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Retrieving Lost Histories

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My maternal grandmother Akbar Jehan’s father, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou aka Sheikh Ahmed Hussain, of Slovak and British descent, was a charming hotelier. His altruism and charitableness had given him a larger purpose in life. Her mother, Rani jee, was an indomitable Gujjar (pastoral tribe) woman. Rani jee’s clan traced its lineage to the martial, patrilineal, and rigidly traditional Rajputs of Rajasthan. Despite the anxiety generated by her decision, Akbar Jehan, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, blessed with the knowledge that the world was her oyster, made the intransigent decision to throw in her lot with a determined and politically savvy young man, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The Sheikh’s fiefdom was the political battlefield; his entourage comprised the poverty-stricken, disenfranchised, dispossessed, denigrated masses; his palace was his home in Soura, on the outskirts of Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Akbar Jehan’s life trajectory can be viewed in ways other than the determinant ones.

Akbar Jehan’s forebears, the Nedous’, had emigrated from Dubrovnik, a Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea, to Lahore in British ruled India in the 1800s. Croatia is currently an independent country, but from 1815 to 1918, it was part of the Austrian Empire, and from 1918 to 1991, it was part of Yugoslavia. Serendipitously, I found the naturalization certificate of Michael Adam Nedou, Akbar Jehan’s paternal grandfather, in the depleted family archive. C. U. Aitchinson, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab and its Dependencies, conferred upon hotelier, Michael Adam Nedou, on February 28, 1887, the rights and privileges of naturalization, in compliance with

an Act passed by the Governor General of India in Council on the Sixteenth July One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty two, reciting that it was expedient to provide for the Naturalization of Aliens resident in the territories under the Government of the East India Company, it is enacted among other things that “any person” whilst residing in any part of the Terretories [sic] under the Government of the East India Company may present a Memorial to Government, praying that the privilege of Naturalization may be conferred on him “and that” that Government may, if they shall think fit, issue a certificate in writing reciting such of the contents of the Memorial “(so presented)” as they may consider to be true and material, and granting to the Memorialist all the rights, privileges and capacities of naturalization under this act, except such rights, privileges, or capacities, if any, as may be specially excepted in such Certificate. (“Certificate of Naturalization”)

In the “Memorial” presented to C. U. Aitchinson, Michael Adam Nedou explained that he was born in Ragusa, Austria (Ragusa is the Italian and Latin name for Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast); he was of Slovak nationality, and had been in British India for the past twenty-five years. At the time of the presentation of the “Memorial” Michael Adam Nedou was fifty years old and settled in Lahore in pre-partition India. He sought to be granted the rights and privileges of a British subject of Queen Victoria, “of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India, within her Majesty’s said Indian Territories,” in compliance with Act XXX of 1852 (“Certificate of Naturalization”).

He had sailed to India from Ragusa in 1862, where, after a period of adversity and hard knocks in which his will and perseverance had been tested, he had accomplished much. He had, corroborated Cynthia Schmidt, Akbar Jehan’s cousin, crossed the roiling waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and borne the stormy turbulence of an immigrant’s precarious existence to land on the shores of Bombay, now Mumbai, India. The lithe, imaginative, and vivacious young woman who later became his wife, Jessie Maria, made his acquaintance while visiting her brother, George, who was a sea captain in the British Royal Navy. That acquaintance, rather magically, metamorphosed into love, and the wedding was solemnized soon after their first meeting. Their older son, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou, Akbar Jehan’s father, according to his birth and baptism certificate, was born in Pune, British India, in 1877. Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou was one of nine children. He was born to Jessie and Michael Adam Nedou after six daughters, an event that was celebrated with much gusto. The birth of the second son, William Arthur Nedou, in 1879, was soon followed by that of the third son and youngest child, Walter Douglas Nedou (E-mail to author, 20 January 2013). 

