Dr Syud Hossain – A true patriot

Part 1 The fiery orator and nationalist

Most people would not know who this person is; some people may have seen his name on a few websites talking ill of the Nehru family and others studying the independence movement would have seen fleeting mentions here and there. But simply, 99.99% of the people of India have no clue about this gentleman. And of course they and most of India would not know very much about the key role America played in the last rounds of the fight for Indian independence and the Indian lobby in America and their fight from distant shores has been long forgotten. The whole story will take many words and a lot of paper to retell, but the role of Syud Hossein in these events is, like many others, a revealing story of patriotism. In my research, I thus came to know more of this secular and fiery orator who wowed listeners in America during his lecture trips, of a lecturer and professor, who spoke to full classes, where there was not even standing room at times and of a man who was, distressingly, kept away from everything he loved, by the very people he fought for.

Hossain, as you will see, was the first to bring Gandhi’s message to America in 1921 and perhaps the person who brought it to them in the most appropriate and educative fashion. But the preceding three years were definitive years for the young man, who despite hailing from an influential wealthy Bengali family, chose the path of education, journalism and public service. His father Nawab Syud Mohammed was a famous Urdu writer and his grandfather the founder of the Muslim literary society in Calcutta.

Early years

Syud Hossain was born on June 23, 1888, in Calcutta. After finishing early education (intermediate) in Aligarh (did that alumni link get him in touch with Ozai-Durrani whom I wrote about earlier? Were they acquaintances in college? Perhaps!), and showing his mettle even at that young age as a writer and speaker, Syud moved to Calcutta as Sub-deputy Collector. Soon after, around the end of 1909, he went to Lincoln’s Inn, England to study law. Even then, his forte lay in extempore speeches made with such lucidity and organization that it was apparently difficult to believe they were not prepared. For seven years, he pottered around, never becoming a lawyer or completing his course, his mind meandering about other matters of interest. The Home rule league and the Khilafat were coming to the fore and the winds from the East were bringing snippets of the work of Annie Besant to London.

Education and work at Bombay Chronicle

After spending seven years there, he returned in 1916, to work for Pherozeshah Mehta’s Bombay Chronicle, as Associate (assistant) Editor. Here, he aided the making of a journalistic history in Bombay, which Horniman, the Editor in Chief was then creating. B.G. Horniman was a British national who found activism the Indian Independence Movement something dear to him. He promoted militant nationalism through the issues of the Bombay chronicle, and himself participated in activities such as the Satyagraha as a dhoti clad, bare footed firangi. So much so that the Bombay Chronicle was considered the mouthpiece for the anti-British nationalist group, during those days. In 1919, Horniman was finally deported from India back to London, but his feelings for India were so strong that he promptly took a ship back to Colombo and from there by boat and train to Bombay. Horniman was rearrested and as Horniman was fighting for his future, the person who came to his support and carried on the work at Bombay was Syud Hossain (Incidentally MA Jinnah was the paper’s chairman at that time, though not one in support of the non-cooperation movement). Such people instill strong feelings in people around them and Syud Hossain was one of those parties, glad to be working under Horniman (His story is so interesting that I will cover it another day – Until then remember him when you pass Horniman circle Gardens in Bombay). But with Horniman sidelined, the paper was in danger of closure.

The first brush Syud had with the British authorities was when he joined the Home rule movement (around the time Horniman was deported) and Annie Besant, thus making him a marked man in the British Secret service. He was a member of the Home Rule League Deputation to England in 1918 which was turned back from Gibraltar by the British Government. Their destination was England where they hoped to preach the message of Home Rule. The voyage ended in Gibraltar with arrest, cancellation of his passport, detention for a few days and being returned to India by the British authorities at their own expense.

Crossing swords with the Nehru’s

After a couple of brilliant years in the Bombay Chronicle, where all his articles were devoured by the public with great interest, a development took place when the duo of Horniman and Syud moved into the Nehru circle. Motilal Nehru, the Cambridge returned lawyer, had joined the ‘Leader’ as Chairman, at Allahabad, but moved out soon to create the ‘Independent’ in 1919, as the former paper’s approach was too mild for his taste. He started it with the help of Horniman of the Bombay Chronicle who brought with him Syud Hosain for the editorship of the new paper. In those days it was said that what Horniman did not know about Journalism was not worth knowing at all and what Syud Hossain wrote was nothing but the best.

Editor of Independent

‘A sensationalist and one who would risk everything for the sake of a strong adjective’ - that is how Nehru described Syud. He excelled in titling and writing article such as “Devils dance while Angels weep” decrying the British actions in India. His startling headlines made people take a second look and his editorial excellence and choice of stinging words irritated the officialdom in Delhi and London, to no end. But that was not what brought his short-lived life in the Independent to an end, it was a personal matter, one involving a young lady called Swarup who fell head over heels in love with him and likewise, Syud too was besotted by the beautiful lass.

Swarup Kumari a.k.a. Vijayalakshmi (Nan) Pandit

The Swarup affair, as it was then known, was not aired too much and was kept under wraps for a long time. But though it was to trouble Syud throughout his whole life, he did not allow it to distract him too much. Yes, it did make him a different man with not a care, a spendthrift and brooding dark personality at times, but life after all is life, and things did change for the couple after a few decades, as we will soon see.

Let us look for the time being, look at it from Swarup’s point of view. Nan says in her autobiography – A couple of years earlier, while still in my teens, I had become attached to a young man, Syed Hossain, whom my father had appointed editor of a newspaper he had just started. In an era that proclaimed Hindu-Muslim unity, and belonging to a family that had close Muslim friends, I must have thought it would be perfectly natural to marry outside my religion. But in matters such as marriage, the times were deeply traditional, and I was persuaded that this would be wrong.

The storm of the love affair hit the Anand Bhawan (the Nehru house) household, and spread through the Congress hierarchy. Gandhiji was involved, Pandit Nehru was not at all happy about it and Susannah, George Joseph’s wife played mediator. The couple had to be separated, so Swarup was sent off to Sabarmati to get over it and as the Khilafat movement had just started to simmer, Gandhiji quickly made Syud Hossain its spokesperson and packed him off to England.

