The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau
“Santha Rama Rau? Didn’t you used to be famous?” (2). Such was the response of one cocktail party attendee upon meeting the subject of Antoinette Burton’s new book. Indeed, Santha Rama Rau was once famous. The child of the Indian ambassador to Washington and a feminist social reformer, the Indian-born and Wellesley-educated Rau became one of the foremost translators of India to Americans in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. A middlebrow writer based in New York City, she wrote travel books and cookbooks, novels and memoirs, adapted E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India for Broadway, and wrote essays for The New Yorker and Reader’s Digest. She commanded a wide American readership. But today, as Burton notes, Rama Rau “scarcely registers as even a minor diasporic writer” (2). In this slim volume, Burton takes up the challenge of making this once-insignificant writer significant again.
One way to restore and even elevate the standing of a forgotten cultural figure is to insert her into a genealogy of others whose significance is undisputed. This is the approach Burton takes. Reading Rama Rau through the framework of postcolonial literary studies, Burton shows that Rama Rau should be recognized as a proto-post-colonial writer, a precursor to such figures as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Bharati Mukherjee, and Arundhati Roy. In positioning Rama Rau this way, Burton seeks to write what she calls the “prehistory” (31) of postcolonialism. She argues successfully that Rama Rau, in her representations of India and in her own self-fashioning, was an “avatar of certain postcolonial ways of seeing and knowing” (20) and articulated many of the concepts that would become central to postcolonial studies in later decades: a cosmopolitan subjectivity not oriented exclusively towards the West, a celebration of India’s multicultural hybridity, and a rejection of the developmental logic of tradition vs. modernity. Claiming Rama Rau as an early postcolonial writer allows Burton to argue persuasively that the emergence of a postcolonial consciousness is inseparable from Cold War geopolitics and globalization more generally. Burton suggests that America’s new role as a global power, and the concomitant desire on the part of ordinary Americans to understand the emerging postwar world, created new audiences and new opportunities for writers from the decolonizing world. In locating the origins of postcolonial literary subjectivity in Cold War America, Burton succeeds in bringing the U.S. more centrally into postcolonial studies and thereby expands the transnational dimensions of the field.
Another way to resurrect a minor cultural figure is to embed her in a rich context and show how she expresses or engages with the important ideas of her historical moment. Burton does not pursue this approach. She has not written a cultural history or even a cultural biography, and she has not used Rama Rau as a window onto the world of postwar American political, cultural, literary, or intellectual history. There exists a rich body of scholarship on postwar cultural history and the history of American representations of Asia that Burton could have drawn on to frame and enrich her analysis. Although she gestures toward this work, she does not engage substantively with its ideas, including, for example, the affiliative logic of postwar American Orientalism, the widespread interest of African Americans in India and the decolonizing world more generally, and the history of middle class American women as consumers of a spectacular and commodified Asia. This becomes a problem because Burton makes a point of emphasizing that America was Rama Rau’s primary context: she lived in New York, was married to an American, often identified with Washington’s foreign policies, was published by American publishers, and wrote for an American audience. Inserting Rama Rau into a British-and Indian-dominated postcolonial tradition, Burton ignores the ways that Rama Rau also functioned as an American cultural producer. As a result, Burton isolates Rama Rau from the panoply of other cultural figures – travel writers, novelists, journalists, actors, musicians, playwrights, lyricists, filmmakers, political actors – who also served as “translators” of Asia and the decolonizing world to Americans. This implied singularity leaves the reader with the erroneous impression that, for example, Rama Rau was the only person of color writing about India in this period, and that she alone could see the connections between decolonization abroad and racial tensions within America. In the end, the lack of a contextual and comparative perspective limits our ability to judge Rama Rau’s distinctiveness and thus evaluate her significance.
Although Burton wants to chart the “ideological work” (30) that Rama Rau’s writing performed in the American context, the schematic quality of her historical and analytical frameworks renders the exact nature of that work unclear. Although Burton says Rama Rau’s career was “inexorably shaped by the exigencies of the Cold War” (12), the actual Cold War in all its diplomatic, economic, ideological, and racial complexity is largely absent. Burton argues that Rama Rau facilitated a complex “identification with and disavowal of British imperial hegemony” (68), but gives no sense of the ways in which imperialism was a hotly contested term in Cold War political and cultural discourses. She writes of Orientalism as if its meaning were self-evident, betraying little awareness of the scholarship that explores a distinctly American form of Orientalism that departs from Said’s formulation in significant ways. She claims Rama Rau as a “cosmopolitan” (7), but does not compare her to other advocates of American global engagement and show how her vision was – or was not – unique. The question of reception and what lessons her American readers might have actually taken from her work, while always difficult to answer fully, is not adequately raised.
Scholars, of course, are free to frame their projects in any way they like, and Burton has chosen to situate Santha Rama Rau’s career within the parameters of Anglo-Indian postcolonial literary studies rather than American Studies or cultural history. The result of that choice, however, is a limited and curiously ahistorical analysis, in which Rama Rau is largely isolated from the America that she inhabited, wrote for, and often identified with. While the book makes a valuable contribution to postcolonial studies, it misses an opportunity to fully explore the ties between Cold War America and the emergence of postcolonial subjectivity.