The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau

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Santha Rama Rau was one of the best known South Asian writers in postwar America. Born into India’s elite in 1923, Rama Rau has lived in the United States since the 1940s. Although she is no longer well known, she was for several decades a popular expert on India. She provided an insider’s view of Indian cultures, traditions, and history to an American public increasingly aware of the expanded role of the United States on the world stage. Between 1945 and 1970, Rama Rau published half a dozen books, including travelogues, novels, a memoir, and a Time-Life cookbook; she was a regular contributor to periodicals such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, McCall’s, and Reader’s Digest.

Drawing on archival research and interviews with Rama Rau, historian Antoinette Burton opens Rama Rau’s career into an examination of orientalism in the postwar United States, the changing idioms of cosmopolitanism in the postcolonial era, and the afterlife of British colonialism in the American public sphere. Burton describes how Rama Rau’s career was shaped by gendered perceptions of India and “the East” as well as by the shifting relationships between the United States, India, Pakistan, and Great Britain during the Cold War. Exploring how Rama Rau positioned herself as an expert on both India and the British empire, Burton analyzes the correspondence between Rama Rau and her Time-Life editors over the contents of her book The Cooking of India (1969), and Rama Rau’s theatrical adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which played on Broadway in 1961 and was the basis for David Lean’s 1985 film. Burton assesses the critical reception of Rama Rau’s play as well as her correspondence with Forster and Lean.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau, Antoinette Burton produces a notably intelligent and counterintuitive reading of the forgotten and/or trivialized genealogies of colonial/postcolonial cosmopolitanism. Focusing on the career of a putatively minor writer with a complex relationship to the project of decolonization, Cold War politics, U.S. civil rights movements, and corporate publishing, Burton re-inflects the ways we have been accustomed to thinking about gendered professionalism, celebrity status, minoritization, and the history of postcolonial theory. What is most impressive is the way that she manages to make something densely textured and timely out of materials that might otherwise be relegated to antiquarian interest alone.”—Parama Roy, author of Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India

“Once again Antoinette Burton proves to be a trailblazer in the study of imperial culture. Here Burton breaks new ground by forcing us to think anew the place of the postcolonial public intellectual. She takes a risk by focusing on the admittedly ‘minor’ and yet remarkable career of Santha Rama Rau, whose moment of celebrity in the United States was shaped by the particular conjunction of postwar decolonization with Cold War–U.S. imperialism and Nehruvian Indian nationalism. Burton’s dazzling account of Rama Rau’s career, told with characteristic verve and imagination, pays handsome dividends: it offers nothing short of a rich and multilayered genealogy of postcolonial cosmopolitanism. Her virtuoso reading of the production and reception of Rama Rau’s writings provides the mediation between an individual career and the larger social forces of the time.”—Mrinalini Sinha, author of Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire

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Meet the Author

Antoinette Burton is the Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Among her books are the collections Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History; Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History (with Tony Ballantyne); and After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, all of which are also published by Duke University Press.

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The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4071-3

Chapter One

Cold War Cosmopolitanism

The Education of Santha Rama Rau in the

Age of Bandung, 1945-1960

We drove past the conference building and saw the flags of the twenty-nine participating nations of Asia and Africa billowing lazily in the weak wind; already the streets were packed with crowds and their black and yellow and brown faces looked eagerly at each passing car ... to catch sight of some prime minister, a U Nu, a Chou En-lai, a Nehru ... it was the first time in their downtrodden lives that they'd seen so many of their color, race and nationality arrayed in such aspects of power, their men keeping order, their Asia and their Africa in control of their destinies.-Richard Wright, The Color Curtain

