I have just finished reading “in the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner. It is set against the background of the revolution in Cambodia which was won by the Khmer Rouge, the forces of Pol Pot. The narrator is a girl from an aristocratic family who had polio at birth and so is crippled and has to wear an iron brace to walk. When the revolutionary soldiers arrive in Phnom Penh the family is told to vacate their home. They embark on a journey which leads to death, deprivation and disintegration of the extended family group.
You do get an understanding of the oppressive humidity in South East Asia and there are some fine descriptive passages in the book. It is a dark, gloomy tale, but I don’t actually think that a casual reader would see the link between the title and the narrative. Neither was there much point in the girl’s having to wear a brace, as the young soldiers remove it because it is a “machine” which is not to be tolerated in ‘liberated’ Cambodia. In the remaining narrative she does not seem particularly to miss walking without it.
A banyan tree is a huge tree which is indigenous to south Asia and got its English name from banian, Hindu merchants or traders, who would sit under the shade of these huge trees and conduct their business. A whole village could sit under a large banyan tree and they were the focal point of a village in rural parts of the Asian subcontinent and South East Asia. They are the wish-fulfilling trees of Hindu mythology, but if you do not know this, the author does not enlighten you.
If you have ever travelled through South East Asia you will understand how the humidity and heat can grind you down. It is extremely unpleasant and as soon as you step outside an air-conditioned room, you feel as though you are in a sauna. The thought of having to work in the fields in such conditions is intolerable. However you have to have experienced it to understand what the author is trying to convey, I think.
At the back of the book Vaddey Ratner explains that the story is essentially hers, but if that is so there is none of the immediacy you usually expect from a first person narrative.
Personally I found the book interesting, although I would have preferred the tale to have been told through the eyes of a revolutionary soldier rather than from the point of view of a child from a rich family who has to live a life of abject poverty for some years – it is not clear how many in the narrative.
Perhaps I should have read the blurb before I grabbed the book. The title seduced me I suppose. I am fond of majestic banyan trees! Other reviews have praised the book and to read one of them click here.