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Gifts of Passage: An Informal Autobiography, by Samantha Rama Rau

November 22, 2015

Gifts of Passage: An Informal Autobiography, by Samantha Rama Rau.  Restless Books, 2015.  First published 1961.

3 stars

A reprint of a book first written in the 1950s by a woman from India about her early life and her world travels.

Gifts of Passages is a collection of stories which Samantha Rama Rau first published in American magazines, like Holiday, The New Yorker, and Vogue in the 1950s. Her introductions to the stories are meant to shape them into an account of her life, her autobiography. She wrote the stories collected here when she was in her twenties and thirties, and she would go on to travel and write for almost fifty more years. Her later works include a dramatization of E.M. Foster’s Passage to India, and she assisted author Gayatri Devi in writing her book, A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur. (See my review.) She lived much of her later life in the United States, but retained a loyalty to India. Often the purpose of her writing is intended to make India real, understandable and non-threatening for post-World War II American readers. In both the autobiographical introductions and the stories themselves, Rau writes brisk, cheerful accounts, suited to her American audience of the 1950s.  She makes no effort to be introspective or literary, which makes her an interesting contrast to the similarly structured autobiography of Sandra Cisneros that I just read.

Samantha Rama Rau (1923-2009) was born in Madras, India, and lived her early years in the large multi-generational home of her grandmother. Although she claims her family was neither rich nor poor,” they were not only wealthy; they were distinguished actors in the creation of modern India. Her father became a highly respected diplomat, taking the family to England when Rau was six, to be a part of negotiations about Indian independence. After World War II, he was the Indian ambassador to Japan and the United States and head of a major Indian bank. Her mother founded a birth control organization in Indian and participated in the creation of International Planned Parenthood in 1953.

The most well-known story in the book is “By Any Other Name,” an account of a British school teacher trying to give Rau and her sister “more pronounceable” names. My favorite of the stories was about a young man, educated in America, trying to reject the woman his family arranged for him to marry. With Rau’s unintended help, the determined young woman patiently learns to please him into marriage. Other stories describe her travels and include a negative account of a particularly narrow-minded missionary she met in northwest China. Often however, Rau displays genuine sensitivity toward the people she describes. For example, her account of the trial of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya shows real sympathy for both sides; the white settlers who had made Kenya their home and the displaced blacks who had responded with violence.

Gifts of Passage is an unusual book, one that I recommend to readers who enjoy travelogues from the past.

I am grateful to have received a digital copy of this book through Edelweiss.

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