It was like the classic Ekalavya finger story…

The young Syud Hossain, who worshipped the ground Gandhiji walked upon obeyed without a murmur, but with dread in his heart and boarded the steamer for England. As was well known, he was being exiled off the shores of India by his very Guru, and would remain exiled for a very very long time, for over two and a half decades. We will discuss this and related events in more detail later, but as many reports and sources point out, the two were perhaps even married, albeit briefly, before a separation was quickly arranged and the marriage annulled. Nan was given in marriage to Ranjit Pandit soon after and George Joseph took over the editorship after Syud’s departure.

Khilafat movement - Involvement

Syud had been involved with Khilafat since 1919 and later on went to write great papers about the movement and its meaning. The Khilafat movement (1919–1924) was defined as a pan-Islamic, political protest campaign launched by Muslims in British India to influence the British government and to protect the Ottoman Empire during the aftermath of World War I. The Ottoman Turks called for help and the Khilafat movement was the result. The movement collapsed by late 1922 when Turkey gained a more favorable diplomatic position; by 1924 Turkey abolished the roles of Sultan and Caliph (Khalifa). I had written about this on a few earlier occasions and will touch upon it again in later articles. It was during this time that Syed Hussain obtained support from the Islamists for Gandhiji’s noncooperation movement providing them with the appropriate (tark-I muwalat) religious interpretations.

As we saw, perhaps for entirely different reasons or with wise foresight, Gandhiji included him in the core team headed by Mohammed Ali, deputed to London in 1920. That Syud was involved with the movement in the past is clear, but he always separated religion from nationalist causes, working only on the nationalistic angle earlier and later. During this trip, Syud, the secretary, tried marshaling support from the Arabs including King Hussein of Jordan and were disappointed with the results.

Working at India - London

He continued to work for the British committee of the Indian national Congress and its mouthpiece paper in London, titled ‘India’ editing it jointly with Fenner Brockway (the entire process by which this was archived is a story unto itself, Syud supported by the Besantites and Horniman versus Brockway supported by the traditionalists in India). He continued to use his brilliant writing and speaking skills in Britain, fanning the flames of nationalism and Indian home rule, but the paper started by Dadabhai Naoroji was soon to cease publication due to other reasons (where even the remuneration for Hossain was denied from the nay sayers in India). During this period he also supported Sarojini Naidu’s efforts and forged a great friendship with her, while touring and lecturing in Europe, China, Japan and notably at Paris in 1920.

Move to USA

The world congress of religions was then holding a conference in New York and using the influence of Agha Khan and Chotani, Syud, as instructed by Gandhiji, managed to get across the Atlantic to the new world. Thus it was in 1921, that Syud Hossain arrived in USA to lecture in New York and remained to report the Washington disarmament conference as a press representative for India. After this event, he continued to network with the few Indians rooted to American soil and inform about the land of India and her peoples, the person called Gandhi, correct much disinformation spread by the British and also change the public opinion of the normal American, by travelling through the 48 states of that period. If one were to stop here, take a breath and think about that enormous task, that person would just balk. But Syud had to do just that and survive only with the remuneration from his lectures and good will.

Since that period, he was virtually the non-accredited Indian Ambassador to USA, until his friend Asaf Ali and later Vijayalakshmi Pandit herself took the job formally. How ironic!! Together with Haridas Muzumdar and Dr. Anup Singh, he was a member of the second generation of Indian exiles, establishing close interpersonal links with religious pacifists and civil rights activists in the United States, as well as many a top bureaucrat in Washington, forming what they title today as the India Lobby, working for Indian liberation. Around the mid 30’s he moved to the University of South California to work with the Indians who were mainly settled around the California region and to lecture in the university. He was very much involved in the lobbying for citizenship of Indian immigrants, finally obtaining quotas for Indians.

He briefly visited London and India 1937-9, even meeting Subash Bose but before and after that, he was involved with the New Orient magazine, the India League and later spearheaded Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s successful tour of San Francisco. He spoke at town halls, churches (on themes ranging from Buddha, Islam, Turkey and various other subjects and specifically on many occasions explaining the principles of Gandhi) ……he spoke without any religious leanings, fiercely supporting secularism, much to the disgust of people like Jinnah.

Campaigns with Vijayalakshmi

Back in India, Ranjit Pandit died and Nan Pandit decided to travel to USA in 1943 to work for Indian independence from the USA. Since she had no formal approval to travel, she flew to US in a military plane, in a bucket seat, to the USA. Her children were in the US studying at Wellesley by then and as fate decided, the paths of Syud and Nan Pandit crossed again. The next few years were busy for them, travelling around the USA and promoting India’s cause jointly, with people such as Pearl S Buck and JJ Singh, pushing the US bureaucracy to support India overtly and covertly, mostly the latter due to the Great War underway.

It appears that Syud Hossain finally (1945) took the decision to request permission to return home, perhaps after discussions with Nan Pandit. He cabled Nehru – Thinking Coming India to help toward Hindu Muslim Unity on basis clarification fundamental issues. Could run for central election as Muslim nationalist if necessary. Please cable your opinion regarding usefulness feasibility such course….

Nehru replied, after consulting Asaf Ali and Gandhi – No chance running for central election owing technical difficulty absence name from electoral registers. Your return India helpful especially in Bengal if stay long though results inevitably slow in present conditions and your long absence. Difficult say where your usefulness greater. Gandhiji thinks you can do more important work in America.

But Syud did come to Delhi in 1947, according to MO Mathai, sipping Cognac from a hip flask, staying at Hotel Imperial eventually getting the ambassador post in Cairo, representing the New India in the Middle East. Was it a long overdue recognition for his tireless services? Or was he being exiled again from his own country? Jinnah and the Muslim league forgot him for he was not an Islamist supporting their cause, the congress did not think Syud understood the new Independent India (in order to survive the rough and tough Delhi now ruled by Indians). And there was the rumor mill running wild again, linking him with Nan Pandit as Mathai explains, so it was decided that he had to stay out. Nan Pandit meanwhile was sent away to Moscow.

