Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Current issue
About TLM Contact Reprint Open space Advertise Back issues Bookshop
Subscribe Gift Feedback Submissions Site search Gallery
  The mystery mansion — 3  

  Vol IV : issue 4

  Cover page
  David Lelyveld
  Joginder Paul
  Antara Dev Sen
  Evald Flisar
  Amrita Pritam
Nirupama Rao
  Only in Print

Subscribe to The Little Magazine
Order the print edition of this issue
Browse our bookstore
Browse back issues

   Mail this page link
   Enter recipient's e-mail:


David Lelyveld

Motilal Nehru

A report of the dinner was printed in The Pioneer (December 4, 1872), then reprinted, along with an Urdu translation, in Syed Ahmad’s journal Tahzib al-Akhlaq.[15] Alexander Shakespeare, formerly Collector of Bijnore in 1857 and now Commissioner of Benares Division presided. The report claims that the dinner was the first public occasion in which Indians, though apparently no Hindus, "ate at table in common with their European friends." There is no mention of whether or not the Indians had to endure English food, but the dinner must have followed British decorum — table clothes, knives and forks, speeches and toasts, presumably non-alcoholic ones. In responding to Shakespeare’s toast, Syed Mahmud expressed his wish "to unite England and India socially even more than politically. The English rule in India, in order to be good, must promise to be eternal; and it can never do so until the English people are known to us more as friends and fellow subjects, than as rulers and foreign conquerors." Although he did not use the word, one might call this "cementing".

This theme of "friendship," even "love," — dosti aur muhabbat — between British ruler and Indian subject is a thread that connects the three generations of Sir Syed’s family and underlies much of their hopes and frustrations with respect to the colonial encounter. In Syed Ahmad’s account of the rebellion in Bijnore, he states that love arose like a flame in his heart to surround his British superiors and protect them from the mutineers.[16] In Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind, (‘Causes of the Indian Revolt’), he moves from personal devotion to individuals to a more abstract theory of the relationships between "government", using the English word, and subjects. He says that the lack of friendship, love and solidarity between ruler and ruled was one of the root causes of Indian discontent, and places the blame clearly on the British for failing to take the initiative in establishing such a loving relationship.[17] This aspiration carries forward throughout the later life of Sir Syed but reaches a tragic conclusion at the end of his life with the humiliation of his son Syed Mahmud, who was forced to resign from the Allahabad High Court in 1893 for failing to observe the procedures and schedules of the court, allegedly because of his heavy drinking.[18] The famous final page of Forster’s A Passage to India dramatises the virtual impossibility of real friendship within any system of colonial domination.

One may consider the extent to which this idea of colonial "friendship" presupposed a project of acculturation to British social forms in the spirit of Macaulay’s infamous ‘Minute on Education’, as for example in banquets and bungalows, and becomes a strategy for enfranchisement within the British Empire — or, perhaps, in Gandhi’s words, creating an India based on "English rule without the English". It was the adoption of English-style clothes, food, table manners and domestic architecture that Nazir Ahmad satirised, perhaps with specific reference to Sir Syed and his son, in his novel Ibn ul-Waqt, published in 1888, the year Syed Mahmud bought the house on Church Road.[19] The "irony" Pande speaks of is the distance between this aspiration for inclusion within the empire and the formulation of India’s nationalist movement. It takes some historical imagination to understand how ideas like "loyalty" to the Queen Empress could have been taken seriously, but I suggest that such emotions, ambivalent and contested as they were, form part of the genealogy of nationalism, the sense of membership in an abstract national community.

When Motilal Nehru purchased the house at 1 Church Road, he was making a set of symbolic choices that had been anticipated by Syed Mahmud, his elder by eleven years, who had established one model for how to adapt British colonial lifestyle to Indian family life. Although Motilal had not eaten his dinners and been called to the British bar, in 1896 he was among the first to take advantage of revised rules that qualified Indian legal practitioners to practice as High Court advocates. That was twenty-five years after Syed Mahmud had broken the barrier as the first Indian advocate in Allahabad.

There were, in fact, deeper and more long-standing ways in which the backgrounds of the two families prepared the ground for the cosmopolitan culture that one encounters in the museum displays of Swaraj and Anand Bhawan, or the much more modest Sir Syed House at Aligarh, also a museum now. The families of Syed Ahmad Khan and the Nehrus had a good deal in common. For one thing, both were descendants of Kashmiri families that had migrated to Delhi in the 18th century to take service in the fading days of the Mughal Empire, and both came to identify with the Indo-Persian culture of the Mughals. For both families, the failure of a Mughal restoration in 1857 led to their separation from Delhi and their search for a way of relating to the claims of British rulers to be legitimate successors to the Mughals. Schooled initially in Persian and Arabic, both Syed Mahmud and Motilal Nehru acquired a comfortable command of English along with their own particular, rather expensive versions of a colonial English lifestyle, although it was only in the next generation that this style extended to the women of their families.[20]

Syed Mahmud’s son, Syed Ross Masud, probably most widely known now as E.M. Forster’s friend and partial model for the character of Dr Aziz in A Passage to India, was in fact a significant educational leader, first in Hyderabad State, where he played a central role in the founding of Osmania University, India’s first European-style university to be conducted in an Indian language, and later as Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. He was born in 1889, the same year as Jawaharlal Nehru, and went to England at about the same time, the former eventually at Oxford, the latter at Cambridge. Both became barristers, but neither took up a legal career. What I am leaving out, of course, is that one family was Muslim and the other Hindu. I am also leaving out the fact that Motilal Nehru attended the Indian National Congress meetings in Allahabad in 1888, while Syed Ahmad Khan was mounting his campaign against the Congress, though it took Jallianwalla Bagh, much later in 1919, to turn Motilal into a serious, active Indian nationalist. Ross Masud, who died in 1937, did not have to face the issues of Partition and Independence.

