When Gertrude Emerson’s Voiceless India was published in 1930, it came with a deserved word of approbation from none other than Rabindranath Tagore. In the foreword to the book, the Bard of Bengal wrote:
“The author did not choose the comfortable method of picking up information from behind lavish bureaucratic hospitality, under a revolving electric fan, and in an atmosphere of ready-made official opinions…She boldly took in on herself unaided to enter a region of our life, all but unexplored by western tourists, which had one great advantage, in spite of its difficulties, that it offered no other path to the writer, but that of sharing the life of the people.”
Emerson’s book – which followed the witheringly critical Mother India by Katherine Mayo and Come with Me to India by Patricia Kendall – was seen as empathetic. Like Mayo and Kendall, Emerson was American, but unlike their accounts, hers was the result of a year spent immersed in Pachperwa, a village on the border between present-day Uttar Pradesh and Nepal.
Emerson was 36 when she wrote Voiceless India. But by this time, she had already established herself as a prolific writer and, in the words of Havre Daily News, “a globe-trottin’ lady extraordinary”. She had travelled widely in East and Southeast Asia and written acclaimed stories. It seems no assignment daunted her. Once, when asked about her travels to lands that many Western women chose to avoid, she replied that it had never occurred to her to be afraid.
Her Voiceless India received the same warm reception that her other writing had. One reviewer for The Geographical Journal wrote of Emerson’s “unfriendly references” to British policies in India, her “vivid writing”, “keen observations” and her “free” and “full” treatment of “vital questions” like caste, social custom and religion. Another reviewer said there was not a dull page in the book.
Born on May 6, 1890, at Lake Forest in Illinois, Emerson moved to Ithaca in upstate New York after her father, Alfred Emerson, became a professor of ancient languages and archaeology at Cornell University. Her mother, Alice, was a concert pianist. She had three siblings, all of whom went on to distinguish themselves in their chosen field.
Emerson travelled with her father to Europe when she was 10, but her peripatetic life began in earnest after she graduated from the University of Chicago, majoring in history and literature. In 1914, she took off for Japan, where once her grandfather had been consul, and learnt the Japanese language and the long-ended bamboo flute, the shakuhachi. During her stay, she immersed herself in Japanese culture, writing about its poetry and gardens, the state of education, and the role of history in building national pride. A journalistic curiosity informed her writings from Japan that would become the hallmark of much of her work.
A year later, Emerson returned to East Asia with her friend Elsie Weil with an express journalistic purpose. At a time when xenophobia against Asian migration was at its height in the US, Emerson and Weil became the first American journalists to interview leading figures in Chinese president Yuan Shi Kai’s administration as well as in Japan.
The two had an abiding interest in the region. Emerson became a founding editor of Asia, a magazine founded by the philanthropist couple Willard and Dorothy Straight, and contributed to it till well into the 1940s, while Weil remained its longtime managing editor.
In 1919, Emerson and her brother Alfred, an entomologist, joined an expedition to Guyana (then British Guiana) in South America. There, Emerson explored the lives of the indentured labourers from India who worked in sugar plantations. When the expedition returned, it carried back with it a menagerie of animals and insects, including butterflies, alligators, a family of boa constrictors, three parrots and a silver tailed hawk. A particularly frisky monkey called Jellico was taken on by Emerson as her personal responsibility.
Around the world
But handling an impish simian was nothing compared to the project she undertook next. In 1920, Emerson set off on a world trip with aviator-photographer Donald Thompson and his wife Dorothy Thompson, achieving instant celebrity.
Columnists raved about Emerson’s insatiable thirst for adventure and her delicate build – she was a little over five feet, had blue, piercing eyes and fine hair. In an article in the New York Tribune, writer Katherine Anne Porter said that, for a year-long trip to the Orient, Emerson carried “five trunks, three handbags, a hatbox, a shoe trunk” as well as gifts such as trinkets, colourful pencils, strings of wooden beads and bunches of dyed feathers.
Through her trip, Emerson wrote widely syndicated dispatches about her adventures: about stunt-flying and exploring underground caves in the Philippines; tiger hunting in Vietnam; and travelling to Angkor Wat in a sampan through dense forests.