At Cairo – the final act

Staying at the famous Shepheard hotel in Cairo, he ran the first Indian embassy at Cairo, by now a distinguished diplomat, and well suited for the job with his knowledge of Arabic and other languages and the deep knowledge of the region and Indian ideals. He did well in representing India’s side of the difficult Islamist issues with respect to Kashmir and Hyderabad, in the Arab league.

Two years later he was no more, dead of a heart attack at the Papayoannou Greek hospital in Cairo. The Egyptian government gave him a state funeral and a marble tomb in Cairo. A road was named after him. As is said, his friends in Cairo swore he died of a broken heart.

In India nobody cared or remembered, nobody knows him today, no mention is ever made of the person who spent all his adult life in public service, fighting for his nation’s freedom.


He lived his sad life in style, be it with a cognac flask in his hip pocket (as Mathai puts it), or movie star like in good hotels as the laboring Sikhs of Sacramento complained, but his heart was in India, his words were about India, his plaintive cries were about India, his lectures to his students were about his country and its culture and his fiery retorts to any unfortunate nay-sayer was in total support of secularism and India. His actions, words and writings helped sway the powerful American thought towards Indian liberation from the British. Never a divisive leader or religious fanatic, always secular in heart, soul and words - That was the Syud Hossain we never knew.

With the coming of Indian independence, Nan Pandit entered a distinguished diplomatic career, leading the Indian delegation to the United Nations (1946–48, 1952–53) and serving as India’s ambassador to Moscow (1947–49) and to Washington and Mexico (1949–51).


Role of Press and Indian Freedom Struggle: All through the Gandhian Era - A. S. Iyengar
The scope of Happiness – Vijayalakshmi Pandit
Jinnah Reinterpreted – Saad R Khairi
My Days with Nehru – MO Mathai
Echoes from old Dacca - Syud Hossain
Communications and Power - Milton Israel
George Joseph: The Life and Times of a Kerala Christian Nationalist - George Gheverghese Joseph
Dr Syud Hossain – A glimpse of his life, Speeches & Writings – JN Chakrabartti
Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement - M. Naeem Qureshi
Sikhs Swamis, Students & Spies – Harold Gould
Roosevelt Gandhi Churchill – Venkatramani & Srivastava
Over a cup of tea – Onlooker – Hasan Mohiuddin Abbasi
Up Against Odds: Autobiography of an Indian Scientist By Piara Singh Gill

Tail note: One thing I never could find out was how Syud Hossain got the Doctor title. Was it honorary? As we know he did not complete his graduation in England and studied no further. At the same time he did become a lecturer and all through carried the Dr Hossain title. Perhaps it was honorary. If anybody could help clarify this, the final bit of mystery will be cleared in my mind.

Part 2 will cover his period in USA in greater detail, more personal details on Syud and the professional relationship he had with Guy Horniman.

Read Part 2 here 


An Afghan, two Indian poets and a German

And their connections to Minute Rice and Harvard

What earthly connection can all these people have and how can one mix rice with poetry? Therein lies an interesting tale concerning an enterprising individual, a fiery orator, a German scholar and the Urdu poetry of Ghalib and Mir. I stumbled into this by chance when I was doing an in-depth study on a great personality named Syud Hossain, whom I will write about later. This however has to do with an Afghan émigré named Ataullah Ozai Durrani, his obsession with rice and poetry. Being from a rice farming family myself, the story intrigued me and well, it now finds a place for itself in my collection, delaying the story of Hossain for later publication.

The Durrani’s (remember Salim Durrani the sixer hitting cricketer – also a man from Kabul?)or Abdali’s are Pashtuns from the Kandahar area of Afghanistan. I will not write much about the dynasty or their history, but well, as the story goes, in 1926, when Kandahar was part of the British empire, in the NWFP, a young 30 year old, copper hued, bushy haired Pashtun gentleman named Ataullah K Ozai-Durrani landed up in America, after studies at Aligarh Muslim University and Europe, to continue his chemistry research and make a better living.

Now all of these stories go on to become legends – So let me first recite the popular legend - In 1941 Ataullah K. Ozai-Durrani, an Afghan by birth (1897), cousin of the king of Afghanistan, 5’ 8” and not more than 165 pounds, walked into the offices of the General Foods Corporation, set up a portable cooking stove and asked a few minutes of time to demonstrate his new variety of rice that could be cooked in a jiffy. Well he did that and that was how minute rice became popular in USA and General foods (Kraft) started marketing it and manufacturing it in a large scale. The US military bought the product for packing in K rations and many hundred recipes were published as part of a marketing blitz resulting in an increase of per capita consumption of rice in USA. Durrani got a patent for his par boiling process which is known today as the Ozai-Durrani process and he went on to become rich. That was the story of a tenacious young man and his American dream, but as you can imagine, this neither started here, nor ended there. Some of you may now stray on to other topics; some others would want to know the full story, so this is for the latter.

General foods were intrigued when Durrani demonstrated the reduction in cooking time, though they found that the consistency and quality was still not even. But they had just perfected minute Tapioca, so it was a good idea to replicate it with rice and the company retrofitted their Hoboken NY plant as a rice laboratory, to perfect the par boiling process. It was in 1942, post the Pearl Harbor debacle that the US army ordered GF’s rice for the war efforts, perhaps in line with their involvements in the Eastern and far Eastern rice eating war fronts. They took over the General foods plants at Battle Creek Michigan and Hoboken, to speed up the development process. Can you imagine that scientists were even counting the microscopic holes on par boiled rice to determine their dryness? It was all speeded up since the process was used to prepare K rations and the whole output combined with meat was tested on the US Air force personnel, with success, so much so that it was also used for rice pudding and 5in1 and 10in1 rations. In 1946, the product hit supermarkets, and the USA got to hear about Minute rice. Magazines had full page advertisements and each ad had a quick recipe in it. Minute Rice did well after all this heavy advertising, but nevertheless was not a runaway success. Some housewives reported interesting results cooking the rice with orange juice and tomato juice!! It was called minute rice since it was first produced at the Minute Tapioca plant.