Those are complex but also more familiar matters. But for now I want to return to the words engraved at the entrance to Swaraj Bhawan. What this inscription does is to set up Syed Ahmad Khan against the Nehrus as the embodiment of anti-national feeling, the Muslim ‘other’ that helps define the boundaries of the Indian nation. What I am suggesting is that the two families were not in fact so different after all, that they came from remarkably similar backgrounds and responded to the colonial encounter in remarkably similar ways. When Jawaharlal Nehru was invited to address the Aligarh Student Union in 1933, Ross Masud preempted this nationalist gesture on the part of the students by meeting Nehru at the railway station and taking on himself the role of introducing him as an old friend.[21] It is probably true that much more united than divided them. They were, in many respects, cut from the same cloth. I can only hope that the authorities in charge of Swaraj Bhawan will take that into consideration when they come up with a new inscription.



1. Nehru: The Making of India, by M.J. Akbar, London: Viking, 1988.

2. Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India, by David Lelyveld; reprinted New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

3. Swaraj Bhawan Congress Centenary Celebration Committee, ed. B.N. Pande; New Delhi: Congress Centenary Celebration Committee, 1985; Allahabad Retrospect and Prospect: A Historical, Cultural, Social, Educational, Industrial, Commercial and Civic Survey of the Town; Municipal Press, Allahabad, 1955.

4. The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal, by B. R. Nanda; New York: John Day, 1963.

5. Motilal Nehru: A Birth Centenary Souvenir, ed. L. R. Nair; Delhi: Motilal Centenary Committee, 1961.

6. The Early Life of the First Student of the M.A.O College; by A.M. Khwaja, Allahabad: Allahabad Law Journal Press, 1916.

7. Leaves from the Life of Al-Haj Afzal-ul-Ulema Nawab Sarbuland Jung Bahadur M. Hameed-Ullah Khan, M.A. (Cantab.), by Al-Haj Mahomed Ullah ibn S. Jung; Allahabad: Pioneer Press, 1926.

8. Anand Bhawan Papers, Part II: Subject Files: S. No. 6; Marked as Anand Bhawan Case, 22.7.1912; Papers relating to the assessment of revenue on the area occupied by Anand Bhawan. Papers relating to the previous occupants of Anand Bhawan and its subsequent transfer to Motilal Nehru, Parts 1 and 2, 122 pp.

9. National Archives of India, Home, Public, August 1858 - 202/4.

10. ‘Trial of Mahmud Khan. In re missing documents’, Dept IVA - 2/73 [Box 42, S. No. 45; Inventory List No. 15 (Rohilkhand), U.P. Regional Archives, Allahabad; see also E. I. Brodkin, ‘The Struggle for Succession: Rebels and Loyalists in the Indian Mutiny of 1857’, Modern Asian Studies, VI: 3, 1972.

11. R. Temple, ‘Memorandum’, in Syud Ahmed Khan, An Essay on the Causes of the Indian Revolt, tr. W.N. Lees; Calcutta: Home Secretariat, 1860.

12. NWP/General Proceedings A, 20 July, 1867, Uttar Pradesh State Archives, Lucknow.

13. Revenue Department Files, Agra Division, Box 3, Serial No. 46, UP Regional Archives, Allahabad.

14. Department IV, File No. 101 of 1862, UP Regional Archives, Allahabad.

15. Vol. 3, No. 18, 15 Shawal, 1286 H.

16. Sarkashi-i Zila Bijnaur, ed. Sharafat Husain Mirza. New ed. Bijnaur: Apna Kitab Ghar, 1992.

17. Ed. Fauq Karimi, Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind; Aligarh: University Publishers, Muslim University, 1958.

18. Government of India, Home, Judicial (A), February 1893, Nos. 1-29.

19. See Sayyid Sibte Hassan’s Introduction to Nazir Ahmad, Ibn-ul Waqt; Lahore: Majlis-I Taraqqi-Urdu, 1972; the book has recently been published in English as Son of the Moment, tr. Mohammad Zakir; New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2002.

20. ‘Three Women in My Family’, by Scherzade Alim, Al-Nisa [Journal of the New Hall for Girls, Aligarh Muslim University], 1999-2000.

21. See Selected Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru, vol. 6; New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1974; story heard by Professor Irfan Habib from his father, Professor Muhammad Habib.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

David Lelyveld, author of ‘Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India’, is Professor of History and Associate Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, William Paterson University, New Jersey