As a lifelong journalist, Edgar Watson Howe was well aware of what curious newspaper readers in smalltown America were looking for when reading about other parts of the world.

A son of a Nebraska abolitionist who fought against the Confederates in the American Civil War, Howe entered the world of journalism at the age of 19 and tried (with limited success) to write novels. By the time he was journeying through India, he had developed a unique style of travel writing that drew comparisons between the landscapes of the United States with those of the countries he was visiting. India, though, left a whole variety of impressions on him, which he neatly documented in the Lincoln Nebraska State Journal.

Journey through Rajasthan

In the middle of January 1906, Howe set off on a two-night train journey from Delhi to Bombay – a trip he called a “long jump”, borrowing a then popular theatrical term.

“I have already noted that the country between Calcutta and Benares is much like that in Idaho and Wyoming, and the similarity between Delhi and Bombay, where we encountered foothills, and mountains, and sagebrush, and many dry streams, crossed by enormous bridges, evidence of floods at times,” Howe wrote. “The country was so interesting that I spent hour after hour looking out the windows, and while we crossed many large streams perfectly dry, in the entire distance I saw but one stream of running water.”

EW Howe. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

On the way, Howe managed to get a glimpse of the colours and culture of Rajasthan, now one of India’s most popular destinations for foreign tourists.

“In travelling by railroad in America, you have frequently noticed horses running away from the train in fright,” he wrote. “In India, I saw loose camels running away from the train, and a camel galloping is an amusing and ungainly sight.” He also happily described spotting parrots, monkeys, pheasants and black buck, adding that there was plenty of game in India since locals were not permitted to own guns.

No travelogue in India at that time was complete without a mention of its royalty and Howe did not want to disappoint his readers either. “Every station was interesting,” he wrote. “In one I saw a rajah, with a lot of retainers carrying queer looking swords; another retainer carried a jewelled staff, a warning to all common people to get out of the way.”

Howe was confused by the architecture of Rajasthan. “When the railroad was built, the rajah through whose country it ran said to the builders: ‘Build your stations to resemble mosques and you may have the right of way,’” he wrote. “It would be the same thing had the Protestants said to the builders of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe: ‘This is Protestant country. We demand that on every station house, section house etc, you build a steeple resembling a church steeple.’”

Railway experience

Howe travelled in first class, which back then was almost entirely occupied by people of European descent. The only inconvenience he faced was the dust of Rajasthan. “And I may say that travelling in India is no hardship, barring the dust,” he wrote. “The railroads are excellent, and good meals are provided at reasonable prices.

The American was equally impressed by the railway staff: “There is little danger of the most inexperienced traveller going astray, for the brakemen here, as at home, are polite and careful. I never worry, knowing they will take care of me.”

It seemed it was standard practice for wealthy Westerners to take a servant with them on train journeys. In 1906, the standard rate for a servant on Indian railways was 41 cents a day.

While third class compartments for “natives” were cramped and poorly ventilated, the “sahibs” had all the space they needed. “The compartment was very much larger than a drawing room in a Pullman sleeper, and better, the lavatory being a large room in which we could undress at night, put up our hair and dress in the morning,” Howe wrote. “A door opened from the compartment into the small room at the end of the car, in which our servant rode, so that at night he came and made up our beds, and in the morning, he would come again and pack the bedding.”

Modern Bombay

“We arrived in Bombay this morning at 8’o clock, sleeping so soundly during the night in our private compartment that we would have been sleeping yet, had not Mahomet aroused us after we had passed two of the seven stations in Bombay, for Bombay is a very large city,” Howe wrote in an article datelined January 18, 1906.

The glint of Bombay seemed to shock him: “It is so modern that I shall say little about it; it is much the largest and finest city in India.”

A luxury traveller, Howe chose to stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel. “My room at the hotel has a mosaic floor, and the entire structure easily puts the Waldorf in New York to shame.” This “return to modern life”, he added, was not interesting, but it was comfortable.

Howe couldn’t help but compare the western Indian city with what was then the capital of India. “If Calcutta is not jealous of Bombay, it has every reason to be, because Bombay is much the finer city,” he said.

From Howe’s writings it is easy to see that the traumatic memories of the 19th-century plague were still fresh in the minds of Bombayites. “Some time ago hundreds of natives died here daily of the plague, but lately the death rate from this source is only two or three a day,” he wrote. “Bombay is rarely free from it, but the disease attacks very few whites.”

Such was the fear of the epidemic spreading to West Asia that passengers departing from the city were required to undergo a medical examination before leaving and then spend two days in quarantine on arrival at their destination. Before sailing out to his next destination, Port Said in Egypt, Howe went on the tourist trail in Bombay and visited places such as Elephanta Caves.

One place that made an impression on him was Knob Hill, as Malabar Hill was then called. “The people here are wealthy, natives, as well as white, and in the smart turnouts on the principal drives, nearly all the occupants are natives,” he wrote. The great number of cars on the hill impressed him particularly since “this sort of thing is in great contrast with the rural India I saw yesterday; the India of elephants, bullock carts and camels.” He noted that nine out of 10 gate posts on Knob Hill had “unpronounceable” names.

Parsee Tower of Silence in Bombay. Credit: Frederic Courtland Penfield/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

While in the neighbourhood, the American managed to visit the Tower of Silence and wrote that he couldn’t “imagine anything more disgusting” than the way the “Porsee” left their dead to be eaten by vultures.

Despite being the son of an Abolitionist, Howe was a man of his time and could hardly disguise the prevalent Western bigotry in his writings. “The natives of India are much superior in industry, intelligence and looks to the Filipinos; their curse is religion,” he wrote. As an American, he said it was difficult to understand how people could support themselves and at the same time build “gorgeous temples for gods as useless as the dead in the enormous tombs, or the kings in the palaces of marble.”

After three weeks of travel in the country, it was clear, however, that EW Howe had warmed up to the people of India. “After you have seen India, and realise how dry and barren it is, and that the natives force a living from the barren soil, you cannot but help having a sort of respect for them,” he wrote. “Think what these people would do with a country of natural advantages, like Kansas!”

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.