top of page

Text by Bernard Imhasly published in the book Friendship in Diversity — Sixty years of Indo-Suisse Relations, Universities Press (India), Hyderabad, 2008:

An Indo-Swiss Friendship  —  Ella Maillart and Jawaharlal Nehru

“Your book is rather odd. Because of that, I liked it”. This somewhat twisted compliment was made by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter he wrote to the Swiss travel writer Ella Maillart on June 28, 1952, after she had sent him her book ‘Ti Puss or The Life with my Cat’. It was indeed an odd book. It was supposed to be a record of Maillart’s stay in India between 1939 and 1945, most of it spent in the company of India’s most famous sage and mystic, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Instead of describing her inner journey at the feet of the great master, the heroine of her book is a cat whom she called ‘Ti-Puss’. 


Odd as a cat may be as central figure in a spiritual journey, it wasn’t just a superficial fantasy. For Ella Maillart the cat represented something essential about herself. She spoke of the cat’s ‘feline grace’: “Cats, like children, live their own fullness in pure spontaneity”, she writes in ‘Ti-Puss’. The freedom with which the cat roamed her own world, coming and going when she wanted, being aloof at times and cuddly at others – all this represented perhaps something of Ella’s own identity. After all, she too had roamed the world, in search of freedom from all attachments. When she went to India in late 1939, Maillart was 36 years old and one of the most famous travellers and travel writers of the world. After leaving promising careers as a sportswoman aside – she was a land-hockey player, a sailor and a skier, and been on the Swiss National Team in the two latter sports – she had travelled through Russia, Central Asia. She had crossed the Taklamakan desert in Western China with fellow-writer Peter Fleming, and she had just ended her journey to Afghanistan. And each trip had resulted in widely-read books. 


But by 1939 she was tired of looking for the freedom outside of herself. The Afghanistan trip with fellow-Swiss Annemarie Schwarzenbach had been a near-disaster. The two women didn’t really get on, and her attempt to free Schwarzenbach from depression and drug addiction had failed. When war broke out shortly after their arrival in Afghanistan they decided to split. Schwarzenbach wanted to go back to Europe, to fight German fascism from her home territory, Maillart was sick of going through another great war, after the trauma of the First, and wanted to avoid it as far as possible. They met for a last time in Mandu in Central India over the New Year days of 1939/40, then Schwarzenbach sailed from Bombay to Europe and eventually to her death – she died two years later in an accident in the Engadine. 


Maillart was in a sort of midlife crisis, heightened by the anxieties of the war. She found herself confronted with a saying of the Buddha: "No journey leads to the end of the world. In truth, I tell you, the world is contained within this six-foot body." From Delhi (where she stayed at the ‘Cecil Hotel’, which at that time belonged to a woman whose name was Mrs. Hotz and who was ‘Half-Swiss’) she went to Quetta, visiting friends. From there she wrote to her mother: “I see clearly what a failure I have made with my life… All this freedom and independence I was so glad to have acquired, now I do not know what to do with it”. It was only towards the end of 1940 that she followed the advice of the writer Paul Brunton and decided to go to Tiruvannamalai, “in search of truth and peace about myself ”. 


But turning from a traveller of the world to a traveller of the soul was not easy. "If only I desired truth as passionately as I long for Kashgar”, she wrote in her diary a few days after her arrival. So when the small cat came her way, she welcomed her as the second centre of her life, next to her daily visits to Sri Ramana’s ashram. To be sure, she was concerned about this attachment. “Was I now going to suffer bondage of my own making?”, she asked herself in the book. But the Guru soon put her fears to rest: “’It is for the sake of Self that the cat is loved, that the friend is loved. They merely help you to experience the true I in you, the pure delight of being conscious’ the master explained…’Take away the kitten, what remains is pure love…your essence…The object of love only made it surge up…learn to see that the cat can be a door leading to the infinite happiness in you’.”


