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Transnational histories, familial connections

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Patricia Graham with her maternal grandparents, Gilbert and Enid Nedou, in Srinagar, circa 1936. Enid Nedou was one of the sisters of my great grandfather, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou.
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EDMOND, Okla. – Some time ago, an excerpt from my book, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) was published in CounterPunch, “Retrieving Lost Histories.” The excerpt was on my maternal grandmother Akbar Jehan’s father, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou aka Sheikh Ahmed Hussain, of Slovak and British descent, who was a charming hotelier and his family. A couple of weeks after the publication of that article, I received an email from Patricia Graham  in which she explained that she was the granddaughter of Enid Nedou, one of the sisters of my great grandfather, Michael Henry [Harry] Nedou. Patricia told me the fascinating story of her childhood in Srinagar, Kashmir, prior to the Partition of India, and her early education at my alma mater, Presentation Convent. She poignantly underlined that she had always known that there was a part of the family that was never spoken, and she wished we could have known one another. The research for my book, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman had led me to discover that he interracial and intercultural marriage of Michael Henry [Harry] and my great grandmother, Rani jee, who was a Gujjar Muslim woman, had remained an unpleasant reality for Michael Harry’s parents, Jessie and Michael Adam Nedou as well as their kinsfolk. They couldn’t reconcile themselves to this unorthodox union. Patricia thanked me with great affection and genuineness for having retrieved the “other family.” I include some lovely pictures which Patricia sent me from England, and which I will treasure for the rest of my life.

A quick recapitulation for the reader: My maternal grandmother 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.

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.

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About the Author

Nyla Ali Khan

Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir: Between India and...

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