According to relatives, Akbar Jehan’s paternal grandfather, Michael Adam Nedou started out as a photographer and architect, but destiny had willed otherwise. The decisions that he took shaped that destiny as though with the finesse of a calligrapher’s brush. His first venture in hoteliering was the acquisition of the Sind Punjab Hotel in the port city of Karachi. He built the imposing and courtly Nedou’s Hotel in Lahore, characterized by charm and grace, in the 1870s. He and his heirs later built the Nedous’ Hotel in Gulmarg, Kashmir, in 1888. The hotel in Gulmarg sits on an elevation, overlooking the once luxuriantly lush meadow, with its cornucopia of fragrant, beauteous, and flourishing flowers. The riot of colors in Gulmarg in the summer has always had the power to revive my spirits! The cozy cottages around the main lounge, furnished with chintz drapes, chintz covered armchairs, soothing pastel counterpanes on the canopy beds, and hewn logs around the fire places would warm the cockles of any anglophile’s heart. Despite the rapid growth of monstrous concrete construction in Gulmarg, Nedou’s Hotel has always retained an old world charm, maintaining, against all odds, its historical association, environmental importance, and architectural significance.

Akbar Jehan’s sister-in-law, Salima Nedou, observes in her unpublished manuscript, “Michael Nedou was the pioneer of the hotel industry in India and he laid the first stone in the splendid structure of the country’s hotels. His name is woven forever in the tapestry of our tourism” (16). The then grandiose Nedou’s Hotel in Srinagar, which was opened in 1900, boasted a confectionary that, for a long time, had no parallel. The very thought of the delectable jams and jellies that we got from the Nedous’ bakery in my childhood makes me drool. Until the eighties, Nedou’s, Srinagar, epitomized a rare and appealing excellence, and a flawless execution, which, over the years, deteriorated. It is now, sadly, in a dilapidated state.

Salima Nedou provides an enchanting account of the “Protestant work ethic,” entrepreneurship, and sheer grit of Michael Adam Nedou, his spouse, and children:

Their summers were spent in Gulmarg and Srinagar, and for the winter, they moved to the splendor of Nedou’s, Lahore. As Gulmarg was in those days a remote part of the country, everything had to be carried up the mountains by pony and labor. I sometimes wonder how great safes from London, billiard tables and pianos go to Gulmarg. People either walked or rode up by pony. Some were carried in chairs called “dandies.” All came to escape the heat of the plains.

Granny [Jessie Maria] was a shrewd and tough Victorian woman. She was faced with the hard work of helping in the hotels and bringing up nine children.  . . . Christmas festivities were in those days a time of abundance and merry making. Those privileged to be able to come to Nedou’s had to book their tables well in advance. At Nedou’s, preparations were begun weeks before. The Gulmarg hotel was closed by the end of October, but logs were chopped and Christmas trees were brought down to Lahore and Srinagar. The great halls and lounges at Srinagar were heated by log fires and stoves. In the kitchens under Granny’s [Jessie Maria] supervision the Christmas puddings were stirred and hung in linen bags. The famous Nedous’ silver was polished, and Christmas cakes baked by Goan chefs and their assistants.

So the holidays passed. It was a time of goodwill, hospitality, and joy, and it all ended in the New Year’s celebration, which after the dancing, all at Nedou’s must have been exhausted.

This riveting account of the venturesome and risk-taking folk transported me so seamlessly to a different time that I thought of sharing it with the reader. Taking refuge in a “once upon a time” world does rid the soul of its afflictions.

In Akbar Jehan’s father’s lifetime, the Nedous’ hotels in Lahore, Gulmarg, and Srinagar retained their reputations as classy, plush, and magnificent havens in colonial India. The Nedous’ hotel in Gulmarg has been exquisitely and intimately described by M. M. Kaye in her whodunit novel, Death in Kashmir. Akbar Jehan’s father, the stoic looking, stocky, and thick-set, though not short, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou, took over the management of the restful hotel in Gulmarg from his father. Several people have testified to his proverbial philanthropy, beneficence, and kindness. Mother tells me that his advocacy of the nationalist movement in Kashmir, the stirrings of which began in the 1930s, encouraged Akbar Jehan to relinquish a life of affluence and repose to marry Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the Kashmiri rebel. Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou “spent his time helping the poor, built houses for them, and saved people wrongly convicted from jail and twice from the gallows” (Nedou 59). Although a charming hotelier, his altruism and charity had given him a larger purpose in life which earned him the admiration and appreciation of not just the “highest names in the land [Lahore], but also those whose sufferings he had soothed and who remembered his kindness and charity” (Ibid). He was not the only member of the Nedou family who chose to convert to Islam. One of his cousins, enthralled by the tenets of the religion, the inspirational vision of the Prophet of Islam, and the unifying force of its credo, embraced Islam as well. Given Akbar Jehan’s father’s philanthropy, to which several people have attested, his volitional conformity to Islamic tenets, and his sincere endeavor to raise his children as Muslim would give a biographer ample reason to believe that his conversion to Islam was not a mere expediency.

