This week in our series on women travel writers, we feature Santha Rama Rau’s Home to India.
Santha Rama Rau, known for her travel writing and particularly for the acclaimed This Is India, was born in Madras, India in 1923, and educated in England and the United States. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1944, she published her first travel memoir, Home to India. In it, she recounted a trip back to India at the age of 16, after years of living in England where her father was stationed. Santha Rama Rau was not a tourist or an adventurer exploring new territory; she was returning to her roots, and rediscovering her home country and her heritage through the lens of her Western education. While she did eventually make intrepid journeys through Africa and the former Soviet Union among others, Home to India is perhaps her most youthful, passionate, and deeply personal travelogue.
The influence of Santha’s family, and especially of the female role models in her life, is just as compelling as the influence of the Indian landscape. The book opens with her grandmother surprising her when, upon seeing her for the first time in ten years, she discussed her prospects of finding a husband in India. In stark contrast to her grandmother trying to instill “something of the traditional Hindu girl’s attitude to the household,” Santha’s mother was an ardent advocate of women’s reproductive rights and a founder of the international Planned Parenthood Federation. Here is an excerpt that perfectly captures both Santha Rama Rau’s still developing dexterity in observing and writing about culture, and the personal significance of her first voyage back to India:
That evening I decided to draw my grandmother out on politics. I asked her Andy’s question—whether India could be regarded as a country.
“Is India a country in the sense with which we are familiar?” she repeated. “Well, your English friends would tell you that it is only so in the sense that all Indians walk the same earth and watch the same stars.”
She continued thoughtfully, “Your mother tells me that you are not staying with us long, that you will travel over India very far.”
“Yes, I think we’re leaving for Delhi fairly soon to visit Shivan and Kitty.”
“Wherever you go people will tell you about the differences and confusions of India—our disunity and our divergence. But don’t forget that we have humanity in common and we need ask no further than that. We are all people, and among people unity is possible.”
I looked at her solemnly, eager to understand India. Perhaps I seemed a little ridiculous to her, for she said, “You young people are always romantic and scornful and somehow cynical. You are never realistic. When you travel across this country, keep it in your mind that Indians eat and sleep and work like other people. Indians, too, are selfish and generous and, at times, inspired.” She twinkled at me and the crow’s feet round her shiny black eyes contracted with amusement. “And try to remember that the world does not rotate about a point on its circumference.”
I left my grandmother feeling a great affection for her as a person. Although I was antagonistic to her way of life, I had a real desire to find out what kind of a country and culture produced such diverse standards as those of Grandmother’s, Mother’s and mine.
In our Restless Women Travelers series, we will celebrate and (re)introduce you to some of the most important travelogues written by women, from Frances Trollope’s colonial voyage to the contemporary jungle treks of Kira Salak. Make sure to look through our list of upcoming titles to find the travel tale that will inspire you to be restless this summer!
On Sunday, June 22, we'll be hosting a very special book launch for the first title in our series, Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France. The event will take place at The Mount—Edith Wharton's gorgeous home in the Berkshires. Beginning at 5:30, we'll have a short reading, conversation, and cocktails on the patio overlooking Wharton's gardens, with fellow readers, writers, and travelers. We hope to see you there!