When she was six years old, Santha Rama Rau left India for the first time. Her father, Benegal Rama Rau, a civil servant, moved to England as the first Round Table Conference to discuss constitutional reforms in India got underway in 1930. For her, it was the beginning of a lifetime of travel, during which she wrote books and journalistic articles, had a ringside view of global events and met the changemakers of the time. Rau once told a newspaper that she lived in three-year cycles, spending “a year in New York, a city I adore, a year in India, and a year travelling”.

Santha was born Vasanthi Rama Rau on January 24, 1923, in Madras, the younger of two sisters. Her father held a series of senior governmental posts in his life, including the governorship of the Reserve Bank of India. Her mother, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, was one of the founding figures of Planned Parenthood in India, a spokesperson for women’s reproductive rights, and a Padma Bhushan recipient. For a while in the 1940s, she was also the president of the All India Women’s Conference.

While the Rama Raus lived in London, they took in a “lodger”, the Austrian-born Lilian Ulanowsky, who, like many others, sought refuge from the intensifying Nazi persecution of Jews. Ulanowsky became the girls’ guardian as their parents left for South Africa, when Benegal Rama Rau was appointed High Commissioner. On their first visit to South Africa, Santha and her sister Premila experienced the prejudice directed against people of colour. At a theatre, where their father’s privileged position allowed them entry, seats on either side were left empty for no one else wanted to be seated next to them.

Santha Rama Rau with her father Sir Benegal Rama Rau. Courtesy: The Wagle Family Collection.

Prosaic And Philosophical

Santha found her métier in writing quite early. Her first book, Home to India, was published in 1945, when she was a young 23-year-old, fresh out of Wellesley College, US. The book was a Harper’s “find” of the year, and Santha – described as “tall”, “accomplished and articulate” – was heaped with praise. Along with the literary plaudits came romantic interest. As her nephew Nikhil Wagle remembers, she caught the attention of the likes of singer Nat King Cole and New York mafia don Frank Costello. Costello even courted her for a time, his men filling up the tables at the restaurant where the two met for dinner.

Home to India irreverently described Santha’s personal and political journey, and her search for identity. It detailed her return to India in 1940, her life in her grandparents’ home in Bombay, where her grandfather was a well-known doctor, and her visit to her journalist uncle B Shiva Rao’s Delhi home. In it she also recounted a memorable visit to Kashmir, during which she met Jawaharlal Nehru and encountered a near-blind master weaver who had memorised the rhythm patterns of a carpet. There are accounts in the book of the idyllic days spent on a houseboat, and the sheer poverty in the poorer quarters of Srinagar, where discarded kerosene tins were used to build roofs.

Santha had an ear for dialogue, for quick summation of character, and a knack for melding the prosaic with the philosophical – her descriptions of parties, in one instance, were followed by the question of how to be truly Indian. These strengths can also be seen in her later books – East of Home (1950), This is India (1951), A View of the Southeast (1955) and A Russian Journey (1957).

Wagle describes his aunt as “ballsy”, someone who could be intensely focused and determined. At events, she would be invited to explain India to a largely ignorant but receptive audience, and she would do so obligingly. On some occasions, she even agreed to demonstrate how a sari was draped.

Interpreter Of India

In 1947, Shanta accompanied her father when he was appointed the ambassador to Japan. She taught English in a progressive school and witnessed the “occupation” of the country and the quiet privations of the Japanese. During her stay, she recognised the importance of reviving traditional arts, especially kabuki, and the solidarity with which Japan regarded India, a newly independent Asian country.

Santha with her father Sir Benegal Rama Rau. Courtesy: The Wagle Family Collection.

With three others – Marguerite Brown, Faubion Bowers (previously an aide to General Douglas MacArthur) and Jean de Selancy (a French diplomat) – Santha set off on a tour of South East Asia. World War II had just ended, and national movements were sprouting in places like Dutch-ruled Indonesia. Santha sensed the wariness of the elite and the anticipation in the air. From her travels emerged her book East of Home (1950).

A year later, in 1951, she married Faubion Bowers. As Santha described it, she and Bowers met in Japan, got engaged in New York, married in France, and honeymooned in Spain. Their son, Jai Peter Bowers, was born in India in 1952. This was the time she began writing for magazines like the New Yorker, Harper’s, Holiday and others. Her articles for Holiday were published in a collection titled This is India in 1955.

A photo of Santha and Faubion Bowers with their young son, Jai Peter Bowers, from the back cover of 'This is India'. Credit: Frances McLaughlin.