But Maillart was perhaps too practical a person to be permanently swept away to a life of total contemplation. “I don’t meditate the way you imagine it”, she wrote to her mother in May 1943. “I don’t believe it is necessary to withdraw from life in order to meditate on life. I live normally, with one part of myself trying to stay aware of the frame of reality”. When the war ended Maillart went back to Switzerland, and installed herself in Geneva and a newly acquired chalet high up in the Alpes Valaisannes. She called it ‘Atchala’, after the holy mountain in Tiruvannamalai, and there she spent six months a year, ‘from the last snow to the first’. But soon she started to travel again, especially to India and Nepal, not least because she had to sustain herself financially from travel-writing and filming, and as a tour leader. 


It must have been in this context that she came in contact with Jawaharlal Nehru. She needed his help in getting a visa to film in Nepal, so when he made a short stop-over in Geneva in January 1951, she approached him while he had lunch in a private room at the airport. He had heard about her travels and seemed interested to meet the famous traveller. The Indian Prime Minister was at that time at the height of his popularity, not only at home, but even abroad. He was widely seen not only as a great statesman, but also as a very handsome, intelligent and engaging man, a democrat through and through, but also an aristocrat in his courteous manners as well as his sense of mission. 


Women especially warmed up to Nehru, and Ella Maillart was no exception. She saw in him not only beauty, power and intelligence, but also a man in whom East and West met, and who could therefore perhaps marry the two. “One could characterize present-day Europe with Energy, a continent brimming over with with activities in thousand forms” she wrote in her account of a portrait on Nehru in the illustrated weekly magazine ‘L’Illustré’ at the end of 1951. “India on the other hand is known for her preoccupation with the contemplative, beyond all forms. If modern India could bring these two forces together, she would bring something completely new to our world”.


Two months later they met again, when she was on her way to Nepal. Nehru invited her for lunch, where she also met his daughter Indira and Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicereine of British India and an intimate friend of ‘Panditji’. She noticed his wit and charm, but also recognized a sadness in him, a fatigue and loneliness, apart from “both tenderness and tenacity, modesty and proud nobility”. He wanted to know about the motives of her travelling, and when she answered that in her travels she “was hoping to find human beings who were not constantly living in fear”, he took up this theme with relish: “’Yes, fear must be eliminated’, he said forcefully. ’The presence of one or two statesmen who are free from fear, who are at peace with themselves, would be enough to transform the spirit of our international conferences”.  


Maillart also took up the question of the spiritual journey. “We both agreed that the goal of existence was to live in the spirit. But Nehru was firm in saying that before worrying about the spiritual well-being of India’s people, one first needed to feed, educate, and improve the living conditions of his suffering people”, she wrote in ‘L’illustré’. She agreed with him, yet she also found that wealth did not bring ‘plenitude’. She had seen the Kirghiz, the Tibetans and the Mongols, dressed in animal skins and badly nourished – “but with a heart that explodes in a natural joy. In Switzerland, where the standard of living is far beyond what India will ever achieve, I have the impression that we are burdened by worries and very poor in real joy”. 


Nehru was an agnostic, so it was understandable that he would call Maillart’s book ’odd’ and her spiritual journey a “search for all manner of things which are difficult to reach”. He was more interested in Maillart the courageous traveller and famous globetrotter, and said of his own journeys around India that they compared poorly with hers. But by now he felt – one year after they had first met – free to share his own experiences on these journeys, and they make for interesting reading. For the first elections in independent India, Nehru had travelled, he wrote in a letter to her, “about 25’000 miles in about nine weeks. I am told that during this period I addressed personally (not through the radio) nearly forty million people…I had colossal audiences everywhere and many times a day. An audience of a hundred thousand was common, and once or twice it went up to half a million. However big the audience, it became for me almost like a family gathering, an immense one. I felt exhilarated at these mass contacts and the friendliness of our people…And now I am back in Delhi, feeling rather lonely in this city of official routine, diplomatic procedure and protocol”(7/2/1952). 


