An American Girl in India

Letters and Recollections, 1963–64

By Wendy Doniger

Subjects: Memoir, India And South Asian Studies, Autobiography, Biography And Memoir
Paperback : 9781438494173, 256 pages, August 2023

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


1. Prelude in England

2. Arrival and First Days in India

3. Shantiniketan

4. Calcutta

5. Travels in India

6. Return to Calcutta and Shantiniketan

7. The Congress of Orientalists, and Ali Akbar Khan

Bibliography of Works by Wendy Doniger

Offers a portrait of India as seen through the eyes of a sensitive, sharp-eyed, and witty young scholar in the early 1960s.


Twenty-two-year-old Wendy Doniger arrived in Calcutta in August 1963 on a scholarship to study Sanskrit and Bengali. It was her first visit to the country. Over the coming year—a lot of it spent in Tagore’s Shantiniketan—she would fall completely in love with the place she had, until then, known only through books.

The India she describes in her letters back home to her parents is young, like her, still finding its feet and learning to come to terms with the violence of Partition. But it is also a mature civilization that allows Vishnu to be depicted on the walls in a temple to Shiva; a culture of contradictions where extreme eroticism is tied to extreme chastity; and a land of the absurd where sociable station masters don’t let train schedules stand in the way of hospitality. The country comes alive though her vivid prose—introspective and yet playful—and her excitement is on full display whether she is telling of the paradoxes of Indian life, the picturesque countryside, the peculiarities of Indian languages, or simply the mechanics of a temple ritual that she doesn’t understand.

Those who have read and admired Wendy Doniger will be delighted to find much of her later work anticipated in these letters, and the few who haven't will get to see, through her keen eyes and able pen, India as they have never seen it before.

Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and has also taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She is the author of many books, including The Hindus: An Alternative History; Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook; The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry; and On Hinduism.


"By the time of her departure in March 1964, India had 'claimed' Ms. Doniger. It is a country, she tells us, that has a way of 'wearing you down by small coincidences, absorbing your small self in its greatness.' She returned to America with a smattering of Bengali, relatively robust Sanskrit and a passion for Hindu gods, whom she came to admire, she says, for their flaws and foibles. Many years later, these same gods would be invoked against her by Ms. Doniger's opponents, who lack her humane finesse, zealots whose grasp of India is so much poorer than her own." — Wall Street Journal