Santha Rama Rau

Other names: 

Vasanthi Rama Rau

Santha Rama Rau Wattles


St Paul's Girls' SchoolLondon, W6 7BS
United Kingdom
51° 29' 27.4596" N, 0° 14' 2.5872" W
Weybridge, Surrey, KT13 9EE
United Kingdom
51° 22' 53.4216" N, 0° 26' 58.7472" W
Date of birth: 
24 Jan 1923
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name city of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Date of death: 
21 Apr 2009
Location of death: 
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1929
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 



Born in 1929 to Benegal Rama Rau, a member of the Round Table Conference, financial advisor to the Simon Commission and ambassador, and Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, a pioneer of birth control and president of the All-India Women’s Conference, Santha Rama Rau was a journalist, dramaturge and travel writer. She travelled widely throughout her life, moving to England with her family in 1929, when just six years old, because of her father’s involvement with the Simon Commission. During the 1930s, she attended a Quaker school in Weybridge, Surrey, with her older sister Premila, before moving on to St Paul’s School, London. Her book Gifts of Passage describes the years of her childhood as ‘spent in English schools and in holidays on the Continent’ (p. 23), which underlines the cosmopolitan, elite character of her life. When in London, her parents took in refugees from concentration camps, including Lilian Ulanowsky, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who became guardian for the sisters when their mother went to join their father in South Africa. The family were all in South Africa during the outbreak of the Second World War. Unable to get passage back to England, they decided to return to India, when Santha was 16, to stay with the children’s grandmother. Rama Rau describes returning to India and experiencing nostalgia for Britain in her Home to India, the book which launched her career as a writer and was published when she was just 22 years old.

Rama Rau completed her university education at Wellesley College in the US in 1944, and made her home in New York City from the early 1950s. She married the diplomat Faubion Bowers, an expert on Asian arts and theatre. The two travelled together through Southeast Asia, Africa and Soviet Russia. They had a son together but later divorced, and Rama Rau went on to marry Gurdon Wallace Wattles in 1970.

In her book on Rama Rau, Antoinette Burton describes ‘the modicum of fame [she] achieved’ as resulting ‘mainly from her success at being recognized as an authority on India on the eve of independence’ (p. 4). To the ‘West’, she offered an ‘insider’s view’ of Indian culture, countering stereotyping and Orientalist misrepresentations, especially in This is India. Her literary achievement that is perhaps best known in Britain is her adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India for the stage, produced on Broadway in 1962 after runs in Oxford and London, which served as the basis of David Lean’s 1985 film of the novel.


E. M. Forster (adapted his A Passage to India for the stage), Sarojini Naidu, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (mother).

Published works: 

Home to India (New York: Harper, 1945)

East of Home (New York: Harper, 1950)

This is India (New York: Harper, 1954)

A View to the Southeast (New York: Harper Brothers, 1957)

My Russian Journey (New York: Harper, 1959)

A Passage to India: A Play by Santha Rama Rau from the Novel by E. M. Forster (London: Edward Arnold, 1960)

Gifts of Passage (New York: Harper & Row, 1961)

The Cooking of India (New York: Time-Life Books, 1969)

The Adventuress (New York: Dell, 1970)

Contributions to periodicals: 

'Letter from Bombay', New Yorker (3 May 1952)

Holiday (October 1953) [Cover story on India]

Travel Bazaar: India, an Explorer’s Country’,Harper's Bazaar (September 1957), pp. 106, 308

Holiday (series of articles on Southeast Asia; July, August, September 1955; February, July, August, September 1956; August 1957)


New York Times

Secondary works: 

Burton, Antoinette, The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007)

Rama Rau, Dhanvanthi, An Inheritance: The Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (London: Heinemann, 1978) [1977]


Rama Rau, Santha, Gifts of Passage (London: Victor Gollancz, 1961), pp. 23-4


This book comprises a series of short stories prefaced with brief autobiographical passages which provide a context to the stories. The stories loosely follow the first thirty years of Rama Rau’s life.


In London we could not, of course, help knowing a good deal about what was going on in India. My father, as Deputy High Commissioner for India, was inextricably involved in many of the developments, and conversation at home was full of references to the growing power of the nationalist movement, of the imprisoning of Indian leaders, of Mahatma Gandhi’s revolutionary ideas…We talked about Gandhi, Nehru, Sapru, Rajagopalachari, and countless other names that became great in Indian history in their own time. Some of them were related to our family, many were personal friends. It was a curiously intimate yet distant view of India’s progress.

Meanwhile all around us in Europe, we got a similarly personal though far less exalted view of the events that were shaping our generation. On French beaches we might meet groups of Hitler Youth on some kind of organized walking tour. At school in England we might be asked to support the international youth camps of the League of Nations. Like so many of our friends, we took in refugees from Dachau and other concentration camps until they could find places of their own in London or get a work permit or a visa to America. My sister, with thousands of idealistic people of her age, felt strongly about the Spanish Civil War, and I, deeply impressed by her sentiments, fell in love with a young man I had never met only because he wrote beautiful poetry and was killed in Spain.

All this was, naturally, quite typical of the generation that grew up in Europe between the wars. The only thing that set us apart in our minds was that we would return to India to live, that eventually our loyalties would be tied to a country that was growing daily less familiar.


The autobiographical passage is highly suggestive of the cosmopolitan lifestyle which Santha Rama Rau led for much of her childhood and adulthood. Her description of the way in which she was shaped by events in England, Europe and India position her as an elite transnational subject, crossing boundaries of nation with relative ease. Her privileged social background is also clear from her personal connections with major figures in Indian history, as well as the fact that her migrant family were able to offer shelter to refugees during the war. Indeed, this last subverts conventional constructions of Indians in Britain as in need of shelter and patronage, and emphasizes the role of class as well as ‘race’ in shaping the position of minorities. Rama Rau’s relationship with India – defined by both intimacy and distance – anticipates contemporary descriptions and discussions of the South Asian diasporic experience.

Archive source: 

Santha Rama Rau Papers, Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University