Ritual as Resolution: Amarnath Ravva’s American Canyon

Sejal Shah

Los Angeles, CA: Kaya Press, 2014. 180 pp. $23.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

A few years ago at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison discussed Silko’s idea, voiced in the opening of her groundbreaking book Ceremony, that sometimes there is no resolution except ceremony. Telling one’s story can be a kind of ceremony—the transformation of trauma into acceptance and healing. I saw these writers on a snowy night in January 2011. That summer, everything changed in my life. I left New York, a job, a relationship—it was a life I had wanted a great deal, but which was ultimately just not working. I packed up my apartment and office, and boarded a plane to India, where I would travel and live for the next several months. One October evening at an ashram in Rishikesh, a city in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas, I waded into the Ganga, tossed flower petals, placed a divo (a small flame in a vessel fashioned from leaves) into the river, and greeted the holy water rushing over my feet—a makeshift birthday ceremony I hoped would help unmoor the past and open new paths into the future.  While not a specific Hindu ceremony, this ritual connected me to two earlier, improvised art rituals I undertook in New York, when I began to dismantle my life there. I flung smooth stones gathered from the Rhode Island shore—as well as daisies, dried petals, shells, and even a silver ring into the East River. I had walked the few blocks from my apartment to the river and stood, before emptying my pockets of petals and shells and the silver ring—before flinging all, one by one, in some sort of prayerful gesture. I implored both sky and water for some similar release, transformation, and peace.

The conversation at the 92nd Street Y returned to me again this year, as I began to read Amarnath Ravva’s American Canyon. In his book, Ravva writes, “There is a way to begin a ritual,” and then, by depicting a series of improvised, imperfect ceremonies, shows us how rituals need not be performed in exact, orthodox ways. The same unorthodox approach is apparent in the structuring of Ravva’s lyrical memoir—a hybrid text, composed of fragments of stories, myths, interviews, and images, based on a series of video logs taken over ten years, which explore the nature of memory and time. Ravva’s genre-blending approach seems to grow out of his experience as a multi-media artist: writer; filmmaker; member of Ambient Force 3000, a site-specific ambient music group; and curator at Betalevel, an LA venue for social experimentation and hands-on culture. In his quest to understand his cultural and religious heritage, Ravva proves the relevance of such an investigation in stitching together an individual history and mythology. Ravva’s fragmented narrative, told in the hybrid tradition of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller, charts previously unexplored territory within the still-growing field of contemporary South Asian American literature.

The book opens with two full pages of images, a tic-tac-toe grid of nine stills.  These images illustrate the passage of time—a central theme in the book. We see nine photographs of water surrounding, then encroaching, and finally submerging a series of ancient stone steps.  The text on the next page begins with a time stamp:  “July 23, 2003.  6:32 AM 00:00:00:00.”  The zeroes hold the space for hours, minutes, seconds, and frames. Ravva here makes visible the desire to be precise and the memoirist’s compulsion to document the past. The time stamp also illustrates a central tension in the memoir:  the struggle between an awareness of the inability to access the past in any accurate or comprehensive way (the failures of memory and both visual and written documentation to convey what “really happened”) and the desire to articulate and faithfully record his journey.

American Canyon’s movement through space begins in Rameswaram in the state of Tamil Nadu.  Ravva is a Telegu-American Hindu: his family emigrated from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. “I don’t know Tamil,” Ravva tells us, early in the memoir.  The writer’s admission of what he does not know encouraged me to trust him as I made my way through unfamiliar words and stories lending themselves to multiple interpretations. Ravva’s narrative unfolds in various locales in India and the United States, from Rishikesh to Rameswaram; from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. The memoir’s hybridized subject traverses geographical, cultural, and internal landscapes as immigrant, artistic seeker, and pilgrim. Any pilgrimage offerseven promisestransformation and self-discovery over time. Fundamentally, a sense of dislocation, displacement, and disorientation rests at the core of American Canyon, and so the experience of being somewhat untethered while reading mirrors the memoir’s concerns in an often-pleasurable, if sometimes challenging way.

Though Ravva divides his memoir into three sections—Karma (Retribution); Maya (Illusion); and Atma (Spirit)—it is easy to lose touch with the narrative’s structure, especially since the volume does not provide a guiding table of contents. Similarly, there are no in-text references to the extensive endnotes and glossary, so that a reader might not be aware of their existence until she gets to the end of the book. While reading the memoir, I noted the range of vocabulary and references—some of which I caught by virtue of my own diasporic South Asian heritage, and some I guessed by context—but many words remained somewhat opaque to me. (This brought to mind Junot Diaz’s unapologetic placement of Spanish alongside English without italicizing the Spanish—his enactment of the way first languages naturally live and co-exist within second languages.) Only after finishing the memoir did I discover the glossary for words in Sanskrit, Telegu, and Maidu (a language spoken by Native Americans indigenous to Northern California). The inclusion of signals, such as numbered footnotes or endnotes, might have aided the reader by creating a visual cue for a recursive reading practice, which the text already demands.

