THE SUN IN THE MORNING

My Early Years in India and England

St. Martin's. 454 pp., $24.95

By M.M. Kaye

IN A LATE chapter of this heart-winning memoir, two little girls of English blood are shown weeping on the deck of a departing ocean liner as they watch the towers and domes of Bombay grow smaller in the distance. Unwillingly bound for the rainy island that their elders call "home," they take an oath together. Never, they swear, will they transfer their love away from their real home, which is India. To double-clinch the vow, they make it in Hindustani.

The year was 1918, and the elder of the two small sisters, 10 years old at the time, would become the writer of historical and mystery novels who signs herself M.M. Kaye. This, her new book -- the first installment of an autobiography to be titled Share of Summer -- is an act of fidelity to that vow made a lifetime ago. It is a testament of love for the place that she remembers as the land of vivid colors and open hearts that for her was an enchanted background to childhood.

Stating her terms right at the outset, the author warns her readers in a foreword that they will find here no up-to-date breast-beating about the iniquity of colonialism. For those who want to see it that way, India under British rule was, she concedes, a place disfigured by squalor, corruption, disaster and famine. But she feels that these themes have been anything but neglected by other writers. It will be her concern to tell how unforgettably rewarding it was to grow up among Indians as one who spoke their language before she was fluent in English.

Daughter of a British army officer, who never had any money although he wound up as Sir Cecil Kaye, the author was born in 1908 in Simla, the hill station that was India's summer capital. Thanks to what were, for that time and place, the family's very modest circumstances, Molly Kaye and her siblings were reared by Indian servants rather than by the unbending nannies from "home" who looked after the children of the more affluent colonials. It was a compromise that, for the children, paid great dividends in freedom, warm affection and insight into another culture.

When taking that shipboard oath of loyalty to their birthplace, the author and her sister were on their way to England to go to school. This was mandatory practice among the British, partly because parents felt it necessary to loosen the bonds between their children and the Indians who brought them up. According to M.M. Kaye, Indian servants were always on the children's side, and this was considered harmful to discipline and the formation of English character.

As the author describes the situation, relations between the British and the Indians of their households were on a footing unrelated to the categories of today's thinking about human equality. To illustrate, she relates that her kindly father, whose social attitudes were ahead of his time, felt uncomfortable in a rickshaw and chose to walk rather than depend on the power of his fellow man. Seeking light on this matter, small Mollie, on her way by rickshaw to a dancing class, used her Indian vernacular to sound out the attitudes of the team of jhampanis who were doing the propelling. "Bah," was their response, "work was work." What would happen to their living if the foolish notion got about that hauling a rickshaw was beneath a man's dignity? Not only would they lose a meal ticket, but also the status it gave them in the community to wear livery.

Such is the genial light that the author's memory, at 82, casts on an era of history now condemned as the highwater mark of colonial exploitation. Since history is always being rewritten to accord with later viewpoints, the time may come, she speculates, when the Pax Britannica will again seem the golden age that it seems to her. She sees it, not as a system that allowed European second-raters to go abroad and lord it over the natives, but as an outreach of civilization that brought higher levels of health, education and well-being to unluckier parts of the world. This was done, she asserts, at the cost of dedicated labor by people like her father, a soldier chained to a desk because he was a genius at mastering secret codes, and at the greater price of long partings between kin. Her father, after escorting her brother to school in England on the eve of World War I, didn't set eyes on him again for seven years. POIGNANT sidelights of this sort do appear in The Sun in the Morning, but there is no mislabeling in the book's cheerful title. The author's main theme is what grand good luck it was to be a child in a country swarming with monkeys and flying foxes, where a mongoose could be a pet, where wild cosmos flowers made acres of jungle through which children could burrow mazes of tunnels and where there was always a loving ayah (nurse maid) to respond to children on a child's own terms.

In this first portion of her autobiography, M.M. Kaye covers those years of wide-eyed awakening to the world and the later period of her school days in England, during which her ruling aspiration was to get back to India. As the book concludes, she makes it, returning with her father when he is recalled from his retirement in England. There are indications in her story that she found ways of going back throughout her long life. One of her later visits was to participate in the filming of her bestseller, The Far Pavilions, in its Indian setting. It was during that trip that a chance visual impression inspired her to write this book. It was of a cascade of cloth scraps spilling out of a sack from the movie troupe's costume department. The brilliant medley of colorful odds and ends seemed to her like a metaphor of her life and caused her to think that the life, of a kind no longer possible, was worth recording. She has done so with a charm which supports the accuracy of the metaphor.

Leslie Hanscom is a former editor and writer for Newsday.