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Book Review: All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit In India by Rachel Manija Brown

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When I retrieved the above-titled paperback from a bargain bin outside my favorite bookstore I had my doubts. I’d never heard of it and my only experience with a memoir was a bad one (my condolences to anyone forced to read Richard Rodriguez’ Aria for a class assignment as I was). The praise on the front cover coaxed me to put my doubts aside so I purchased it — and was richly rewarded for the venture. Brown’s sharp-witted, precise story-telling (as well as the absurdity of the story itself) made All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit In India both hilarious and deeply insightful.

Born in Manija to a pair of ex-hippies (she legally added the name Rachel in her adolescence), Ms. Brown was uprooted to a “drought-stricken, cobra-ridden backwater town” in India at age seven by her parents’ religious fervor for a guru named Meher Baba (best known for his influence on The Who’s Pete Townshend). Five years of her childhood on a spiritual commune in the rural town of Ahmednagar was rife for experiences ranging from amusing to horrifying, but Ms. Brown’s tone remains bluntly honest and dryly funny throughout.

The characters and events which comprise young “Mani’s” life are so colorful and outrageous as to seem made-up. However Brown’s frankness in describing her bizarre circumstances (and her own reactions to them) make her entirely relatable and more importantly, believable. One thing which is particularly enjoyable about Fishes is how well-acquainted the reader feels with both Baba-lovers (inhabitants of the commune) and rural Indian culture; two things which couldn’t be more foreign for the average American. Another plus is the unpredictable nature of Brown’s narrative; with such things as howling librarians and fatal car accidents being commonplace, there’s no telling what Brown’s next adventure or experience will be. Paired with a quick-clipping narrative and a non-sequential plotline, Fishes is difficult to put down, but easy to resume.

If there are any flaws to be identified, they would perhaps be a few lulls in an otherwise fast-paced, prose-style narrative. There were times as I read that I wondered why Brown chose to place so much emphasis on one thing when all I wanted as a reader was to hear another lurid tale of ex-witches, weird prayer ceremonies, and kooky commune visitors. For instance, the amount of time Brown devoted to describing a ridiculously unsuccessful “vacation” with her mother for no apparent reason other than emphasizing her mother’s oddness was, needless to say, unnecessary — as other stories clearly indicated this anecdote.

Overall, Fishes is a fantastically outrageous exploration on just how awful a childhood can be; all the while making light of something potentially terrible. It’s both amusing and inspiring, how one author can take an experience as scarring and alienating as growing up on an ashram where you’re the “only foreign kid for a hundred mile radius,” and make it something worth sharing with others. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s felt alienated in their lives. 

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About C.R. Schudalla