Written in an autobiographical style, In the Shadow of the Banyan is the tale of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1970, through the eyes of a child. While the story is fictional, some elements are based on Vaddey Ratner’s own experience as a child at the time.
The story is told by Raami, a 7-year old girl living in the compound of her father Prince Sisowath Ayuravann of the royal family. On the eve of New Year, the family is forced from their home by Khmer Rouge soldiers and they drive several hours through roads choked with refugees, to their summer house outside Phnom Penh. But that too is only a short respite as the soldiers continue to harry the educated and wealthy classes, chivvying them from town to town and forcing them to leave behind more and more of their possessions until finally the family is walking, carrying Raami’s younger sister Radana. Raami, as a survivor of polio as a baby, needs a brace to walk but this is confiscated and thrown in the river by a soldier, as a symbol of Western medicine which is against the Khmer Rouge’s principles. This theme of returning to traditional living is the main reason that millions of city dwellers are exiled to the country and forced to work on communal farms in rural villages.
For a while it seems that Raami’s family are able to stick together but soon someone recognises her beloved Papa, poet and gentle teacher, as a member of the royal family, and educated overseas, and he is torn from the family to an unknown fate. In the novel it is bad enough but realising that these events were happening all over Cambodia, to thousands and thousands of people, makes it even more horrifying. Raami never hears from her Papa again and soon is settled into a village near the border with Vietnam and Thailand, with her mother and sister, and her mother’s brother who through some miracle has survived to find them.
The conditions that they are forced to endure are awful, starvation and disease taking as many victims as overwork and abuse at the hands of the guards. Raami’s mother and uncle are assigned to earthworks, making new rice paddies out of unusable land, rice paddies which will wash away in the first monsoon and make all their effort worthless. Eventually Raami loses the ability to process what she sees around her and becomes a shell – with only her mother to keep her anchored to this world.
Finally, Raami and her mother make it into an escape party which heads for Thailand and freedom. But at the cost of leaving behind everything they knew. Still, their memories are intact, and that is something that the Khmer Rouge has been unable to strip from the people. Even though this has been fictionalised, you can tell that these experiences are still alive for Vaddey Ratner, and that Raami’s tale is not unique amongst the chaos that was the Khmer Rouge takeover.
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