by Robert Eric Frykenberg, editor
The editor compares this work of Ramabai with Alexis Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America (13).
Translated by Kshitija Gomes. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503, 2003, 322 pages, $49.00.
—Reviewed by John M. Prasad, professor of missions, Jubilee Memorial Bible College, Chennai, India.
What made America prosper? What may herald its destruction? Answers to these questions may come from this meticulous description of American ways written more than a century ago by a courageous Indian Brahmin widow, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati.
This book is primarily an English translation of the original 1889 publication in Marathi by Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, Conditions of Life in the United States and Travels There. The present publication claims to be the first complete English translation of this work. (However, another translation by Meera Kosambi of Ramabai’s same work has been published concurrently by Indiana University Press: Ramabai Saraswati, Pandita and Meera Kosambi. 2003. Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.)
The editor compares this work of Ramabai with Alexis Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America (13). He claims, “Perhaps if her work had been translated and published in 1890, soon after its first appearance in India, it might now be recognized as a classic insight into the inner workings of America” (13).
The book begins with a fifty-four page biographical introduction to the life and struggles of Pandita Ramabai by Frykenberg. This section also has five photographs related to Ramabai. Her experience of discrimination as a woman and widow sets the background for her great appreciation of the liberty in the US. Throughout the work she compares three countries that she knew: India, England and the US.
Chapter one describes her dangerous journey from Liverpool to Philadelphia. The second chapter gives a brief history of the colonization of the US, slavery and early American history. Chapters three to nine detail the American administrative system, living conditions, domestic life, the pursuit of learning, religious creeds and charity, the condition of women, trade and business. The lengthy eighth chapter focuses on the condition of women, demonstrating her preoccupation with women’s emancipation.
Though sources are not cited, the detailed facts and figures she provides on almost every aspect of American life are highly informative. Her projections into the future of the US, such as her pessimism about efforts to curb alcoholism and her optimism about the emancipation of women have proved to be reliable. She identifies herself as a Hindu by her choice of language, often using names of Hindu gods and goddesses to describe several aspects of life. Her value statements, however, portray her Christian faith.
The editors provide valuable notes and explanations of Indian terms and proverbs used by Ramabai. The book contains a glossary of Indian terms, a list of books by Ramabai and a list of books about her. An index would have made the book of greater value as a reference resource. In this age of globalization, readers should value Ramabai’s cross-cultural perspective on American life and learn how a society can progress positively.
Check these titles:
Ramabai Saraswati, Pandita. 2000. Pandita Ramabai through Her Own Words: Selected Works. Translated by Meera Kosambi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kosambi, Meera. 1995. Pandita Rambai’s Feminist and Christian Conversions: Focus on Stree Dharma-Neeti. Bombay: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T Women’s University.
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