The advertisements were very catchy – Let’s look at some punch lines - You merely add pre-cooked Minute Rice to boiling water and remove from heat, Minute Rice comes out snowy, fluffy, tender every time! And Minute Rice is foolproof — you can't prepare it any way but perfect. A Treat to Eat. . . a Cinch to Make. Fancy preparing an epicurean feast so fast! With this wonderful rice, you can fix a showpiece. These days, to make rice that's snowy, fluffy and tender, here's all you do, just add precooked Minute Rice to boiling water! Prepares itself, just bring to a boil. No need to worry, ma'am, with Minute Rice on the agenda! You can have supper on the table in a flash. Why worry about dinner, when you can fix a slam-bang meal in minutes, with handy pre-cooked Minute Rice. With Minute Rice in your pantry, you can serve a scrumptious supper in no time, Served as a vegetable, Minute Rice is quicker than potatoes, precooked to save work and guesswork.

Well, be informed that Minute rice from the packet still takes a few minutes to cook, not just a minute, but that again was a large improvement compared to the usual 30-40 minutes needed for raw rice, not including the preparation time of cleaning, washing etc. Todays precooked microwavable dishes take only a minute, but this was another era.

Nevertheless, how did Durrani get to where he got to? Durrani struggled to find his moorings in America after majoring in Petro-chemistry in Europe and working in Iran (?). Unable to find a job in this field, he got into the importing business, though not enjoying it. One night at a dinner party in his Larchmont, N. Y., home, Durrani served his guests a combination of chicken with presumably Basmati rice. One of the guests, Dr. Herbert A. Baker, soon to become the president of the American Can Company, suggested that the taste was so good that rice should be introduced to the larger masses and perhaps canned. Durrani decided then that Rice and not oil would become his research subject and devoted the next 10-14 years on it, but for that he needed money. Like many others, he soon drifted to Hollywood (1934) where he became a consultant for exotic Eastern movies such as ‘King of the Khyber rifles’. His royal links got him many a star connection and his dinners became popular in the tinsel town. By 1939 he had made enough money and moved to Arkansas, America’s rice country. In Stuttgart, Ark., he got the Arkansas Rice Growers’ Cooperative Association and HK Smith interested in his method. The Association provided him a small laboratory and the support to devote all his time to perfecting the process. Which is what the ‘furriner’ did, toiling for days, till he perfected his par boiling process, deciding finally that rice should be pre-cooked, dried and sold in boxes rather than cans. And thus he was finally back in NY in 1941, to demonstrate his process to General foods. As the story goes, ‘With an electric stove, one dish, one copper pan and some rice carried in a “39-cent bag bought in a drugstore” Durrani went to New York and visited the offices of General Foods, finally meeting Clarence Francis Chairman, Thomas Rector & Ray M Schmitz. He set up his materials on the desk of the company’s head research executive and gave a convincing demonstration. The inventor was given a retainer, a royalty agreement was worked out and a patent was obtained in Durrani’s name. But while he gave them the idea and patented the process, the mass production methodology was perfected by the people at General foods and marketed by Thomas J Lipton Inc.

As you can imagine, this story does not end with the success of Rice introduction to the US army or the Minute rice marketing by General foods for the US public. Durrani continued to live at Stuttgart Arkansas working on Rice forms and later while at Denver Colorado married an American, but his wife and daughter were soon separated from him, and Durrani meanwhile made a lot of money from his rice patents. Throughout his life, Durrani had one other passion, which was the poetry of Mir Taqui Mir and Mirza Ghalib.

At the age of 66, in 1964, Durrani died at the Swedish hospital at Englewood CO, after a battle with lung cancer. As Time magazine reported ‘ Ozai-Durrani's will, probated six weeks after his death at 66 in Denver, leaves more than half of his $1,000,000 estate to Harvard "or some such nonprofit institution" to translate the poets' works into English and underwrite biographies. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Mir Taqui Mir are not exactly U.S. household words. But Minute Rice is, and it is the wish of its inventor, Afghan Immigrant Ataullah K Ozai-Durrani, that the two little-known 19th century Persian poets roll trippingly off American tongues. Ozai-Durrani's lawyers are being besieged by half a dozen non-profiteers anxious to investigate, but Harvard is ahead by a Yard’.
Durrani also left $300,000 to his estranged wife Louisa Ebbs Harrison and her daughter. His entire technical library and $30,000 were left to the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge to prepare an encyclopedia text on Rice culture. The Ozai Durrani Chair of Indo-Pakistan Studies was created with his endowment, in Harvard in 1964.

According to Durrani’s will, the half million dollar endowment was to be instated in the name of one Syud Hossain, a longtime friend of Ozai-Durrani. NK Singh writing for the Tribune, in 2005 states- When a rich Afghani, Ataullah Khan Ozai Durrani, left a considerable fortune of half a million dollars to be devoted to the translation of Ghalib and Mir, not many in America knew who these great men were. The New York Times reporter who contacted the librarian at the Indian Consulate in New York was told that he should contact Pakistanis, who might know about them. The Professor of Iranian studies too directed them to contact Pakistanis. So appalling was the ignorance about the works of great poets in Urdu literature abroad!

Michael J Arlen, studying the bequest and writing in the New Yorker in 1964, compares men who have made heaps of gold & on their deathbeds can think of nothing better to do with it than swing it along to the New Dormitory Fund for Renwick College, or donate another gymnasium to St. Olaf's… take note here of the late Mr. Ozai-Durrani's handsome bequest, and feel the richer for it: richer in anticipation, by the poems of the two Persian poets, even though (there's no telling) they may be terrible poets.

Now let us get to the poets. I am not too fond of poetry though I am of books and music. Somehow, the intermediate version has still to catch hold of me, and if it will or not, I cannot venture to fathom how good it is. But I have heard quite much about these fabulous Urdu poets who wrote in Persian and Urdu during the Mughal times. Here, I will provide you only a brief introduction of these two revered poets, picking up information from the public media.

