In the 19th century, two Indians travelling through the United States forty years apart had near identical experiences of what it was to be an alien.
Ishuree Dass, a missionary from the North-Western Provinces, described the excitement as news of his arrival spread: “Natives of Winchester had heard of the arrival of a foreigner from a distant country; and the curiosity of some, especially of the fair sex, was somewhat excited. Those that had any acquaintance with the family with whom I lived called to gratify this propensity; and most of them were surprised that I could speak English, or that I did not manifest any signs of savageness about me.”
Dass published an account of his travels, with the prosaic title A Brief Account of a Voyage to England and America, in 1851, six years after his return to India.
More than 33 years later, it was the turn of Jehangir Kothari, a businessman and philanthropist from Karachi, to draw inquiring looks. Sighting Kothari in the rotunda of the hotel Palmer House, a Chicago Tribune reporter described him as “Greek”, “definitely not a Hindu”. “A man of medium height, thickset, with a very full face, jet-black hair, a short curly black beard,” it was his complexion that attracted attention. “Not exactly swarthy, his skin had a distinct reddish tinge, which was in striking contrast to his hair and whiskers,” the Chicago Tribune report went on. “His English when he spoke was as pure as any Chicago man would have used.”
Kothari “spoke intelligently about India and its condition”. The masses, he believed, were “satisfied with the British rule, and that there was no danger of any movement for independence for years to come”. Two years later, in 1885, the Indian National Congress held its first meeting in Bombay.
Kothari’s book Impressions of a First Tour Around the World was published in 1889, the same year educator and feminist Pandita Ramabai’s travel account of the US appeared in Marathi. Impressions of a First Tour... received favourable reviews from the British press. The Colonial and Indian called it an interesting book and said it showed the “author’s complete mastery over the English language”. What made it even more readable was its “chatty manner”.
Dass and Kothari were the first two Indians to publish travelogues of the US. Their accounts included lengthy stopovers in Europe, as necessitated by ship travel then. When juxtaposed, their journeys show up a world gradually changed by technology, and the enduring curiosity with which America regarded the Orient at the time.
Ishuree Dass, orphaned young and brought up in the care of the Presbyterian Mission in Fatehgarh (now Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh), made his journey west in the company of the American missionary HR Wilson. Wilson and his superiors believed that Dass’ quick mind and acumen would make him a suitable teacher to educate the other orphans in the Mission.
His journey to England took nearly three months, as ships then rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed up the African west coast. Arriving in July 1846, Dass found London very “clean, and subject often to sudden short spells of rain”. His long walks around the city took him to the British Parliament, then in session, and the British Museum, where he was impressed by the mummies and stuffed animals on display.
A month later, on his journey to America, he witnessed on the ship the plight of poor female emigrants who were out to make a better life for themselves. They lived in cramped quarters and had little idea of what lay ahead once they docked in New York.
After New York, Dass spent some weeks at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, which he reached by train. Both Dass and, later, Kothari extolled the wonders of the railways, which was then extending its reach across the US. Kothari, in particular, was amazed at the luxuries offered by the Pullman carriages, waxing eloquent about the dining salons in Europe and the sleeping cars in the US. He detailed how the carriages could be effortlessly loaded onto huge ferries that plied across giant waterbodies, whether on the east coast, as he travelled to Boston, or on the west coast, when he reached San Francisco, the last stop of his US tour.
At Lafayette College, Dass mainly took classes in English and “some elementary studies”. It amazed him that Americans were so ignorant about faraway lands, especially Hindustan:
“Whenever they think of India, they very probably picture in their minds a country covered with jungle or lying waste and barren, miserable and moveable huts, natives dressed in bear and lion skins, and adorned with ornaments of bone, and beset with large herds of wild horses and ferocious animals.”
Towards the end of his tour, he travelled to Winchester in Virginia. It was a city where some plantations, he wrote, held over a hundred slaves and generally treated them well. He asked a slave, an elderly woman, if she preferred freedom or her relatively less callous work. She replied freedom.
In 1883, when Kothari first travelled to the US, 18 years had elapsed since the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. His journey started in New York and took him to the mid-Atlantic cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC, before he returned northward.
While his book occasionally touches on salacious tales, its substance lies elsewhere. He fills the book with details about buildings, monuments and impressive sights. Kothari mentions, for instance, that the construction of Brooklyn Bridge, whose “massive towers” and “ponderous cables” made it a conspicuous sight from New York Harbour, was begun by JA Roebling and completed after his death by his son. He recounts at length the death of stuntman Mathew Webb while attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls. There is a detailed description in the book of the abattoir at Chicago Stock Yard that hoisted hundreds of cattle and pigs with a pulley, slaughtered and cut them, before placing them in neat packages and shipping them across the US and Europe. He wrote in fulsome praise about America’s hotels, its streets and markets, and its democracy, especially after he witnessed a Congressional session and the election of the House Speaker. Yet, the informality of American life left much to be desired.
“I have said before, that this land is considered as the ‘Free Land of Liberty,’ but I find that there is too much liberty given or allowed to middle-class people, which I do not in the least like. For instance, a railway conductor or porter sitting and dining in the same car, at the same table, and at the same time, as the first-class passengers. Again, these men spoke to passengers in a tone as if they were the directors of the railway; for every hour these magnates come and sit alongside the passengers.”
Following his return in 1847, Dass lived in Fatehgarh. He wrote three other works, including one on Hindu domestic manners and customs. He had a narrow escape during the revolt of 1857 – the year Kothari was born – for as a missionary, he was seen as supportive of British rule.
Dass never again ventured out of India, unlike Kothari who was from a different social class and made quite a name for himself as a philanthropist and explorer. In 1930, American newspapers described him as India’s “second wealthiest man” whose world travels had increased his faith in the British Raj.
That same year, during a visit to Australia – his 10th world tour – the Sydney Morning Herald described him as a “distinguished imperialist”. His travels, the newspaper said, extended from “the tropics to the Arctic wastes, and from the Bering Straits to Patagonia” in South America. In the process, he had several brushes with death. On one occasion, he fell into a crevasse in the Arctic Circle. On another, he survived a damaging fire in a Tokyo hotel. In north Manchuria, his train was held up by bandits. It is a pity he never chronicled these adventures himself: after the first travel memoirs, he never wrote another one. Kothari died in 1934 in Trieste, Italy, his reputation secure as one of Karachi’s most benevolent denizens and a world traveller.
This is the thirteenth part in a series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.