Set in 1875-1879, when the Khmer Rouge Republic rules Cambodia after a coup that overthrows the established monarchy, In the Shadow of the Banyan is absolutely staggering in its impact. The first-person fictionalized account of a girl who survives the nightmare that killed from one to two million Cambodians relates the horrors of her family’s ordeal from the first appearance of the Khmer Rouge’s black-clothed soldiers to the dissolution of families to service the revolution, an army of citizens forced to do the bidding of an intractable army.
Her story begins with soldiers hammering on the gates of the family compound, demanding that residents evacuate immediately and loading them onto trucks for dissemination to other locations. Educated and affluent, Raami’s family abandons servants and worldly goods, save a few family jewels, as mother, father and two daughters—Raami and her young sister, Radana—join the others. Assembled with other family members—Grandmother Queen, Big Uncle, his wife and twin sons and an aunt—the family clings to one another, keeping close counsel as they are crudely transported by their new government.
Descendants of the royal family that ruled Cambodia in the early 20th century while it was a French protectorate, the refugees understand that privilege and education will only garner negative attention from a regime whose political roots are based in radicalism. Moved from place to place and housed with other refugees in random locations, families are herded together and questioned. Rammi’s father chooses to isolate himself from the rest, to identify himself by name that the others might pass as commoners and survive. Separation from this man is wrenching for Raami and her mother as well the extended family. Her world filled with poetry and the stories her father has told since her birth, seven-year-old Raami is desolate, daughter and beautiful mother mourning a man who has made an irrevocable decision.
In prose couched in Buddhist tales, Cambodian lore and the magical words of a man who captured the essence of life’s great bounty with his poetry, Raami painfully endures the separation and the losses that assail her family as they struggle from one labor camp to another. Working them like beasts of burden in service to the revolution, soldiers bark orders to exhausted, famished people who desire only to live another day. Loss weighs heavily on Raami, whose small part in her family’s ultimate fate is exacerbated by the imagination of a child coping with grief beyond her endurance. Communication with her mother becomes strained for a time as the two strive to bridge whatever future they may yet seize.
Attrition, time and the enslavement of a country of workers take a terrible toll on Cambodia. The culture is decimated by the radicalism and brutality of the Khmer Rouge, only to be followed by the armies of the Vietnamese, whose war has spread beyond their borders. Raami and her mother, all that remains of the family, flee to Thailand with the fall of the Khmer Rouge before the advancing Vietnamese, nothing left for them in Cambodia. The grueling, inhuman journey defines the nature of survival. Her father’s words gave Raami wings that she might fly; his stories live in her heart and his love of country fills the pages of her novel: “There will remain only so many of us as can rest under the shadow of the banyan tree.” In sharing her story, Raami’s father speaks across the years in a haunting voice.