Muhammad Taqi Meer (1723-1810) a.k.a Taqi MeerMir was born in Agra, and lived much of his life in Mughal Delhi. However, after Ahmad Shah Abdali's sack of Delhi each year starting 1748, he moved to the court of Asaf-ud-Daulah in Lucknow. Mir lived at a time when Urdu language and poetry was at a formative stage - and Mir's instinctive aesthetic sense helped him strike a balance between the indigenous expression and new enrichment coming in from Persian imagery and idiom, to constitute the new elite language known as Rekhta or Hindui. Basing his language on his native Hindustani, he leavened it with a sprinkling of Persian diction and phraseology, and created a poetic language at once simple, natural and elegant, which was to guide generations of future poets.

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) started composing poetry at the age of 11. His first language was Urdu, but Persian and Turkish were also spoken at home. He received an education in Persian and Arabic at a young age. Ghalib is still very popular today, and his poetry is well known. Many singers from all over South Asia have sung many of his ghazals. Although Ghalib himself was far prouder of his poetic achievements in Persian, he is today more famous for his Urdu Ghazals. Ghalib was a very liberal mystic who believed that "the search for God within liberated the seeker from the narrowly Orthodox Islam, encouraging the devotee to look beyond the letter of the law to its narrow essence.

Interestingly, before the bequest to Harvard, Durrani had tried getting Aligarh Muslim University to start up a Syud Hossain endowment to work on the English translations of Mir & Ghalib. However it was a failure. Ralph Russell explains in his article ‘Urdu & I’ that Durrani, a friend of Zakir Hussain (VC AMU) entrusted the project to Ali Ahmed Surur a few years before his death. However it appears that the result was not satisfactory and Durrani even threatened to sue Surur.

So these were the poets who enamored the millionaire Durrani, who left half his fortune for their exposition in the USA. What did Harvard do? They had to find somebody worthy enough to do justice to the bequest. And they did, they persuaded the German linguist and scholar, today fondly remembered as Annemarie Apa (Sister Annemarie) to work in Harvard. The legendary Annemarie Schimmel had spent years in Ankara working on Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry and had moved back to Germany when Harvard contacted her. According to the Harvard Gazette - In August of 1965, on her first visit to the US, attending the 11th Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Claremont, California, she was approached by Harvard's Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who told her that substantial funds had been given to Harvard by the inventor of Minute Rice, Mr. Ozai-Durrani, to have two major Urdu poets, Mir and Ghalib, translated into poetic English. Of course, the position would consist of more than just this translation project. Would she be interested in coming to Harvard? She declined, claiming that as a non-specialist in Urdu she was ill prepared to do the job. But Smith and others at Harvard pursued her doggedly and finally convinced her.

Annemarie says - It was the famous Minute-Rice Chair which a wealthy Indian Muslim, infatuated with the Urdu poetry of Mir (d.1810) and Ghalib (d.1869), had dreamt of in the hope that his favorite poets would be translated into English to enchant the West as much as Fitzgerald's renderings of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat had done more than a century ago. Annemarie goes on to explain that she finally moved to Harvard mainly because she had no hopes of furthering her career in Germany. In the spring of 1967 she started at Harvard as Lecturer on Indo-Muslim Culture, and in 1970 she was appointed full professor and helped author many a paper and book on the subjects that Durrani wanted covered. She travelled regularly to Pakistan and attained such legendary status in Pakistan that a major boulevard was named after her in Lahore. On January 26, 2003, Annemarie died leaving behind a treasure trove of publications on Islam and poetry.

And who is Syud Hossain? A person Indians must be thankful to, for he was the one who advanced India’s case for independence in America. I will get into further details and introduce him to you in my next essay, the story of a remarkable fellow, who endured a sad life, after losing in love, but still forged on, all his life, for the freedom of his nation – India.

And so, you now know the connection between Ozai Durrani, rice and Urdu poetry. But what still remains unclear is the extent of friendship between Ozai and the person Durrani wanted his endowment to be named after, Syud Hossain. That they met in USA is clear, but Syud lived in South California while Ozai lived in Arkansas. How did Syud become so dear to Ozai? Perhaps it was Syud who introduced the Rice Chemist to Urdu poetry of Mir and Ghalib and changed his material life; perhaps they knew each other at AMU. While we may never know the real reasons, we know that Syud was also fond of Ghalib and Mir and so the two men shared that passion for poetry, so much so that when Ozai tried to give the same endowment to Aligarh MU, he named it after Syud and then later after Syud’s death, when he offered it to Harvard, it was in the name of Syud, which is how it remains today.

Perhaps Durrani’s life was mirrored in Ghalib’s words where Ghalib describes his own marriage as a second imprisonment after one’s initial confinement which was life itself. The idea that life is one continuous painful struggle which can end only when life itself ends, is a recurring theme in Ghalib’s poetry, just as they say in Buddhist and yoga philosophy - Sarvam Dukham (all is suffering)………

His gravestone states – ‘Vision hath he who before the power of love he measures has seen the dance, within each stone of uncreated figures’


Advertising Agency and Advertising & Selling, Volume 42, Issues 7-12
The Reader's Digest, Volume 55 – Robert Mullen article
Better Than Homemade: Amazing Food That Changed the Way We Eat - Carolyn Wyman (Pages 15-17)
A life of learning - Annemarie Schimmel Charles Homer Haskins
Urdu & I – Ralph Russell
Harvard Gazette articles
Article 1
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Ranjit and Leili

The legend of Leili

Well, people wondering what I am upto this time may be led astray by the title thinking it has something to do some love story. Well, it sure is, but not involving two people, but a man and a horse. Some years back, I wrote about the Kohinoor diamond, a particularly popular article and in that I promised to tell the tale of Ranjit Singh’s horse Leili (a.k.a Laila, Laylee, Asp-i-Lailia and Leila), the one who adorned the Kohinoor diamond on many an important occasion. I am not sure if the British Queen or Kate knows, but well if legends are to be believed, Leili the horse for one, used to wear it before them.

The very mention of Ranjit Singh will get the Punjabi blood going. This revered leader and king is still popular with every Punjabi Sikh, and of course he was a great king in his life. This one eyed, pock marked king created the Sikh empire, becoming a 20 year old Maharaja in 1801making Lahore his capital in 1799. Ranjit Singh died in 1839, after a reign of nearly forty years, leaving seven sons by different queens, as many as 20 of them according to legends, 9 each of Sikh and Hindu and 2 Muslim. In 1845 after the First Anglo-Sikh War, Ranjit Singh's Empire was defeated and all major regional decisions were taken by the British East India Company. The story of Dulip Singh, his son, is quite sad and well, long and mysterious, but I was reminded about all this when I saw the article the other day on the newspaper where David Cameron had refused discussion on claims from India for the Kohinoor diamond (that it be returned to India).