For a Prime Minister to admit, in a letter to a lady-friend, to feel ‘lonely’ showed a certain degree of intimacy, and if we can believe some of Maillart’s draft replies – her letters in the Nehru archives were not readily available – one can sense that both of them developed a certain fondness for each other. In a draft letter to Nehru – she probably never sent it – she scribbled: “An acquaintance came to me (and said): ‘Of course many women fall for Nehru and you are no exception’. But it is that universal sadness that moves me foremost”. And in another: “In order to be longer with you I re-read…the ‘Discovery of India’ and my sympathy goes out to you as strong(ly) as when I see you”. 


And she did see Nehru regularly over the next ten years. Whenever she came to India or passed through Delhi on her way to Nepal, she was invited to lunch or dinner at Teen Murti House. Often she travelled with a group of tourists. One of them was Annette Etienne, the wife of the Geneva economist Professor Gilbert Etienne. She remembers once – in the late fifties – flying in the same plane as Edwina Mountbatten. Nehru came to receive her and waited for her at the foot of the staircase. After greeting Edwina he suddenly spotted Ella Maillart, went over to her and greeted her warmly. 


By then, Maillart was familiar enough with Nehru for Swiss compatriots to approach her and ask her whether she would intervene on their behalf with the Prime Minister. One such person was Robert Hotz (husband of the Cecil Hotel owner), and another Swiss, Ulrich Dreier. Hotz was the Manager of the state-owned Ashoka Hotel, and Dreier was catering and accounts manager. There was trouble brewing with the in-house trade union of 900 employees, and both threatened to quit. In a note to Nehru Maillart, after thanking him “for the rare joy you gave me to spend an evening with you”, urged him to give Hotz and Dreier a personal hearing. In her note she does not specify what the trouble was, but she ends with an emphatic: “You alone can save that big first-class gigantic ship from further floundering”.


Naturally, Maillart and Nehru also kept conversing about politics, especially the Chinese occupation of Tibet, given the fascination both had with the Himalayas. Already in 1957 Nehru had told her, when she asked him about Chinese expansionism and India’s reaction to it: “How can I go to war against China for a few square kilometres of ice-covered territory”? But again and again over the years, Maillart also gently reminded her friend of the necessity to combine the mundane politics with a spiritual awareness. “I hope you will one day”, she wrote in an undated draft, “experience the immutable beauty in which lives the knower”. Whether in reply to this letter or another one, Nehru was quite firm in his this-worldliness: “I am afraid I am so far from ultimate freedom that even relative freedom seems an unrealisable dream”, he wrote on July 29, 1952. And so their correspondence – and presumably their personal encounters – remained a mix of the personal and the practical, both bound together by their love of the world, the mountains – both Swiss and Indian – and the spirit of adventure in its combination of courage and hardship. 


In a valedictory article which appeared in the weekly ‘Construire’ after Nehru’s death in 1964, Ella Maillart wrote about the many contradictions that made up this remarkable man – an aristocrat and a democrat, a committed socialist who wavered when it came to nationalisations, an anti-imperialist who temporised and agonised before sending troops into Portuguese-held Goa. Yet, she said, using an interesting metaphor, “Nehru was not a Hindu Hamlet”. And in another piece she wrote for the periodical ‘Evoluer’ at the same time, she said: “This agnostic aristocrat had a high moral sense and an idealism almost too generous”. 


As to herself, Maillart gave up her frequent travelling only in her Seventies. In her chalet in Chandolin, high above the Val d’Anniviers, she would receive visitors, among them this writer, who as a boy had walked up to the village from his hometown of Sierre, to meet her and find out what a famous world traveller was doing in that remote corner of his neighborhood. The chalet lies high above the step valley. Its narrowness must have given her comfort, while the wide-open sky around her would have provided her with the vastness that she had experienced while crossing the deserts of Central Asia or sailing in the Mediterranean. "Vastness must be in us," she wrote. “It can only be in us, otherwise it would be no more than a geographic dimension. Only those who understand vastness and let it mature can ever possess it”. The name of her chalet, ‘Atchala’ would always remind her of India, and her inner journey. Like for many others before and after her, in Switzerland and elsewhere, it was India which had provided her with this insight. "Before my trip to India, I travelled to delight in differences; from then on, to take pleasure in similarities”.


                                                                                                         Copyright Bernard Imhasly, 2008

bottom of page