Monday, July 15, 2013

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Raami is the seven year old daughter of a prince.  She lives in a beautiful house in the capital city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Her father is a poet and a buddhist and he has created a serene, peaceful place for his family within their home.  Raami lives with her parents, her mother is a vision of beauty, her baby sister Radana and her grandmother, the Queen as well as a variety of servants.  The year is 1975 and the winds of a lost civil war are blowing into town.

The Khmer Rouge regime has just taken power of Cambodia.  They arrived in Phnom Penh and proceeded to evacuate the city.  Raami's family piles into the family car in sweltering heat, in a rushed exodus, never to return. During the next four years, the Khmer Rouge tries to systematically destroy the infrastructure of the country and its people by creating a group mentality, separating family, reeducating the educated populace in the ways of the peasants and stripping each individual of their memory of self.  Two million people lost their lives during the brutal communist regime of Pol Pot.

The author, Vaddey Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide.  She was five years old when the communist regime came to power.  She lost almost everything during the revolution, including most of her family.  She survived to tell her story in this semi-autobiographical novel.  Most of the characters in the book are based on her family members and her personal story is embedded in the narrative of In the Shadow of the Banyan.

Ratner is a beautiful writer.  While the story itself is tragic, the beauty of the writing and the hope of the characters make this story exceptional.  The love of family, the beauty of the moon, the hope for tomorrow are all reasons to fight and live among tragic and terrible circumstances.  Poetry is woven throughout the pages as well as traditional stories and myths of the ancestors.  At times In the Shadow of the Banyan is hard to read yet the author offers equal parts of tragedy and grace, imbuing the novel with small moments of kindness, love and spirit.

At one point in the novel the family is housed in a Buddhist monastery classroom.  This quote is written on the chalkboard “Knowing comes from learning, finding from seeking.” pg. 69

Below is the author talking about her book and her experience living through the regime of the Khmer Rouge.