But then this fanciful essay is not on the diamond or its owners (See my previous essay if interested) but about Ranjit Singh’s favorite horse that was apparently the cause for many a war and the expenditure of many million rupees. How much of it is true is not clear, but the lore about Leili had been created and spun so long ago, so much so that visitors to Lahore even in those days tried to get a look of the big horse.

Most of you may not know Lahore and I do not either, though I would like to see it someday (I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime). We read a little here a little there, of that glorious city of Punjab that is now part of Pakistan. We see bits of it in some PTV drama and I have heard my grandmother and grand aunt talk much about Karachi and Lahore, places they lived many years before Independence, since my grandfather and a few uncles served the British Raj’s military and railways in those parts, in their ‘good old days’. But well, without digressing, Lahore is referred to as the cultural heart of Pakistan, host to myriad arts, cuisine, festivals, film-making, music, gardening and a good crop of the top talent of the country. Known for its affiliation with poets and artists, it also has the largest number of educational institutions and some of the finest gardens of the region. Lahore or Lavapuri was where Lava the son of Rama once lived, if legends are to be believed. Maharaja Ranjit Singh moved into the Mughal palace in Lahore's citadel in 1799. By 1812 he had refurbished the city's defenses by adding a second set of outer walls that followed the outline of Akbar's original walls. We will focus on this old part or the old Walled City of Lahore known locally as the "Un-droone Shehr" though these city walls were destroyed after the British annexed the Punjab in 1849. The Lahore Fort, locally referred to as Shahi Qila is located in the northwestern corner of the Walled City. This fort and the city remained under the control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his sons, grandsons and wives, until the fall of the last Sikh empire or the Lahore Darbar in 1849. Ranjit Singh of course loved horses and possessed a great many of them.

Somewhere to the left of the fort is a side entrance opening out to a military barrack. Before the British built this barrack, this was the stable of the Darbar where Ranjit Singh kept a large number of his finest horses. As you may have read he also extended the grounds of the nearby mosque to house his many horses. So that is the walled city of Lahore, Ranjit Singh’s capital. What if somebody told you that the entire walled city had to be cleaned, scrubbed and washed for two days to herald the arrival of a horse in Oct 1827? Which was to ensure that not a whiff of dust entered its flaring nostrils?

As writer Majid Sheikh put it, for a beautiful horse, or a beautiful woman, this 5’3” leader of the Sikhs would go to any length, for once he got it into his head to acquire the “filly”, it became an obsession with him. A joke doing the rounds of Lahore then listed the price of the entire city of Lahore and the cost of the Maharajah’s horses as being equal. Iwaz khan his stable keeper was charged with maintaining them and having his favorites ready every day.

Ranjit Singh, Leili and his diamonds
But how did Ranjit Singh get to own Leila or Laila? That is the story of the black or greyish white horse (not the white horse seen in pictures and pianintgs), the favorite of the legendary king.

What we do know is that one of the heads of the Barakzai tribes that ruled Peshawar area, Yar Muhammed owned the majestic horse Leili. It is not clear if it was a Persian or Turkomen breed, though most accounts state that it was a Turkomen breed, of towering height and of a dull grey color. As Sheikh puts it, its speed was legendary in the whole of the Khyber Pass. Even though Ranjit Singh had won the battles for Peshawar and eventually installed Yar Muhammed as his tributary there, the news of this ‘great’ horse reached the Lahore Durbar only later, sometime in 1823. Immediately Ranjit Singh dispatched intelligence agents to find out where the horse was located. One account put it at Peshawar, while another stated that the Barakzai Pashtun’s had heard of the interest of the Maharajah from their agents in Lahore, and had shifted the horse to Kabul. Nevertheless, Azim Khan of Kabul decided to lend a hand to Yar to help him get out of Ranjit Singh’s clutches, and what followed was the Battle of Nowshera in 1823 which was won by Ranjit, after which again Yar was reinstated as governor of Peshawar but with a bigger tribute to Singh. It appears that Ranjit took away Yar’s son back with him to Lahore and that the boy mentioned the great horse. A British account states that the young lad of 12/13 brought along with him a number of horses, but not Leili and the horse was reported to have died during the trek from Peshawar to Lahore.

Now there are of course a number of legends that tie up Ranjit Singh’s desire for the horse Leili as the main reason behind the battles that followed, but I would presume for now that that is fanciful. Nevertheless, the horse was in the scheme of things and was considered to have been part of the tribute expected from Yar Muhammed. In the meantime Ranjit hears that Fateh Ali Shah of Persia had offered RS 75,000 for the horse.

Ranjit Singh’s’ woes were not over for Syed Ahmad was to try and retake Peshawar as part of a Jihadist attack in 1826/7. A battle was fought between the Ghazis and the Sikhs in Dec 1826 The Ghazis were repulsed and Peshawar was reoccupied.

Now we have to get to know another interesting mercenary – Gen Baptiste Ventura, the Jewish Italian who fought for Napoleon, but had to flee Europe due to some disputes, was already in Lahore since 1822 training and spearheading Ranjit Singh’s army together with Gen Allard. In fact both of them were already in place when the battle of Nowshera was fought. As the story goes, it was after this venture that Ventura himself obtained the horse for Ranjit Singh from Yar Muhammed. A number of personalities such as Kharak Singh- Ranjit’s son, Sardar Budh Singh Sandhawalia etc are involved in this battle where Yar Mohammed was killed or flees, Ranjit’s forces prevail and Syed Ahmed is driven away.

As Sir Griffin explains, Laili however had not been surrendered, and General Ventura, after having defeated Syad Ahmad, encamped before Peshawar and demanded the animal from Sultan Muhammad Khan, whom he promised to confirm in the governorship if he gave her up. But Sultan Muhammad tried as many subterfuges as his brother, and it was not till Ventura had arrested him in his own palace and threatened to hold him a prisoner till Laili was given up, that persistence obtained its deserved success, and the General, becoming the happy possessor of the coveted mare, took her to Lahore where she was received with much rejoicing by the Maharaja.

