This study guide will help you analyze the memoir excerpt “By Any Other Name” by Santha Rama Rau. You can also find a summary of the text, as well as help for interpreting it and putting it into perspective.
"By Any Other Name" is an autobiographical story that takes place in India during the British colonial rule. It tells the story of two Indian sisters, Santha and her older sister Premila, who attend a British-run school for the first time. Upon their arrival, they are renamed by their headmistress, who finds their Indian names too difficult to pronounce. Santha is given the name "Cynthia," and Premila is called "Pamela."
The story focuses on themes of cultural identity, colonialism, and the power dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized. The renaming of the sisters serves as a symbol of the British attempt to erase Indian culture and impose their own values and traditions. The sisters struggle with their new identities, which leads to Premila's realization that she cannot compromise her true self for the sake of fitting in. In the end, they leave the school and return to their Indian roots, reclaiming their original names and identities.
Excerpt from the study guide:
The social setting in “By Any Other Name” explores the conflicting dynamics between the Western and Indian cultures. First, the appearance of the school building hints at a conflict between the two cultures. While the building is “Indian in design”, the verandas are painted in colors typical of British schools, even if the color choices enhance the afternoon heat.
The Anglo-Indian school, which is based on the British curriculum, attempts to make all the students fit a certain pattern. This is one of the reasons why Indian children are given new names when they join the school and they are not ask how they feel about this. For example, Premila becomes Pamela, Santha becomes Cynthia, and Nalini becomes Nancy. In class, the English children sit in the front while the Indian children sit in the back. This is yet another hint that suggests Anglo-Indian schools see Indian children as inferior.
Lastly, Premila’s experience highlights the judgmental and prejudiced attitudes of the British toward the Indians. During the test, Premila’s teacher makes her “and the other Indians sit at the back of the room, with a desk between each one”. She justifies this decision by claiming that “Indians cheat”, which infuriates and frustrates Premila who decides to leave school for good.