Some of you may have read Vaddey Ratner’s lyrical and inspiring story of survival in her autobiographical novel, “In the Shadow of the Banyan”, which takes place during the Communist revolution in Cambodia. While the author did change some details with respect to the actual events, timeline, and persons involved in her personal story, the majority of this account is true. As remembered by a very young child, it is a striking remembrance of a loss of innocence and a strong desire to not just survive, but to make her life meaningful and to share this meaning with others through the power of language.
In essence, this book is a tribute to the power of art and poetry over the experiences of horrors and atrocities committed to human beings by their fellow-men. The Khmer Rouge are an example among so many in human history of the rising up of the culturally and financially oppressed in a terrible bloodbath of vicious revenge thinly disguised as a revolution promising equality for all.
In the story, Raani is a young child, about seven years old at the start of the novel; Vaddey Ratner was five years old at the dawn of the socialist revolution in Phnom Penh in real life. Born into a family of wealth, privilege, and a constant bath of beauty and harmony, Raani adores her poet father, Ayuravan, who is of royal descent. A survivor of infant polio, Raani has a younger sister whom she both loves and envies. Raani narrates her experiences with a mature voice, remembering with adult words and understanding, yet speaking from the place of a child. This is the most remarkable aspect of the book, in my opinion. Raani deconstructs the loss of her own innocence, step by step, gaining in wisdom and experience – while loss after loss strips her of all security, comfort, and at times threatens to take away her sense of self and the importance of living.
As the black clad young peasant soldiers create constant chaos, separating and constantly moving families from village to village, seeking to break down culture and family ties, Raani is also faced with deep guilt. Initially, the pride she feels for her father, and the deep love she carries for him, causes her to proclaim his name when the soldiers interrogate the children regarding their parents’ identity. She fears her mother’s rejection, as her parents love for one another is deep and adoring. Yet Raani comes to realize that her father’s face and identity are well-known to all, and that he willingly if painfully gave himself up, surrendering his own life as a gage, hoping to save his family. Raani also feels responsible for the death of her younger sister, Radana, from malaria after Raani failed to cover her and protect her from mosquitoes, disobeying her mother’s orders and sneaking off to witness a murder in the forest. However, this death was predicted by a psychic years ago, and Raani later learns that both her parents love her deeply, and that she is the one expected to survive, even “fly”.
Raani’s father teaches her about poetry and about the legends of Buddhist culture, and Raani appears to be a storehouse of myths and lore, drawing upon the stories to edify herself and make sense of her life. Her father’s legacy and Raani’s poetic spirit give her wings even as she struggles with terror and loss. There are moments of great beauty and love, despite the spiteful cruelty that abounds, and Raani takes note of each and every tiny moment of grace.
This autobiographical novel is a work of great beauty and courage, inspirational for the depth of wisdom felt by a child so young and for her strength and desire to live and create despite the terrible images imprinted upon her psyche and the love repeatedly torn away.