Her first visit to India was in 1922 in the midst of the Non-Cooperation Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. It was a turbulent time and the spirit of the freedom struggle was flaming high. Emerson caught a glimpse of this revolutionary fervour at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, where Gandhi was addressing a large gathering. Gandhi was a “small, almost emaciated figure,” she wrote in The New York Times, “with bare head and feet, wrapped in a nondescript shawl the kind Lincoln used to wear.” But his words were full of purpose. He neither pleaded with the crowded, nor flattered it – he insisted that swaraj could not be achieved unless people struggled for it.
Always hungry for adventure, she travelled, accompanied by a Gurkha bodyguard, from Mysore to Malabar, where the Mappila Rebellion was raging. Her visit to a village located 20 miles outside Calcutta renewed her acquaintance with the scientist Basiswar ‘Boshi’ Sen. A junior colleague of the physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose, Sen had travelled to American universities, including Michigan and Cornell, where he had met Emerson and Dorothy Straight.
For Emerson, that brief experience of village life was an eye-opener. She saw first-hand the impact of malaria on people’s lives, the daily drudgery of women, and the oppression inflicted on tenant farmers by zamindars and moneylenders.
Even after she returned to the US, India never left her. In 1925, along with other women explorers – Blair Niles, Marguerite Harrison, Gertrude Mathews Shelby – Emerson founded the Society of Women Geographers that still lives on. She was also a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
Life in India
In 1926, she made her second visit to India via Europe and West Asia, entering the subcontinent through Khyber Pass. Pushing on atop a young elephant, she reached Pachperwa, a village in Balrampur on the Nepal-Uttar Pradesh border. By this time, she knew a bit of Hindustani and came equipped with a medicine chest that made her popular among the villagers.
Emerson was aware, despite her straitened lifestyle in the village, of her privilege. Her simple house, with its adobe walls, was built quickly, with villagers providing the necessary labour. Adorning the walls were colourful patterns made of herbal dyes produced by the women in Pachperwa.
Voiceless India, based on her days in Pachperwa, was published in 1930. In the book, Emerson stressed that most Indian women lived sheltered lives and were far less educated than men – and yet they needed to be judged in their own context, not in contrast to women in the West. Change was inevitable, she said, but it would be slow.
In November 1932, she married Boshi Sen in Calcutta. And three years later, they moved to Almora in North India along with the Vivekananda laboratory that Sen had founded to experiment on plant cells and agricultural produce. Kundan House, where the Sens set up their lives, looked out on the eastern Himalayas, and afforded a welcome refuge for the family’s friends: the painter Earl Brewster, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and members of the Nehru family.
Emerson wrote her second book, A Pageant of Indian Civilization, in 1948. Illustrated by her sister Edith, it followed the flawed periodisation of Indian history established by James Mill, and yet evoked the artistic and literary achievements of the ruling dynasties. For this book, she was adjudged a co-winner of the Watumull Prize. In 1965, she wrote Cultural Unity of India, tracing the cultural traditions that gave India an essential unity.
The couple, as Girish Mehra notes in Nearer Heaven than Earth (2007), helped the celebrated dancer Uday Shankar set up his dance academy in Shimtola, Almora. But despite the talented artistes on its roster, the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre unfortunately did not last long.
Sen, who was greatly affected by the 1943 famine, was a pioneering figure in India’s Green Revolution, spearheading research in hybrid varieties of maize and onion. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1957 and the Watumull Prize for his contributions to agriculture in 1961. He died a decade later. Emerson survived him for 11 years. She lived on in Almora and was anguished at Cold War rivalries and the way foreign interference undermined local lives and customs. During these years, she organised a series of local endeavours to debate issues that mattered. The Vivekananda Laboratory, a cause dear to both Sen and Emerson, is today part of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and called the Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan.
In 1936, journalist Lowell Thomas wrote an article about Emerson headlined ‘90 pounds of courage’. Detailing her life and travels, Thomas concluded that she stood out because of a “combination of unusual qualities”: “An able executive, a gifted writer, a magnetic public speaker, a scholar, a dauntless traveller and explorer, a penetrating intelligence at work upon our problems of tomorrow, an interpreter of the East to us who badly need such interpreters – she is a woman whom we should not wait for our children to be proud of.”
This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.