Now we get to hear third party assessments of the renowned Laili. Was it really a majestic steed, a horse or a mare? Doubts remain

The Sikh Encyclopedia puts it thus - Some writers, including Lepel Griffin, are of the view that this horse was not the real Laili. They hold that Laili means a mare and not a stallion. Further Laili implies black colour and qualities of femininity. But Ventura and Ranjit Singh were sure that it was the real Laili. Ranjit Singh`s court historian, Sohan Lal, holds that the horse was surrendered by Yar Muhammad Khan in October 1827, while others are of the view that it was Sultan Muhammad Khan who gave the horse to General Ventura

Sir Griffin continues - Whether the real horse was given up is still doubtful, for there are few created beings that an Afghan cannot or would not deceive. Certainly, at Rupar in 1831, when the Maharaja visited the Governor-General, a brown horse was shown as Laili. When Hiigel visited Lahore he especially begged to be allowed to see the famous horse, which the Maharaja told him had cost him sixty lakhs of rupees and twelve thousand men. He describes Laili as magnificently caparisoned, with gold bangles round his legs, a dark grey, with black points, thirteen years old and fully sixteen hands high. This was the horse Ventura assured Hiigel that he had obtained with so much difficulty at Peshawar; but, on the other hand, Sikh records always speak of Laili as having been a mare which the name would seem to confirm. So the sex of the true Laili must remain a historical puzzle. Certain it is, that no horse, since that which caused the fall of Troy, has ever been the source of so much trouble and the death of so many brave men.

Gabriele Fiesting adds– Leili was taken to Lahore to suffer like all horses in a Raja’s stable, too much good food and too little exercise. Some say that the Khan (or Ventura) cheated the Raja for the animal exhibited with bangles and jewels was a horse while Leili was a mare.

Let’s take a look at what Karl Alexander A. Hügel an eyewitness actually stated - The morning brought the Fakir Sahib, and the large elephant to be drawn by Vigne, and the famous horse Laili, that I had inquired for. The Malm Raja let me know that this horse had cost him 60 lakhs of rupees (£600,000), and 12,000 soldiers, having been the occasion of several wars. It was the property of Yar Mohammed Khan of Peshawar, and Ranjit Singh made the delivery of the animal to him one of the conditions of peace. The cunning Mohammedan, however, who considered this article humiliating to him, evaded it several times by sending another horse under the name of Laili, and it was owing to a plan devised by General Ventura, that it was eventually obtained. He took a company of soldiers as his guard on one occasion when he went to Peshawar to receive the horse……….. It is the finest horse belonging to the Maha Raja, and I could not help mounting a steed that had cost six millions of florinsThe bridle and saddle was splendid, and round his knees he has gold bangles: he is a dark grey, with black legs, thirteen years old, and full sixteen hands high. I have heard that at Riipar, Ranjit Singh showed a brown horse as Laili, but General Ventura assured me that this was the true Laili.

Back to the florid description by Majid Sheikh and Lahore – Laili reached Lahore at the western Akbari Gate of the Lahore Fort, and the road that comes from Badami Bagh and curves around the fort was all cleaned and scrubbed for two days in advance, and the order was that not a single speck of dust should enter the horse’s nostrils. And so Asp-i-Laila reached Lahore, and the maharajah feasted his eyes on the horse and commented: “It has been worth the trouble.” One account puts the color as jet black, as the name Asp-i-Laila suggests, another makes it dark grey. But no matter what the color was, the horse had the honor of not only wearing the Koh-i-Noor diamond around its neck on special occasions, but of also being the horse that was brought out on special occasions.

Kartar Singh Duggal talks about its exploits - Leili had its finest hour when at Ropar during his meeting with Lord William Bentinck, Ranjit Singh performed great feats of skill on the horse, spearing a small pot while riding at great speed.

Osborne meeting Leili - We before stated that Runjeet had a wonderful passion for horses, and cared not the cost to have his fancy satisfied. "I took (says Mr. O.) the opportunity of asking him about the celebrated horse Leili, to attain which he had embroiled himself in a tedious and expensive war with a neighboring province. He told me that the horse was the most perfect animal he had ever seen, but that he was now very old and almost worn out, but that he would send for him in order that I might see him. Runjeet's passion for horses amounts almost to insanity; at least such was the case a few years ago, though, at present, age has tamed that as well as other less harmless passions. Avaricious as he is, he did not appear to regret the enormous sum he had squandered to obtain possession of this animal (upwards of thirty thousand pounds), and still less does he regret the vast loss of life to his people, or of character to himself, which this barefaced and unjustifiable robbery entailed upon him. So determined was he to obtain Leili, that he kept the son of the chief in whose possession the animal was supposed to be, a boy of twelve years of age, a close prisoner in his court. In vain he was assured that the horse was dead; his answer was, ' You will remain a prisoner till he is found.' He kept his word; and not until the horse was delivered to him was the boy permitted to depart."

Mc Gregor in his History of Sikhs mentions - This horse was valued, we suppose, for its action, as it was by no means remarkable for beauty. Lieutenant Barr describes it as a speckled grey, overloaded with fat, and much neglected, but which, if well groomed, might have looked handsome. He saw in the same stable a Dhunee horse of far greater beauty, and for which the Maharajah had given £900. With all his fondness for horses it is surprising that he had not an Arab in his stud. His excuse for this, as Dr. M'Gregor tells us, was that he found them too expensive. He had Persian horses and Toorkees, for which he gave high prices, but his favorites were a white breed, such as we have mentioned above, found at Dhunee and other places in the Punjab. He was always a first-rate rider, and continued to go on horseback until the latest period of his life. His equipment were magnificent, the holster pipes being covered with gold tinsel, and studded with emeralds, topazes, and other precious stones, and the reins having rich gold and silver ornaments, connected over the leather.

