Ainslie T. Embree, 1921-2017, President of the AIIS, 1971-73

by John S. Hawley

Ainslie Embree, the second president of the American Institute of Indian Studies, died on June 6, 2017 at the Collington residential community on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he and his wife Suzanne moved not long after his retirement from the Department of History at Columbia University in 1991.  He was 96. Many in the AIIS community will remember him with joy—and perhaps with a bit of amazement at all he accomplished in his life. There is scarcely anyone who will not recognize his name. 

I met Ainslie when I was in India for the first time in the summer of 1972, studying Hindi as part of the AIIS’s summer language program.  We were bivouacked at the improbably named Riviera Apartments on Mall Road near Delhi University. Ainslie was putting up somewhere else—doubtless on the upscale south side of town near the AIIS’s offices in Defence Colony—but early on the group of us had a chance to make his acquaintance. He spoke to us as the Institute’s President.

How well I remember his charm. Clearly this was a man accustomed to giving off-the-cuff speeches. He spoke of the seriousness of being in India—the great opportunity it brought for each of us—and he also said something about how wonderful our teachers were.  Ainslie cared greatly about teaching.  He and Sue had spent ten years under missionary auspices teaching at Indore Christian College. The teaching medium was English, but Hindi swirled around.  Much later, when he was back in Delhi serving as cultural counselor to two US ambassadors to India, Robert Goheen (1978-80) and Frank Wisner (1994-95), Ainslie made every effort to keep his Hindi going. He met with a tutor every morning he could. Still, the business of Ainslie’s world—Indian business—was conducted primarily in English, and Ainslie took it for granted that the Indians he knew spoke the language just as well as he did. For him English was by right and by fact an international language, not the special property of England or, God forbid, the United States.  By birth, after all, he was Canadian.

Ainslie went on in that little AIIS speech to worry that we language students might be tempted to spend too much of our time drinking milkshakes or perhaps something more potent at the Oberoi Hotel.  I rolled my eyes.  Desperate to erect a wall between myself and English-speaking Delhi, I certainly had no intention of going to the Oberoi.  It was hard enough to earn the right to speak Hindi on Mall Road!  But when I reported this incident to Philip Lutgendorf, he took Ainslie’s side. I quote him from an email: “I am impressed that Ainslie gave that bit of advice. It remained and remains relevant — I had some fellow students in ’79 who spent too much time at the Oberoi — and it was one of the reasons for moving the Language Program to Banaras a few years later. And the temptations—internet cafés, coffee shops, bars—are legion now! Ainslie was right. Though there are many “real Indias,” the one that 90+% of Indians live in can’t be accessed from such elite, Anglophile spaces.”

At this point Philip hit the spacing bar and began a new paragraph, adding a compliment that I am sure Ainslie would have felt to be the highest: “Though Ainslie’s living situation may have been posh, he had deshi soul.”

Ainslie became President of the AIIS at a delicate time. W. Norman Brown was stepping down after a decade of having been at the helm. It would be a hard act to follow, even though Ainslie had been Vice President since 1967 and chair of the Transition Committee that was charged to prepare the AIIS for a post-Brown future.  As he himself said in a letter written to Norman Brown that is quoted in Maureen Patterson’s history of the Institute, “No one will assume that I am ‘following’ Norman Brown; everyone will know perfectly well that at best I will be trying to maintain what you have done, and that I will depend very heavily upon your support.”

Furthermore, there were logistical problems. The Institute’s executive offices were still at Penn, where Norman Brown was, and Ainslie had moved from Columbia to Duke.  It was hard to do things by phone—and within a year of his appointment Ainslie was called back to Columbia to become an Associate Dean at the School for International Affairs (later SIPA).  This not to mention the fact that in late 1971 India became involved in the war in which Bangladesh separated itself from Pakistan—and the US famously “tilted” toward Pakistan. These were stormy years for the AIIS because of American-Indian relations, and complicated for Ainslie professionally. He did a remarkable job of keeping the ship afloat. By the end of his presidency the AIIS offices had shifted from Pune to Delhi, and the Delhi director, Pradeep Mehendiratta, was happily, clearly recognized as being in charge of Indian operations.

Many people recall Ainslie’s pivotal roles at Columbia—as chair of the History Department, director of the Southern Asia Institute (as it was then called), and architect, with Ted deBary, of an expanded the core curriculum that would fully embrace Asia. Once in a time of need he also chaired the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. Vasudha Narayanan recalls a conference we put together in 1992 wondering what would have happened five hundred years earlier if Columbus (note the shared name) had managed to reach India after all. What would he have found?  Ainslie was involved in planning this—Columbia’s Southern Asia Institute and the Asia Society were key sponsors along with the Portuguese Camoes Institute—and it was a chance to bring Vasu to campus. In an email she recalls what it was like to meet Ainslie: “I had been in such awe of his works (having used his books to learn and to teach) but when I met him, all that I wanted to do was sit at his feet and light incense!”

Others knew Ainslie as students, including Gauri Viswanathan, now the director of Columbia’s South Asia Institute. She was a graduate student in English and Comp Lit then, drawn primarily by Edward Said, but Ainslie was on her dissertation committee: “Ainslie was special, a much beloved person, my teacher and mentor.” She remembers how he always insisted on meeting in person as the chapters came in one by one, reading each page meticulously with her in an interactive session.  It is a form of dissertation guidance she has adopted in working with her own students.

And then there were those like Howard Spodek and Robert Goldman who encountered Ainslie as undergraduates and saw their lives take a turn.  Here is what Bob Goldman had to say: “I was very saddened to learn of Ainslie’s passing. It feels to me like a sort of yugānta, the end of an era with all the giants passing from the scene.  Ainslie was my first teacher of anything to do with India in the old Oriental Civilizations course back in 1961 and as teacher and guide in other courses as well as a friend and mentor throughout my career.  People often speak conventionally about how someone “changed their life,” but I can say with some confidence that, without my having somewhat randomly chosen to take a class with Ainslie, I would probably now be the M.D. my dear old mother always wanted.”

Barbara Gombach, who was Associate Director at the South Asia Institute, calls to mind a different side: “Working with fundraisers in the Earth Institute these past five years, I often recall the very contentious faculty discussion in the Institute about whether or not to go after federal money from the program based in the NSA or a similar agency. At one point during the discussion (a polite word for it, as I recall), Ainslie said matter-of-factly, “It’s all dirty money. The trick is to put it to good use.” Some considered his view a cynical rationalization. I thought it profound. For me his opinion clothed well-considered moral questions in the gray colors appropriate to their complexity.”

Barbara recalled Ainslie in another mode, too—the endlessly collegial Ainslie, with every so many friends, a vivid presence in gatherings large and small “effortlessly working the room.”  And then, as Barbara went on to say in that same email, “quietly disappearing before anyone noticed he was gone.” Alas, he has slipped away one last time.