Akbar Jehan’s mother, Mir Jan, respectfully called Rani jee by relatives, friends, and acquaintances was an indomitable Gujjar woman, who has an imperturbable expression in all the pictures I have seen of her. Rani jee’s clan traced its lineage to the martial, patrilineal, and rigidly traditional Rajputs of Rajasthan. The impression that I get from her pictures is that she must have been a phlegmatic woman, secure in the knowledge that she was propertied and wealthy. She didn’t require anyone’s good offices to lead a comfortable life. Her sturdy, reticent, and stouthearted siblings, Niyaz Bi, Subi Bi, Sardar Bi, Lali Ma, and Ferozdeen, were just as formidable looking as Rani jee. All of them were the proud owners of sprawling acres of magnificent land in Gulmarg, a resort which found a prominent place on the international map in that late 1800s and early 1900s through the endeavors of Michael Adam and Jessie Maria.

The interracial and intercultural marriage of Michael Henry [Harry] and Rani jee remained an unpleasant reality for Jessie and Michael Adam Nedou as well as their kinsfolk. They couldn’t reconcile themselves to this unorthodox union. Given that reality, I wondered how the two Nedou’s hotels in Kashmir had been inherited by the sons of this couple, who had been shut out and spurned by the rest of the kinsfolk. On doing a little more research, I discovered that the Nedous’ hotel in Lahore was sold in 1947 after the remorseless murder of Akbar Jehan’s paternal uncle Walter Douglas Nedou’s only child, John, on the premises. I don’t know much about the circumstances surrounding that murder. After the partition of India, the only two members of the second generation of the Nedou family who spent the rest of their lives in the new nation-state of India were Akbar Jehan’s paternal uncles, William Arthur and Walter Douglas Nedou, both of whom died, heirless, in Kashmir. The rest of the surviving Nedous’ moved back to England. So, it was natural for the hotels to have been inherited by Akbar Jehan’s brothers, even though they hadn’t been uncritically owned by their paternal grandparents and hadn’t assimilated into the family.

Cynthia Schmidt, from whom I got invaluable information about the Nedous’, reluctantly told me that she and her siblings didn’t know Akbar Jehan and her brothers well until Cynthia and her mother visited Kashmir in the 1970s. She confided that the members of the Nedou family in England and Australia had been raised with a xenophobic aversion to anything interracial, which is why they were emotionally removed from their “mixed-race cousins” until they grew old enough to question such demeaning prejudices (E-mail to author, 20 January 2013).

From all accounts, Rani jee had clearly made a success of her interracial and intercultural marriage, a union which can be difficult to navigate even in today’s global and cosmopolitan age. She knew how to keep the wheels of her household running smoothly without ruffling feathers. Rani jee was a forthright, courageous, and perseverant woman, whose ability to hold her own had won the heart of a sturdy European, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou aka Sheikh Ahmed Hussain. According to family lore, while indulging in his favorite pursuit of hunting big game in the thick patch of entangled trees in the forest of Gulmarg, Michael Henry [Harry] was precariously perched on his stallion, Autumn, and was almost mauled by a black bear. The attack was predatory, and he could have been killed if it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of a feisty woman, Rani jee, who, while watching from a distance, sent her employees to fight the bear off with machetes and staves. She made sure that the bedraggled European was nursed back to health under her watchful eye. There are a couple of apocryphal stories about how the marriage was solemnized, but I don’t give credence to those.

The only daughter of Rani jee and Michael Henry [Harry] aka Sheikh Ahmed Hussain, Akbar Jehan, could not just recite the Quran with devotion and piety, but could also expound on the exegetical thoughts that the Hadith (Prophet’s Mohammad’s sayings and religious practices), Sharia (moral code and religious law of Islam), and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) generated.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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