The Resurrection Of a Forgotten Ambassador
By N.S. Vinodh
When I was asked by Valley of Words to write a short anecdotal piece on my book (A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo – The Life and Times of Syud Hossain), three incidents came to my mind. Perhaps most authors have experienced it – they may have uncovered hidden connections with people or events, influenced a few to take up a cause, or stimulated a reader to further explore a theme.
Soon after my book was published, I sent a copy of it to Mr. Roy Samras, a resident of Georgia in the United States. Roy and his sister, Mrs. Rohana Alkaitis, had been of immense help to me during my research. Roy’s stepfather, Mr. Haridas Muzumdar, had been a close associate of Dr. Syud Hossain (the protagonist of my book), and Roy had given me much information on Muzumdar all of which find a mention in the book. However, Roy had never heard of Syud Hossain earlier, but perusing my book an old memory prompted him to fetch his family album. Within it was a photo of his father, Mr. Kharaiti Samras (a Punjabi immigrant to the US, who was a doctoral student and an Indian activist) getting married to his mother, Ms Evelyn Kluge (an American lady from Florida), in accordance with the Bahai faith, with Syud Hossain being the groomsman. This was in 1944. As a wedding gift, Hossain had presented the couple with a signed copy of his book, “What Price Tolerance”, a book that had lain forgotten in the shelves of Roy’s library. On the first page of the book Evelyn had inscribed in pencil about Hossain, “He was Ambassador to Egypt from India” and “He was very sympathetic to the Bahai faith.” When Kharaiti died a few years later, Muzumdar married Evelyn, thus becoming a stepfather to Roy and Rohana. When Roy last wrote to me he was busy rummaging through his archives and library, hunting for other family connections with this part of India’s history. Little had he realized till now the significant roles that both his father and his stepfather had played as Indian activists in the United States. I’m sure that photo and that book will now be priceless pieces of family memorabilia.
When Syud Hossain left the United States for India in 1946, a grand farewell dinner was organised for him at the Ceylon India Inn in New York City. The guests were from the cream of Indian society in the US as well as distinguished American sympathizers for the Indian cause. Soon after my book’s publication, I gave a talk, accompanied by a few photos including this one, at the Bangalore International Centre. The next day, I got an email from Ms Sukanya Rahman telling me that she had seen the video of my talk. She had recognised her grandmother, Ragini Devi, as well as her parents Habib and Indrani Rahman, in that photo. Let me give a brief background here.
Ms Esther Sherman, a Michigan-born lady (1896-1982) with a passion for dance, married Mr. Ramalal Bajpai a US-based activist who later became an official in the Indian Consulate in America. After marriage, she renamed herself as Ragini Devi and became internationally famous as an Indian classical dancer, having revived the dance form of Kathakali. Their daughter, Indrani (1930-1999), followed her mother’s footsteps in dance and fame. Indrani later eloped with Mr. Habib Rahman, an architect who had designed a number of important buildings in Calcutta and Delhi in the 1950s and 60s. They had two children, Sukanya and Ram. Sukanya (born 1946) is based in the US, and is a classical dancer and a painter of repute. Ram (born 1955) is a photographer and curator based in Delhi. Ragini and Indrani, and later with Sukanya, epitomised Indian classical dance in the 1960s and gave performances to many visiting dignitaries as well as a performance to President Kennedy in the US. Sukanya, in her book “Dancing in the Family”, describes the obsession and love for Indian classical dance of three generations of women in her family, and inter alia mentions Syud Hossain as being a dear friend of her parents.
After an exchange of a few emails with Sukanya, I read her book and was astonished at the number of personalities in common that run through our respective books. Ragini’s presence at Syud Hossain’s dinner was unknown to me earlier, and Sukanya was unaware of the eminence of Mr. Anup Singh and Mr. Krishnalal Shridharani; both of who were fellow activists of Syud Hossain in the US, and frequent visitors to the Rahman household in Delhi. I certainly wish that I had connected with Sukanya earlier; her anecdotes would have lent a spicier touch to my narrative.
I was extremely fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Mr. Syud Iqbal Ahmed (Syud Hossain’s nephew) from the very inception of my research, without whose reminiscences the early part of Hossain’s life would have been inadequately portrayed. His niece (and thus Syud Hossain’s grand niece) is HRH Princess Sarvath El-Hassan of the Royal family of Jordan and the wife of Prince Hassan bin Talal (the paternal uncle of the present King Abdullah II). Princess Sarvath’s maternal grandmother was Syud Hossain’s sister. Princess Sarvath, through Mr. Iqbal Ahmed, had taken a keen interest in the progress of the book, and wrote me a lovely letter when I sent her a copy of it after publication.
The book begins with a description of Syud Hossain’s tomb in Cairo, a beautiful structure but in decrepitude. Princess Sarvath, concerned about this state of neglect of her ancestor’s tomb, took immediate steps through her office to restore the structure to the grandeur it deserved. A couple of months ago I was sent a video that showed a spruced up tomb, with officials discussing the modalities for renovating the mausoleum. I am truly happy that my book in some way rescued this outstanding man from obscurity and saved his grave from decay.