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A Forgotten Ambassador In Cairo


The Life & Times of Syed Hossain Simon & Schuster India Hardcover

 N.S. Vinodh              Pages 378                    Rs 799

By Ganesh Saili

Returning from the Great Pyramid of Giza, one goes past a multitude of tombs in Cairo’s City of the Dead. There lies buried a lone Indian — an eminent scholar, writer, debonair statesman and a leader of the Indian freedom movement. What is he doing buried so far away from the solace of home? Who was he? And how did he happen to be buried there?

Nothing can be more joyous than reading a gifted writer of historical biography who brings to life a man who used his speeches and pen to spread the message of the Indian Independence movement to the West. A man who had once stood alongside the towering Titans of the Indian National Movement like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Calcutta born Syud Hossain began his career in journalism by editing Motilal Nehru’s newspaper, The Independent. After a brief dalliance with Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Hossain, under immense pressure from Motilal Nehru and Gandhi, annulled the marriage and was asked to leave the country for a few years. During this exile, he spread Gandhi’s message of non-violence to the West. Gathering a group of Indian freedom fighters around him, he fought for India’s struggle from afar, decrying British oppression and garnering support in the United States for the cause. Flitting from one place to another, living in hotels, out of a suitcase, Syud Hossain inspired and irked many in equal measure.

When the Butcher of Amritsar, Col. Reginal Dyer had done his evil deed on that fateful Baisakhi Day of 1919, Syud wrote a piece in The Independent dripping with sarcasm: “’I fired and fired well. No other consideration weighed with me’ – was the reply of the hero of Jallianwala Bagh massacre to a question by the Enquiry Committee. This 20th century Napoleon ‘did not take long to decide as he had already made up his mind., and ‘thinking no warning was necessary, opened fire immediately’ and he ‘continued to fire until ammunition ran short.’ This cold-blooded slaughter was visited upon the hapless citizens of Amritsar, because the gallant General ‘acted under the belief that he was the arm of the law.’ Such was the homicidal maniac to whose tender mercies some thousands of His Majesty’s loyal subjects, with their young children, were exposed – with what results we know.”

Adding to his formidable list of causes, Hossain fought for Indian immigrant rights in the United States, one that successfully culminated in an Act in 1946. He returned in time for our ‘Tryst with Destiny’ as well as the tragedy of Gandhi’s assassination. Later he was appointed as the first Indian ambassador to Egypt and that is where he died in harness.

A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo throws light on the historical details against a backdrop of the times of the Raj in India. Deftly, the author uses primary sources: Hossain’s private papers, the British Intelligence files, letters of his friends and contemporary newspapers to bring to alive a man who has, for far too long, been relegated to the shadows of history.

M. O. Mathai private secretary for twenty-three years to Jawaharlal Nehru, nonetheless had a warped moral compass and wrote a kiss-and-tell book entitled My Days With Nehru where he says Syud Hossain… ‘would come… with a flask of cognac tucked in his hip-pocket.. fancy drinking cognac in the morning’ and ‘death put an end to an unhappy and tortured life.’ But Mathai himself was no saint. He remains a one book wonder, whose jaundiced opinions, fortunately, died with him.

Syud Hossain had the courage of his convictions and was able to stay the course despite the pressure that was brought to bear upon him by one of the most powerful families of India in those days. Though unsung, his contribution to the freedom movement was immense as he tried to spread the idea of Indian independence overseas. And try as much as you will, the truth has its own way of coming out and you cannot keep a good man down. The book comes highly recommended and makes a great read.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.