Deprivation Binge

Syud Hossain and his times

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Scion of an illustrious family, Syud Hossain was born in Armanitola, Dhaka in 1888. His great great grandfather was Mir Ashraf Ali, whose great grandson, Nawab Syud Mohammad Azad (Syud Hossain’s father) wrote a book on him and his family. Mir Ashraf Ali was mentioned as “the premier nobleman of Eastern Bengal” by Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta (Kolkata) in his well-known book ‘Narrative of a Journey’ written after his visit to Dhaka in 1824. Syud Hossain’s mother was the daughter of Nawab Abdul Latif, another distinguished and enlightened social reformer of Bengal.

Syud Hossain passed his Entrance Examination in 1904 and F.A. in 1906 from the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College of Aligarh.  He then joined the Bengal Civil Service for a very short period. However, he didn’t continue the government job.  Syud Hossain went to England to pursue further education in 1909.

Initially, he got admitted to Cambridge to study political science, English, and history. There he got to know Jawaharlal Nehru who was two years senior as a student. Formal education, however, did not attract Syud, and in Cambridge he became interested in debates, writing essays and studying diverse subjects. He left Cambridge without completing his degree course and joined Lincoln’s Inn in London to become a barrister-at-law, whereas Nehru passed his Cambridge Tripos from Trinity, got a second class and went to London and joined the Inner Temple to do his bar-at-law.

Asaf Ali, the first Indian ambassador to the USA and, later on, the governor of Orissa, wrote about Syud Hossain, ‘we met for the first time in the Common Room of Lincoln’s Inn in 1909. It did not take us long to become fast friends for life. Even in those early days of his venture abroad he attracted much notice and was quickly recognised by the Indian residents of established position and reputation in England as the star orator of the younger generation. His forte lay in extempore speaking, but he never used notes. His speeches when taken down verbatim read as if they had been prepared with meticulous care’. In later life also, he maintained this practice, and during his long exile in USA and England he became known as an exceptionally brilliant orator and the greatest exponent abroad of the cause of India’s independence. The March of India, Delhi described him as ‘the unaccredited Indian ambassador to the USA for 25 years, fighting imperialist propaganda on the foreign front’ while the London Times commented on his ‘remarkable gifts of exposition’.

Syud Hossain was a much sought-after contributor to many well-known newspapers and periodicals. In an open letter to the visiting British prime minister Churchill, (printed in the Evening Star, Washington DC on September 22, 1944, and a few other newspapers) as the chairman of the US National Committee for India’s freedom, he wrote, “I suggest the time has come for you to shed your antiquated and nostalgic inhibitions, and face the dawn of a new day with realism and candour…you have cried to high heaven against the Axis, and summoned the whole world to liberate their captives. What about the 400 millions of a great and ancient people held in British bondage? Your specious and ignoble pleas debase the moral currency of the world.”

HG Wells commented on Syud Hossain’s book What price tolerance? as ‘magnificent’. The following words, written by Blanche Watson, published in an essay titled ‘Syud Hossain: Friend of Gandhi and spokesman for India’ in the Pearson’s Magazine New York (July 1922), aptly describes Syud Hossain: ‘Kipling has said that the East is East and the West is West, and never the twain shall meet but in Syud Hossain, friend and co-worker of Mahatma Gandhi of India, we have a man, now in our midst, who embodies a denial of this widely accepted dictum, and one who most effectively symbolises the intellectual concord and spiritual community of mankind.’

In London, Syud Hossain did not complete the professional requirements to become a barrister, but even that early in life, his achievements in oratory, journalism, politics and literature were stupendous. His fame spread far and wide. In 1916, the editor-in-chief of the Bombay Chronicle (a leading newspaper of India those days) BG Horriman invited him to join as his associate. Hossain accepted the offer. In Asaf Ali’s words, “many of the most pungent ‘leaders’ which appeared in the Chronicle and were priced by the readers of the day were from Syud’s pen….”

When in 1919, Pandit Motilal Nehru decided to have in Allahabad an English daily newspaper, the Independent, “to promote the political thought of which he was the most distinguished and vigorous exponent, Syud Hossain was selected as its first Editor.” Within a very short span of time, Hossain earned great name and fame, and became ‘a champion of Indian cause.’

However, here something happened which changed the course of his life. I would like to focus on this, as the incident has been occasionally misunderstood and misinterpreted, sometimes wilfully. The incident even figured in the discussions in the British Parliament, as reported in Hansard, the official record of proceedings of the House of Commons, on April 15, 1920. (Syud Hossain by Hashem Sufi, Director, Dhaka History research centre, pp. 15-16). This was his marriage with Vijaya Lakshmi. 

Madam Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, in her autobiography titled The Scope of Happiness — A Personal Memoirs, mentions: “A couple of years earlier, while still in my teens, I had become attached to a young man, Syud Hossain, whom my father had appointed editor of a newspaper he had just started, The Independent. In an era that proclaimed Hindu-Muslim unity and belonging to a family which had close Muslim friends, I must have thought it would be perfectly natural to marry outside my religion.” As a matter of fact, the marriage was short-lived, but the romance and attachment were lifelong.

On arrival in Allahabad to take charge of The Independent, Hossain initially was accommodated in Anand Bhaban, the Nehrus’ residence. Within days Syud Hossain left Anand Bhaban and moved out to a beautiful marble floored bungalow in Katra, opposite Muir Central College. Young Vijaya Luxmi (her nick name was Nan) fell in love with, as Stanley Wolpert describes in his book ‘Nehru’, “a Muslim, the handsome brilliant, English educated Syud Hossain, hired by Motilal to edit his nationalist Newspaper, The Independent. What did it matter to the young lovers that he had been born a Muslim, and she a Kashmiri Brahman? Weren’t Bhai (Nehru) and Gandhiji always saying that ‘Hindu-Muslim unity was the first prerequisite to India’s freedom? What better antidote to communal hatred and conflict than love? But to Motilal and Swarup Rani (Nan’s mother) Hossain’s being Muslim mattered as much as Jawahar’s wanting to marry a British barmaid. All of them, including Jawaharlal, tried talking sense into Nan. Nothing they said, however, brought any response, but silence and tears.”

Finally Vijaya and Syud decided to get married as secretly as possible. In an autumn forenoon in 1919 Vijaya came over to Syud’s bungalow, and the marriage took place there.

Nehru’s private secretary MO Mathai in his My days with Nehru writes, “After Syud Hossain eloped with Swarupa Nehru (later Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit) and returned, he was advised by his friends and foes to leave the country.”

But actually, they did not quite elope. That morning, the two lovers gathered at Syud’s bungalow at Katra. Maulana Rashid Fakhri, himself a Congress leader, administered the marriage. Vijaya conscientiously recited the Kalema and became a ‘faithful’. Syud uttered his proposal for marriage and Vijaya accepted this. The witnesses were Nawab Sir Mohammad Yusuf, and Syed Asghar Hussain. HM Abbasi (subsequently a renowned journalist and editor) was also present there.

“Pandit Motilal Nehru was then presiding…

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