Up from the monkey god


A devout Hindu man from India, Srinivas “Cheeni” Rao was raised to worship Shiva and excel in academics. Somewhere in his path, however, Rao decided to take a different route and, still embracing the gods like Hanuman, dove into a life of alleys and needles.

“Although Hanuman is a monkey god, I believe he’s one of the most human-like gods,” Rao said, who will be reading from his memoir In Hanuman’s Hands at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque, today at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

The mighty ape, Hanuman, is one of the most popular and important deities in Hinduism and is featured in the famed Indian epic tale Ramayana. He is worshiped for his strength, perseverance, and devotion.

“But Hanuman is a trickster god, and that’s how I think he helped me when I was young,” Rao said.
The debut novel, In Hanuman’s Hands recounts the 35-year-old’s life in the mid-90s when he found himself homeless on the streets of Chicago, addicted to a pharmacy of drugs, and overwhelmed in a life full of sex and violence.

“In that sense, it’s not a real memoir,” Rao said. “I don’t describe my birth to right now, it’s just a snapshot in my life so far.”

When Rao returned home during his darkest days, his mother — a proud Brahmin woman — turned Rao away and she told him that he was now in Hanuman’s hands.

“It was the equivalent of her telling me I was in God’s hands,” Rao said. “That there was nothing left for her to do to help me.”

Rao had dismissed a chance clean living after he witnessed his friend’s murder, but with the help of a halfway home he eventually graduated from the University of Chicago in 1998. That same year, he was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I was my father’s prodigy — I was supposed to become a doctor,” Rao, originally a pre-med major, said. “But I would go to exams [at the University of Chicago] and fill in answers just so I could leave.”

Rao, who jokes that the path to a pre-med degree is just a series of science and math classes that ultimately means nothing, was never fulfilled with borrowing his parents’ dream for himself.

“They were disappointed when I decided to change to my major to English,” the author said of his parents, who moved to Chicago from India in the 60s. “But writing was my passion. They’re proud now, knowing I can make a life for myself with my writing.”

Rao’s work on his memoir is one of the ways he can work to dig up his painful past. While he was on the streets, Rao eventually leaned on Hanuman to help him get sober.

“Through Hanuman — he showed me the world through tricking me: Drugs and alcohol, I learned how to eventually handle my sobriety,” Rao said.

Once leaving alcohol behind, and with the support of his professors and peers, he devoted himself to his craft and art. The author was aided immensely by the life Iowa City was able to provide him.
Through funding from the Writers’ Workshop, Rao was given the a rare opportunity. He had the ability to write without worrying about the means to support himself.

“Unlike other people who have to work hard to for a living for themselves, I was able to devote my time to my writing,” Rao said. “That’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do without the Workshop.”

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