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‘A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain’ review: A diplomat and a Gandhian

N.S. Vinodh’s A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain is several books rolled into one. It is the biography of Syud Hossain, an extraordinary but largely forgotten public figure. It is also an engaging work on the international dimensions of the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Running through the book is also the love story of Hossain and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, briefly married but forever together.

If Vinodh had not chanced upon the tomb of Syud Hossain in Cairo and followed it up with a book on him, most Indians would have continued to remain ignorant of India’s first envoy to Egypt and his significant contributions to India’s freedom struggle. Born into an aristocratic Muslim family of Bengal in early 1888, Hossain died suddenly in Cairo in 1949. He was given a state funeral by Egypt, a rare honour for an ambassador.

Belief in unity of India

Hossain made lifelong friendships, many prominent in their opposition to British rule in India. Two who remained close to him were Asaf Ali, India’s first envoy to the U.S., and the poet, Sarojini Naidu. Hossain was a member of the Congress Party, participated in the Khilafat Movement, differed with Jinnah’s divisive ways and remained, as Vinodh tells us, “a believer in the civilisational unity of India, an evangelist for religious amity and a devoted follower of Gandhi.”

He wrote for journals and newspapers of international repute such as New Statesman, Contemporary Review, Asiatic Quarterly and Foreign Affairs. He edited three newspapers with punch and verve, The Independent, founded by Motilal Nehru in Allahabad, India, the Congress voice in England, and New Orient in America, which through Hossain’s efforts attracted contributions from Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russell and Kahlil Gibran among several others.

Realising how much America mattered to the British in the aftermath of World War I, a perspicacious Gandhi moved Hossain to the U.S., where he remained for 24 years, spectacularly raising awareness among Americans of the inequities of British rule and the justness of India’s struggle for freedom. Through his writings and popular speaking engagements, Hossain decisively swung American public opinion in favour of India’s independence.

A fine part of Vinodh’s exceptional book is his account of the Indians, in Canada and the U.S., fighting for equal rights to citizenship and their contribution to India’s freedom struggle. In this regard, Vinodh’s coverage of the Ghadar Movement mounted by Indians in North America is concise yet comprehensive.

Forced break-up

The love affair between Hossain and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit is covered with great sensitivity. Despite the forced breakup of their short marriage by Gandhi in 1921, Hossain and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s love for each other lasted their lifetimes. Hossain never remarried. They spent time together during her year-long tour of North America and later they met at Sarojini Naidu’s house. On her way to taking up her ambassadorship to the USSR, she contrived a halt in Cairo and met Hossain, by then India’s envoy to Egypt. Later she even mourned at his tomb.

India’s struggle for freedom was not confined to the sub-continent but was also fought fiercely, and with considerable success, overseas in places where it mattered most, England and even more so in America. We can get it all in one insightful book, written by an engineer who is not a historian.

A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain; N.S. Vinodh, Simon & Schuster, ₹799.

The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru.


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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 3:23:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/a-forgotten-ambassador-in-cairo-the-life-and-times-of-syud-hossain-review-a-diplomat-and-a-gandhian/article37337161.ece

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