Somewhere near Chillianwallah is Dingee. It was here that Willian Barr saw the horse Leila in 1839, which we talked about. With these scenes of horror around us, we did not find the environs of Dingie very prepossessing, and the town itself has nothing to boast of but its size, being chiefly constructed of mud hovels, promiscuously heaped together in a sort of elegant confusion. We, however, visited the royal stables, for the purpose of seeing the far-famed "Leila," the horse Runjeet Singh waged an expensive war to gain possession of, and which, when brought out for our inspection, rather disappointed us. It was a speckled grey, and might have looked handsome, had it been in proper condition; but it was overloaded with fat, filthily dirty, and its heels, for want of paring and exercise, so excessively high, that it limped along with much difficulty. One of a pair of "Dakhinies," for which the Maharajah gave 9000 rupees, far exceeded "Leila" in beauty; but it was much too grossly fed, and equally ill-attended to: the other was dead.

Sir William Lee warner makes a mention of the Horse in his biography of Dalhousie- An interesting piece of historical byplay at this meeting between his predecessor and Ranjit Singh was told to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 by one who was present at it, and is here repeated as it was narrated. The Maharaja on this occasion brought out some of his famous horses, and among them his celebrated favorite, Leila. After parading him for a time, the Maharaja insisted on making a present of him on the spot. Lord William demurred, but the Maharaja pressed on him the gift. The Governor-General, embarrassed by this, and knowing the great value that Ranjit set on the possession of the horse, asked Captain Benson what he should do. Captain Benson recommended him to accept the gift, and then give it formally back again. Accordingly this was done. Leila was accepted, and then another bridle having been sent for and put on the horse, Lord William begged the Maharaja to accept this proof of his friendship and esteem; and Leila was led back to his own stable, to Ranjit's infinite and undisguised delight.

One more pointer explains that Leili as shown by Ranjit was a horse and not a mare (so was there really Leili the mare?). This comes from Rollo Sprinmgfield’s book – The horse and the rider. He states Runjeet Singh's passion for horses has passed into a /proverb in the East: it amounted almost to insanity. He was never weary of talking to and caressing his favorite steeds; they were continually in his thoughts, and almost constantly in his sight, adorned in the most sumptuous style. Their bridles were overlaid with gold or enamel, a plume of heron's feathers was fixed to the headstall, strings of jewels were hung round the animals' necks, under which were fastened sulemans or onyx stones, highly prized on account of the superstitions connected with them. The saddles were likewise plated with enamel and gold, and set with precious stones, the pummels being particularly rich. The housings were of Kashmir shawls fringed with gold, and the crupper and martingales were ornamented in the same style as the other furniture. Even a carthorse sent him by the King of England, was dressed out in the same fashion. His Majesty wished to make a suitable return for the shawl tent, presented to him, through Lord Amherst, by the old Lion of the Punjab, and a very extraordinary selection was made, upon whose advice is not known. A team of cart-horses, four mares, and one stallion, were sent out from England, under the notion that Runjeet would be glad to rear a larger breed than the native Punjabees. But the fact was, he cared only for showy saddle horses, of high courage, well broken into the manege of Hindustan, that he could ride himself, on parade, or on the road, or set his favorites upon. Accordingly, when the cart-horses arrived at his court, the stallion was immediately put into the breaker's hands, and taught the usual artificial paces. This animal, with its enormous head and coarse legs, stood always in the palace yard, or before the tent of the chief, blazing with gold and precious stones, and was sometimes honored by being crossed by Runjeet Singh himself. The mares were never looked at, and were matters of utter indifference to the Singh.

Certainly the raja was pleased with the horse and mentioned to Osborne and Emily Eden who did the first sketch of the raja with the horse, that it was an intelligent animal. But unfortunately, by then Ranjit Singh could hardly ride for he was paralyzed waist down. He would still be hoisted onto the horse at times, riding for some time. The court poet, Qadir Yar, it seems composed a poem in praise of Leili. As accounts go Leili died before the maharaja. Legends state that the Maharaja was shattered and the horse was accorded a state burial with the firing of 21-gun salute.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh suffered his first serious illness in 1826 when he had a stroke of paralysis. He was under the treatment of Dr Murray for eight long months. Early in 1837 Ranjit Singh had a second stroke of paralysis. This time the whole of his right side was affected and its effects persisted for nearly six months. Ranjit Singh eventually passed away on the 27th of June 1839, due to illness or as some people believe (source: KS Duggal’s book), by poison administered by his attendants.


Lahore – Tales without End – Majid Sheikh
The horse and his rider- Rollo Springfield
Maharaja Ranjit Singh: The Last to Lay Arms - Kartar Singh Duggal
Selections from the Travels and Journals Preserved in the Bombay Secretariat edited by Sir George Forrest (Massons travels)
The life of the Marquis of Dalhousie, K. T. - Sir William Lee-Warner
History of the Sikhs W L McGregor
Journal of a march from Delhi to Peshâwur: and from thence to Câbul -William Barr
Travels in Kashmir and the Panjab- Karl Alexander A. Hügel
Ranjit Síngh and the Sikh Barrier between Our Growing Empire and Central Asia - Sir Lepel Henry Griffin
A Personal Narrative of a Visit to Ghuzni, Kabul, and Afghanistan, and of a ... By Godfrey Thomas Vigne
Strangers within the Gates By Gabrielle Festing
The Horse that led Lahore to war – Majid Sheikh

The Turkoman horse and the Pashtun - Springfield explains - The horses of the Toorkmans, or Turkmans, are much esteemed in Persia, and in the adjacent countries. Turkestan, the native region of these nomades, lies northeast of the Caspian, but their tribes are widely dispersed over Persia, Asia Minor, and Syria. Their horses are large, swift, and possess extraordinary powers of endurance, though their figures are somewhat ungainly. When a Turkman starts on an expedition, he takes with him some hard balls of barley meal, which are to serve both him and his horse for subsistence until his return. But sometimes in crossing the Desert, when he finds himself unusually faint and weary, he opens the jugular vein of his horse, and drinks a little of the animal's blood, by which he is himself refreshed, and thinks that the horse too is relieved. Some of these men and horses have been known to travel nine hundred miles in eleven, successive days.