Earlier this year, I found myself in the lobby of a 90-year-old art déco mansion in Hyderabad named Pegasus. Goosebumps erupted down the length of my arms and I experienced an inexplicable sense of déjà vu. Pegasus once belonged to Major-General Syed Ahmed El-Edroos, commander-in-chief of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad’s army.

Edroos plays an important role in a historical novel I am writing. After devouring every memoir, biography, newspaper report and personal account related to Edroos, he has sprung to life in my mind. I can picture him nursing a drink on the verandah of Pegasus, dressed in a black dinner jacket, ready for a party in the ballroom.

But the image the world has of Edroos is the one below. His face became synonymous with Hyderabad’s surrender to India in 1948. In the aftermath, he faded into obscurity. Seventy-five years later, the story of General Edroos begs to be told. He makes rather a fascinating subject for a novel. My primary source of information is Hyderabad of the Seven Loaves, General Edroos’s biography.

Major-General El-Edroos offers his surrender of the Hyderabad State Forces to Major-General Joyanto Nath Chaudhuri at Secunderabad on September 17, 1948. Credit: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Edroos fulfills all the distinguishing characteristics of a tragic hero-the likes of Hamlet or Macbeth. From historic battles, command room drama, espionage, an illegal quest for weapons and court intrigue, Edroos saw it all.

Like many tragic heroes, Edroos was of noble birth. Hussein El Edroos, the general’s grandson, told me the Edroos clan can trace their lineage to Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). A seventh-century ancestor from his maternal side included a general who fought against the Byzantine Empire for the Arabs. In 1887, Edroos’ grandfather and father set sail for the western coast of India from Hadramout, a governate of Yemen. They proceeded to Hyderabad, home to a substantial Arab population from medieval times.

Hyderabad’s prosperity attracted many Arab migrants to its borders. Ruled by the Asaf Jahi dynasty, it was as large as Turkey, Italy, or Great Britain. Its income and expenses rivaled Belgium and exceeded those of 20 members of the United Nations, writes AG Noorani in The Destruction of Hyderabad.

Many men from the Edroos family, including Edroos’s father, Mahdar, became career soldiers. They formed an elite division of Hyderabad’s regular forces. Mahdar Edroos died in 1913. The 17-year-old Syed, as he was called then, cut short his education, and joined the Hyderabad army’s Arab battalion. He started his military career as an ensign.

During the First World War, Edroos saw active duty in Palestine as a member of the 1st Hyderabad Lancers. The Lancers, along with troops from Mysore and Jodhpur, formed a division of the 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade. The young Edroos entered Jerusalem along with the victorious Allied forces led by Lord Allenby. His duties included guarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron.

Edroos returned to Hyderabad in 1921. He climbed the ranks of Hyderabad’s army and enjoyed the privileges peacetime offered soldiers: polo, big game shooting and dancing, to name a few. During the 1920s, Edroos married and had three children: Ali, Khursheed, and Saleem. After his wife died in childbirth, he married for a second time. Although no one remembers the name of his second wife, relatives say the family referred to the lady as “Memsaab”. She might have been Anglo-Indian.

By the onset of the Second World War in 1939, Edroos was Hyderabad’s commander-in-chief. His first posting was in Egypt, where he served as a liaison officer. His next was in the jungles of Arakan, in Myanmar. The British Crown later awarded Edroos an OBE or Order of the British Empire.

Over his various tours of duty, he became acquainted with the movers and shakers of the era: Lord Wavell, Lord Mountbatten and Field Marshall Auchinleck, among them. Wavell and Mountbatten both served as viceroys to India. Claude Auchincleck was the commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army. Wavell named Edroos the one man capable of commanding all of India’s armed forces.

But after that, things began going downhill for the general. The war had ended. Hyderabad’s army had surrendered its weapons. Its soldiers did not have enough rifles to practice shooting with and idled away their time. Edroos spent much of 1946 and 1947 making trips to Delhi to beseech the authorities to release weapons to his troops.

Baldev Singh, who became India’s first defence minister, refused to grant any even though Hyderabad’s army had paid up in full. Sardar Patel was determined to assimilate all the princely states into India’s fold. He and the Congress were wary of the Nizam’s overreaching ambitions. But with its army rendered impotent, lawlessness exploded in Hyderabad. Communists exercised power in the border areas. Syed Kasim Razvi, head of the Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen, began building up the razakars, a rabid militia.

Syed Kasim Razvi of the Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edroos was no simpleton. He knew full well that Hyderabad could never withstand the might of the Indian army. Nonetheless, soon after Indian Independence, he flew to Europe to buy weapons for the Nizam. In London, Denis Conan Doyle, son of the author Arthur, introduced him to all manner of shady characters eager to make him outlandish promises. Word must have spread that the Nizam had set aside 35 million pounds for the operation. Both the MI5 and Indian Intelligence started tracking the General’s movements. If not for his high-placed friends, Edroos would have been packed off to Dartmoor prison.

After several failed expeditions, Edroos returned to Hyderabad in December 1947. By then, Kasim Razvi was a dangerous force and the new Hyderabad Prime Minister Mir Laiq Ali, was a known Ittihad sympathiser. Governance, both in the border areas and in the city, had become precarious. Repeated rounds of negotiation between Hyderabad and India regarding Hyderabad’s accession to India collapsed. The Indian government imposed a tight economic blockade on Hyderabad – one that it denied to the end. In turn, the Nizam denied his involvement in weapons smuggling.

While Kasim Razvi and the razakars unleashed a reign of terror through the state, Edroos persuaded Australian aviator Sidney Cotton to fly in weapons from Europe. The Last Plane Out of Berlin, a novel on the colourful Cotton’s many exploits, claims he smuggled machine guns, grenades, mortars, bazookas, and anti-aircraft guns aboard Lancaster aircraft. Cotton’s dramatic landings and the power play in the city consumed the general.

Razakar units being trained. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the Indian army made inroads into Hyderabad. