinking? I settled on, "It was beyond difficult. The kids hated me, and the Holy Wounds teachers beat me."

    Mom began to cry. "Beat you?"

    "Yeah. You knew that."

    "No, sweetie. I had no idea. Oh, how awful. Why didn't you ever tell me?"

    "I did tell you. I told you and Dad over and over, but it never helped, so eventually I gave up."

    "You never told me anyone hit you."

    "Sure I did."

    "Sweetie, I know you think I was a terrible mother, but surely you don't believe I could have been so callous that I could have known that my own child, whom I loved, was being beaten and not cared."

§     §     §

All the Fishes tricks us. It starts out as a comic autobiography. Ditzy mother, funny dad, hippie and Jewish, going off to Meher Baba's ashram in India, daughter Mani in tow. It is funny. This on one of the pilgrims who comes to the ashram, meeting with the holiest of Baba's followers: "Oh, Paribanu!" she exclaimed. "I'm so blessed to meet you. Thank Beloved Baba for giving me this chance to come here --- I'm so happy --- You are the purest woman in the world, and I am so blessed --- Oh, thank you, Baba!"

    Then as abruptly as she had arrived, the woman jumped off the porch and fled down the garden path, her arms and clothes flapping behind her.

    Paribanu watched her go, an expression of bemusement on her wrinkled face. "What a stupid girl," she remarked thoughtfully. "Dumb, dumb, dumb."

It is a wonderful/awful story, told with surety: the moments of happiness, finding toads in the wells, snakes in the bush; the daily beatings, the picture of an old man falling off the train and dying; having her cheeks pinched (eternally) by the pilgrims; the comical awfulness of Indian sanitary accomodations; being tied up by one of the Baba followers, left to the mercies of a scary local madman, in his weird perambulations, coming closer and closer, no one anywhere, but this very strange gimlet-eyed old man coming closer and closer...

I was reminded of Bonnie and Clyde. Remember what a lark it was. Knocking over banks, running from the sheriffs in funny old cars, the characters ... and all of a sudden, someone jumps on the running-board, gets shot: there in the spider-web of the shattered window and a bloody face falling away, and suddenly it isn't a lighthearted romp anymore. That's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

--- L. W. Milam
Go back to
Part I

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