A ringside view

Print edition : September 01, 2001

A conversation with Sayed Shah Abdul Hye, Mohammad Ali Jinnah's chauffeur.

THE generation of Indians who were young adults in the 1930s and 1940s is fast shrinking in numbers. With their passing, a reservoir of memories and experiences that connected two historical eras will also slowly dry. The lives of the major actors of the Independence era and the events they were swept up in, have been documented fairly well. What will be missed as the years roll on is the unanticipated insight offered by the unknown ringside spectator, whose first-hand experience of a person or occurrence suddenly lights up some dark corner of the larger picture.

Sayed Shah Abdul Hye.-

In a somewhat different category, undoubtedly, are the memories of 88-year-old Sayed Shah Abdul Hye, resident of the small coastal town of Udipi. Hye, one-time chauffeur and general factotum to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was 'discovered' in recent years by the local media, which published the interesting sidelights he provided on the life of Jinnah, that famous but somewhat illusive figure of history for whom Hye had worked for between 1936 and 1940. After a day's futile search in the small town of Karkala, Frontline tracked him down in Manipal, where he was recuperating in a hospital after a surgical operation for the implant of a steel rod in his leg. Hye smiled tiredly at a request for a here-and-now interview, but readily answered questions.

Hye's father wanted him to become a moulvi (priest), and it was to escape that fate that young Hye, at the age of 12, ran away to Bombay (now Mumbai) from his home town of Karkala. In Bombay, Hye said, he was admitted to the marine school at Nhava Sheva, "run by Sir Mohammad Yusuf Saudaga who was a prominent Muslim and a friend of Jinnah's". It was here that Hye's and Jinnah's paths first crossed. Jinnah was the chief guest at Hye's school-leaving function. The well-built Karkala boy received three medals from Jinnah - "for good conduct, for three-mile swimming in the sea, and for being the best marine monitor," Hye recalled. After school, Hye learnt driving and worked part-time in the private employ of an acquaintance of Jinnah's. When he heard that Jinnah himself needed a driver, Hye decided to appear for the interview. "Jinnah's sister Fatima's unpleasantness was the reason why no driver stayed with Jinnah for longer than three months," said Hye. "She rejected me at the interview, but I had taken my medals with me, and when Jinnah saw me, he of course remembered me. He decided to take me on and also agreed to the Rs.80 I asked for as salary, which was much higher than the going rate for drivers."

The turbulent political currents that India and the rest of the world were caught up in between 1936 and 1940, the years Hye worked for Jinnah, apparently caused not a ripple in the placid, unchanging routine at South Court, Jinnah's residence on Mount Pleasant Road in Bombay. By 1936, Jinnah had emerged as the most important leader of the Muslim League. Provincial elections in accordance with the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935, were held in February 1937, and both the Congress and the Muslim League participated in them. On September 3, 1939, with Britain declaring war on Germany, India was unilaterally drawn into the British War effort. The resolution of March 23, 1940 adopted by the Lahore session of the Muslim League put forth the demand for a separate Muslim state. Despite Jinnah's centrality to many of these events, South Court's doors were strangely closed to the excitement of the outside world. For Hye, the political events of the day were distant events on the horizon. He conscientiously attended to his duties, but also found himself having to steer through the undercurrents of discord in Jinnah's family, between Dina, Jinnah's rebellious daughter, and Fatima, his overbearing sister.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah. His one-time aide provides interesting insights into Jinnah's personality and thinking.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

But to return to Hye's account of the years he worked for Jinnah, and his insights into a person that history has portrayed as a rather dour, distant and westernised votary of the demand for a Muslim state. "He was a very nice person," said Hye. "The problem was his sister and everything was in her hands." Apart from driving Jinnah to the courts every day and back, Hye had a range of duties. Once a week, it was Hye's job to read out to him all the Urdu correspondence that Jinnah received. "Jinnah could not read Urdu, and spoke 'Butler Urdu'," said Hye with amusement. The letters that had to do with the Muslim League were put aside, "and I had to take them the next morning to Maulana Irfan, the editor of Khilafat, for publication in the paper." Hye also had to make arrangements for loudspeakers at meetings where Jinnah or Fatima spoke. "I used to be in charge of making newspaper cuttings for which I was given a special room. I also had to supervise the work of household servants like gardeners, and so on."

In Hye's possession are several letters written by Jinnah in 1939 and 1940, from Hotel Cecil Simla, and Elphinston Lodge, Matheran. The subject matter of the letters point as much to Jinnah's dependence on Hye as they do to the meticulous attention Jinnah paid to minor matters of household management. There are letters to Hye on a range of matters: instructions for the malis, a request to "keep the old cook", grant of permission to Hye to go on leave, instructions to pick up a parcel from the railway station, and so on. Jinnah had a passion for cars and possessed a fleet of five cars during Hye's time: a Chevrolet, a Packard, a La Salle, a Graham Paige and a Sunbeam.

Hye's prize story on Jinnah, one that he never fails to repeat for journalists, provides a rather interesting insight into Jinnah's personality and thinking. This happened around 1937, according to Hye. Several Muslim League leaders, especially those who had been elected in the provincial elections in 1937, used to fly the Muslim League flag on the bonnets of their cars. Believing that it would please Jinnah, some of Hye's friends bought a green League flag and persuaded him to fix it on the bonnet of Jinnah's car. When Jinnah saw the flag the next morning, he did not say a word, but turned heel, strode back to his study, and summoned Hye. Hye confronted a seething Jinnah. "He was wearing his monocle," Hye recalled, "and was furious. He banged his hand on the table and told me to remove the flag immediately. He said he would not fly the flag until and unless Pakistan was won." In 1937, the demand for an independent state called Pakistan had not been unequivocally made. Jinnah however appears to have been clear that Pakistan was well within reach, and that he would have it. In a moment of fury, he let the contours of his thinking for the future be known to his driver.

Visitors to Jinnah's house, according to Hye, included Nawab Liaqat Ali Khan, Nawab Yar Jung Bahadur and Nawab Ismail Khan, amongst others. Mahatma Gandhi also used to visit him at his Bombay residence.

"People have exaggerated facts about Jinnah," Hye said in response to a question on Jinnah's famed Western-oriented lifestyle. "I have never seen him drinking," he said, and after a moment's hesitation, added, "except maybe some wine during dinner". Although Jinnah was not that devout a Muslim to pray five times a day, he attended the Idgah on special occasions. "He never frequented clubs," Hye said, adding in afterthought, "except in Connaught Place where he would sometimes go to a club." Though not a practising Muslim, Jinnah disinherited his only daughter for having married outside the fold of religion. Hye was witness and accomplice to the clandestine love affair between Dina and Neville Wadia, and would throw the rest of the family off scent during their frequent assignations.

Hye left Jinnah's employ in 1940 in search of better prospects. He still has a large dossier of clippings and letters on his years with Jinnah, a trove of memories that he produces to satisfy the curiosity of journalists and visitors. But his present preoccupations have little to do with that phase in his life when he brushed shoulders with one of the subcontinent's famous sons. His last operation was not a success, and he gets frequent spells of giddiness because of acute spondylosis. "I hear there is a surgical procedure to cure spondylosis," said Hye, with a decidedly hopeful gleam in his eye.

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