For the New Yorker, she reported on India’s first general election of 1952, showcasing her ability to blend the serious with the refreshing. Her uncle B Shiva Rao – whom she described as “irrepressible, exuberant, bewitching” – was a candidate from Karnataka, and he evocatively described the cockfights and water buffalo races that served as campaign arenas. She wrote about the dacoit Bhupat, who terrorised the landlords of Saurashtra, some of whom were the supporters of the Congress party.

Her first novel, Remember the House, released in 1955. Her conflicted protagonist, torn between the modernities of a newly independent nation and a resentful elite class losing its privilege, finally chooses a husband representative of the more traditional India. By this time, Santha increasingly found herself acting as an interpreter of India for her American audience. It fell on her to clear misconceptions about India.

Santha with her niece Asha and nephew Nikhil. Courtesy: The Wagle Family Collection.

These misconceptions, as she enumerated in This is India, took many forms.

“The lean bronzed horsemen school of literature reduces Indian life to the simple code of fighting men – honour, revenge and treachery – and appears mostly in the writings of people like Kipling or Yeats-Brown. Another sort dwells on the primitive customs and miserable living conditions in India (the Mother India school). Yet another prepares you for a land of mystics and holy men. A formidable screen of fantasy and half-truths has grown up between India and the western world.”  

Gifts of Passage collected several of her “self-exploratory essays” along with a keenly observed article on the trial of Jomo Kenyatta that juxtaposed the apparent “fairness” of the British justice with the real grievances of the Kenyans and the loyalty that Kenyatta inspired. Another essay in the book described a riot in Bombay after the Naval Mutiny in 1946. Gifts of Passage also included one of her most anthologised pieces, By Any Other Name, in which she recounted the time their Anglo-Indian day school changed her and her sister Premila’s “difficult” Indian names to Cynthia and Pamela, respectively. They ultimately walked out of that school, following a teacher’s derisive comment about Indians.

Santha with her sister Premila. Courtesy: The Wagle Family Collection.

Santha’s travel writing blended the autobiographical with a wry, objective evaluation of everything she witnessed. She had a feel for atmosphere and emotion. She described a frustrating search for the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s apartment, after Svetlana, their guide, told her that Dostoevsky wasn’t really highly regarded. His apartment turned out to be dingy and musty. In it were living three old ladies, who found it surprising that foreigners could appreciate Dostoevsky and consider him “extraordinary for writing about strange, unhappy people”.

Two Worlds

In 1960, she wrote the playscript for EM Forster’s A Passage to India, despite the writer’s well-known aversion to such an endeavour. It turned out that Forster appreciated her work and “politely” suggested only a few changes relating to stage direction and background details. The play was first staged in an Oxford playhouse and earned rave reviews. Performances followed at London’s West End and, two years later, on Broadway. David Lean saw the play and was inspired to make his celebrated movie version in 1984, with Santha’s script providing the basis for the screenplay.

A sketch depicting the staged version of 'A Passage to India'. Credit: The Daily News, January 28, 1962.

Faubion and she divorced in 1966. She collaborated with Devika Teja on The Cooking of India, a Time-Life book in which she wrote about the cuisines of India, beginning with a mention of her grandmother’s kitchen in Bombay. For books that offered an exotic representation of India, Santha was there to provide a preface, a foreword or to review it. She provided text for a coffee table book on Indian astrology, wrote a foreword to a new edition of the Kama Sutra, and reviewed a new translation of the Bhagavat Gita in the New Yorker. She wrote in praise of Indian writers who were her near contemporaries such as RK Narayan, Nayantara Sehgal, Kamala Markandaya and Ruskin Bond.

In 1970, she married Gurdon Wattles who worked for the United Nations. One of her last books, A Princess Remembers, was a collaboration with Gayatri Devi, whom she had known in her schooldays in London. Santha died in New York, on April 21, 2009, aged 86.

She always said that explaining India was a duty for her, for she had the privilege of living in both worlds. Sometimes, though, she found herself unable to adequately describe what it was she felt for India. At the very end of Gifts of Passage, she confessed:

“I’d never have been able to explain… the appeal of Indian casualness, of the need for colour, ease, humor–the joy of an Indian festival…Certainly one cannot pretend that there is nothing in India that needs to be changed, but somewhere in all this is a confidence and pleasure in being Indian, and in the country’s ways. Well, it never fails: one always sounds sentimental in trying to say things like this.”  

This is the ninth part in a triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.