When Santha Rama Rau burst onto the international literary scene in 1945 with her first book, Home to India, she was just twenty-two years old. Over half a dozen books and half a century later, she was anthologized in a Norton reader as a writer, a writing teacher, and the prototypical cosmopolitan of the twentieth century: "born in Madras, India ... [she] lived all over the world, from England to South Africa to Japan, until she settled in the United States." Rama Rau's transformation from fledgling author into the embodiment of the modern cosmopolitan ideal was largely a function of her elite status, her family connections, and the opportunities available to her as an educated Indian woman. The daughter of a diplomat-father and an activist-feminist mother, she had all the credentials of the classic cosmopolite, including a transnational childhood lived across the spaces of the British Raj and an equally mobile adulthood facilitated by marriage to an American and a career as a travel-writer. Though she did not recognize herself as exceptional, she conceded that her contemporaries might find her life "odd, peculiar, even a little mad ... or exotic." Exoticism was, of course, a fate to which many formerly colonial people who aspired to a cosmopolitan identity were subject in the decades following the breakup of the British empire. But Rama Rau's story does more than reveal the possibilities and limits of cosmopolitanism. Taken together, the books she produced in the wake of her travels in the 1950s articulate a shifting vision of global community: from an earlier, Eurocentric model-rooted in a British and imperial worldview-to a pan-Asian model-rooted in the realization of an emergent America-centered global hegemony. Like most if not all women's travelwriting, Rama Rau's work demonstrates how the sentimental journey of development articulated in the travelogue helps to shape a gendered narrative of political education-in this case, that of a privileged Indian woman in a newly, if unevenly, "postcolonial" world. It also enables us to see with particular vividness the intersection of a historically specific form of cosmopolitanism with the realities of the late-twentieth-century world order as symbolized by the 1955 conference in Bandung-that historic gathering of non-aligned states that marked an attempt by "Third World" nations to declare independence from Cold War politics -and to appreciate the role of India, and Indians, as sites of translation between one Anglophone empire (Britain) and another (the United States).

As we will see, Rama Rau was not always comfortable confronting this "reality" or discovering that she was, by virtue of being Indian at a particular world-historical juncture, expected by many she encountered to identify both with an all-Asia identity and an American-realpolitik view of the future. Specifying Rama Rau's unease as she encountered, lived, and tried to work through the shifting ground of cosmopolitanism in a decolonizing context reminds us of cosmopolitanism's spatial and temporal contingencies-a historical dimension which has been curiously neglected in recent debates about the utility of "cosmopolitics" in a putatively postnational world. Indeed, although there is general agreement that cosmopolitanism is "a very old ideal," there is little work that actually historicizes the long career of the concept, let alone its embodied subjectivities. Its transnational appeal has been accompanied, in other words, by a presumption about its transhistorical character. To be sure, more democratic expressions of cosmopolitan identity-made visible by the self-conscious appropriation of a historically elite model for the subjects of diaspora, transnationalism, and "flexible citizenship"-are at the heart of a host of recent global research agendas. But what Kumkum Sangari calls "the pressure of historical placement" weighs very lightly on many of the accounts of cosmopolitanism, whether narrative or analytical, that are being produced in the context of a globalizing academic culture.

Perhaps less surprisingly, attention to the ideological and material work of gender in marking out cosmopolitan spaces and constituting cosmopolitan subjects has also been remarkably scant. Historians interested in international women's movements, especially in the early twentieth century, have made visible the cosmopolitan circuitry of transnational feminism in a global framework, drawing attention in the process to the unequal power relations between East and West which consistently undergirded the systems of political power created by this global feminist imaginary. But cosmopolitanism in all its complexity, variety, contradiction, and instability has not been entertained as a category of historical analysis in this work, even though doing so might enable the deparochialization of women's and feminist history that Mrinalini Sinha, Donna Guy, and Angela Woollacott have called for. Nor have those invested in reclaiming cosmopolitanism for public debate or postnational political projects been particularly attentive to its gendered character, either historically or now. This neglect has to do in part with the fact that the revival of interest in cosmopolitanism as an object of intellectual investigation has rehabilitated Kantian universalism as the originary moment of the cosmopolitan ideal-and with it, Enlightenment Europe as the originary site of cosmopolitan identities. While some postcolonial engagements with Kant (most notably by Gayatri Spivak) have been informed by feminist concerns, the Kant revival has reanimated the question of universal values as if feminist critiques of this tradition had never been mounted. Given the role of feminist theory and history in revealing the theoretical impossibility of a universal rights-bearer except as the unmarked white, male, middle-class Western subject over the past quarter of a century, the renaturalization of an implicitly masculinist universalism as the grounds from which all cosmopolitanisms proceed is as alarming as it is remarkable.