Some of the most compelling moments in the book are those scenes that juxtapose elements of different cultures in both the US and India. In one scene, Ravva shows an American take on Ganesh Chaturthi—a Hindu festival in honor of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles and god of beginnings. The festival involves installing clay images of Ganesh in public, temporary, shrines. These clay deities, which are worshipped for ten days, are then immersed in a body of water at the end of the festival. By placing these deities in a North American locale, Ravva creates a link to this ancient tradition, while also suggesting something has been altered. The original ceremony has inevitably been changed in its American enactment. Meanwhile, the coast of California has now also been transformed to become a home for Ganesh:

Every September, we take clay sculptures of the god Ganesh down to the water of the San Francisco Bay and return him to his home.  At the bottoms of rivers and oceans in India there are millions of elephant-headed bodies of half-eroded clay left by families over the years.  Underneath the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, ours have begun to crumble.

Through continuing this Hindu ritual in California, Ravva’s family creates a connection to their past in India, while also leaving irrefutable traces of the presence of South Asian Hindus in the US. These traces exist and simultaneously are shown as tenuous, crumbling. Throughout American Canyon, Ravva suggests a sense of loss through such arresting images of ghostly artifacts.

In another scene of California desi life, Ravva depicts the gap between American and desi cultures in his response to his family home. His mother has written “OM” on the garage doors of their house.  This image, rather than invoking Hinduism or India, reminds Ravva of the Greek letters on college fraternity houses.

I drive up to my parents’ house in American Canyon [the name of an actual suburb in the Bay Area] and notice that my mother has carefully written “OM” in Sanskrit on both of the garage doors. Preoccupied by memories of the apartment in Berkeley I have just moved out of, I don’t ask her about it.  For years, I looked out onto a world of sororities and fraternities.

This comparison between the Sanskrit symbol in the suburbs and the Greek letters that punctuate American university campuses brings into focus the co-existing and co-mingling of cultures. Ruminating on the contrast, Ravva continues: “I’m not sure why my mother’s blessing on her garage doors in our suburban tract home development makes me uncomfortable.  Perhaps my impulse is to hide what makes us different.”  Ravva illustrates both the immigrant’s desire to minimize any cultural difference (especially in youth—Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory comes to mind here) and the memoirist’s even stronger desire to mine this difference—to step into the gap and to welcome the discomfort, which often serves to signify potential material for the writer.

Ravva’s narrative is driven by a desire to reckon with his personal history. As he explains in a Kaya Press interview: “I wanted to know, for myself, what my own cultural heritage consisted of, as it was told by my family and ancestors.  Not the one I had read in books, but the one that persists in local traditions and utterances.”  This desire to know is tempered by an awareness of the impossibility of knowing. American Canyon rests on a fault line: the instability of what the author can document with his awareness of the incompleteness of any documentation, any interview, any video, any photograph, any account.  He reminds us something is always outside of the frame, outside of the narrative—and that the imperfectly constructed human record is always subject to corruption and loss.

In one of the most affecting and central stories in the memoir, Ravva relates how his DV (digital video) tapes plus the hard drive with his edits were lost when his backpack was stolen:

The digitized transmission of history from aunt to nephew, grandmother to grandson, mother to son, no longer exists . . . I imagine the drive has been erased, leaving no trace of the stories my family told to explain who we are.  Its new owners, faced with a void like the myth of the pioneer’s empty West, will do what they must—they will populate it; they will construct an archive of their own.  Erasing a drive only destroys the surface index, not the binary code . . . behind the veil of its emptiness, a small town in India still remains.  The past is written over with new ones and zeroes.

Ravva’s meditation on video footage as palimpsest raises a series of provocative questions about our relationship with time.  He writes, “When we listen our past is littered with elegy.”  Perhaps his memoir might be read as an elegy for the past. Does the choice of the word “littered” suggest the pitfalls of listening too closely to the past or even elegies? (Ravva’s words and, in fact, all of American Canyon invokes Faulkner’s observation:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”) Ravva’s memoir asks the questions, “What is our relationship to the past?  Can it ever be erased, even if lost?”

American Canyon, while concerned with loss and grappling with the past, ultimately ends on a hopeful note, drawing our gaze to the present and to the future. During the snake ritual (the original title of the book, once his MFA thesis, was Naga Prathista, Sanskrit for snake ritual), Ravva’s closing sentences read:

At the end of the hall, I will see an elephant bless devotees for money. I will be afraid of dropping the snakes, which would cause a disaster. After my rounds, I will enter the temple devoted to Parvathi. Outside the shrine will be thousands of carved snakes, stacked up to the ceiling, with new rows growing in height in front of the old ones. Each will have a date. Below that, initials. Those dates will stretch back into the past for thousands of years. One of them will be today.

In American Canyon, Ravva contends with the passage of time, our loved ones’ eventual passing, and the ceremonies and rituals that give us a way to witness, acknowledge, and experience moments of the sacred within profane time. Ravva places the present into multiple contexts, and suggests a satisfying circularity of time—past, present, and future; fragmented and whole.

The multiple ceremonies and rituals within American Canyon caused me to remember and then reflect upon my own attempts at enacting rituals in New York and Rishikesh, placing wishes and flowers into rivers—all attempts at resolution. While not purely Hindu ceremonies, they suggested essential aspects of these ancient rituals, more universal than belonging to a specific religion or place. Ravva’s book, at times unwieldy, is also beautiful; more than this, it is valuable—in its messy, generative attempt to trace the movement of the self through time via rituals, imperfect and sacred as any who undertake to perform them.

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