This is not to say that women per se have been absent from these conversations, or that the world beyond the West has not left its imprint on "cosmopolitics" writ large. As the work of Martha C. Nussbaum has demonstrated, the stories of Third World women are the very grounds upon which claims about universal rights, civic participation, and transnational belonging can, apparently, still be made. Nussbaum has singled out Indian women for special consideration in her prodigious writing in defense of "cultural universalism" and "universal values." Relying on interviews with and observations of the women of sewa-the Ahmedabad-based Self-Employment for Women Association-in the 1990s, Nussbaum mobilizes the figure of the disenfranchised Indian woman to make her case for the necessity of balancing rights with "human capabilities" on a global, universal scale. Despite her determination to distance herself from traditions of both the colonial state and imperial feminism-which distinguished themselves historically for establishing Indian women as the subjects, both literal and figurative, upon which justifications for the civilizing mission were founded-Nussbaum ends up reinscribing "the Indian woman" as the pathetic basis of a newly invigorated call for a cosmopolitan human rights philosophy. And yet as troubling as this is, it is not the most significant problem that her work poses to the conjuncture of "women" and "cosmopolitanism." For Nussbaum, the women of SEWA are the subjects of cosmopolitan concern and intervention, rather than agents of cosmopolitanism themselves. This, despite the fact that SEWA's world-vision, far from being provincial, reflects and in many ways anticipates the very kind of visionary commitment to individual well-being, economic "flourishing," and universal principles of social justice that Nussbaum prescribes as the international ideal. Significantly, Nussbaum does credit some Indians with a cosmopolitan vision: most notably, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore, both of whom she admires for struggling against the narrow interests of Indian nationalism and reaching instead for "the worldwide community of human beings."

The extent to which Nehru and Tagore advocated cosmopolitanism as a strategy of anti-colonial nationalism is not of especial concern to Nussbaum. In the end, they are as ornamental as Vasanti and Jayamma, the "SEWA women" whom Nussbaum foregrounds in order to make her case for the capabilities approach to transnational justice. Quotes from Nehru and Tagore adorn the pages of Nussbaum's Women and Human Development, while an account of Tagore's novel, The Home and the World, does little more than launch her famous salvo on cosmopolitanism as the best, most desirable form of identity politics. There, it is "the cosmopolitan stance" of the landlord Nikhil which inspires her admiration because it "asks us to give our first allegiance to what is morally good-and that which, being good, I can commend as such to all human beings." If Nikhil-and by extension, Tagore himself-emerges as a kind of Indian Kant in this account, it is at the expense of a character in the story who is barely mentioned by Nussbaum: Nikhil's wife, Bimala. The object of Nikhil's nationalist/patriarchalist, reformist/humanitarian desires, Bimala herself is the vehicle for Tagore's critique of a nationalist cosmopolitanism gone awry. As such, she is effectively evacuated from Nussbaum's narrative of the story: the absent-present Indian woman who enables cosmopolitanism, its critics, and even its late-twentieth-century resurrectionists but who is invisible at best, consistently instrumental at worst in Nussbaum's plea for an embrace of cosmopolitan values on the threshold of the new millennium.

If these narrative strategies underscore Nussbaum's indebtedness (however unwitting or insouciant) to the historically freighted legacy of orientalist thinking, they also situate cosmopolitanism squarely in an orientalist tradition, in which India and Indians and especially Indian women serve as opportunities for humanitarian intervention (however updated) rather than as makers of cosmopolitan visions themselves. A recent and very promising exception to the Nussbaum view appears in the scholarship of Neloufer de Mel, whose book Women and the Nation's Narrative offers the paradigm of "lateral cosmopolitanism" to describe the ideological, cultural, and political work done by Sri Lankan women in the local and intraregional landscapes of twentieth-century South Asia. In these contexts, the case of Santha Rama Rau opens up the possibility of a similar kind of counterhistory of cosmopolitanism, though not perhaps in a self-evident way. Locating Rama Rau as a cosmopolitan subject in her own right challenges a long tradition of subjugating Indian women and their knowledges to the "humanitarian" projects of Eurocentric politics and philosophy, of which Nussbaum's is just one contemporary incarnation. The work that Rama Rau did to "cosmopolize" the variety of "natives" she encountered during her travels-and the record she left of their resistances-is also a challenge to the discourses of cosmopolitanism that continue to come down to us as simultaneously "European" and geopolitically disinterested. And yet in suggesting this I do not wish to reclaim formerly Eurocentric versions of cosmopolitanism as postcolonial "Indian" property ("natives" can be cosmopolitan too). What is historically significant and politically consequential about Rama Rau's work is that her performance of cosmopolitanism-its riff on the Kantian ideal of universalist, worldly disinterest-was the enactment of a very particular, highly contingent promontory perspective on both Asia and the decolonizing world more generally. An inheritance of British colonialism and Indian nationalism both, Rama Rau's cosmopolitanism was also the effect of her identification with American geopolitical power and her desire to be seen as an extranational Indian expert in the first decades of the Cold War.

As we will see, Rama Rau was above all an uneasy cosmopolitan, in part because she came to realize that a peculiar brand of orientalism animated her aspiring cosmopolitan visions-a phenomenon she recognized with surprise, puzzlement, regret, and, finally, a very publicly staged political transformation. In the process, she mapped the progress of her particular postcolonial "education" for the benefit of the postwar readers in Britain and the United States especially: readers who had a growing appetite for what Christina Klein has called "Cold War orientalism." Equally provocative is the pointedly gendered dis-ease Rama Rau experienced as she tried to negotiate the shifting role of "India for Indians" at once within the parameters of the cosmopolitanism she had inherited from a pre-postcolonial world and against the backdrop of a pan-Asianism with which she felt a deep and unanticipated sympathy. Nor, as we will see, did the "new world of Asia" represent the territorial limit of her Cold War cosmopolitanism. She viewed Africa, through the lens of Mau Mau, as an object lesson in the challenges of managing insurgent nationalism and "the race question" in the years leading up to the Bandung Conference. Reading Rama Rau as an emergent and uneasy cosmopolitan allows us to begin to historicize the cultural politics of nationalism in the age of Bandung. Rather than festishizing the Conference as an unequivocally liberatory or even inaugural event, made possible by the demise of European empires and the emergence of avowedly "nonaligned" postcolonial leaders on the world stage, we need to appreciate Bandung, its immediate prehistory, and its aftermath as an extended historical moment during which a set of semi-imperialisms (India over Japan, India over Africa, India as prima inter pares in Asia) also emerged. These semi-imperialisms were animated by postwar realignments, by the colonial legacies that helped to shape the ideological character and the political culture of new states (India prime among them), and by the exigencies of that quintessential Cold War figure: the postcolonial expert.


Excerpted from The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau by ANTOINETTE BURTON Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS....................viii
INTRODUCTION The East as a Postcolonial Career....................1
1. Cold War Cosmopolitanism: The Education of Santha Rama Rau in the Age of Bandung, 1945-1960....................32
2. Interpreting British India in Anglo-America: The Cultural Politics of Santha Rama Rau's A Passage to India,1960-2005....................71
3. Home to India: Cooking with Santha Rama Rau....................109
EPILOGUE Cosmopolitanism by Any Other Name....................145
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY....................195
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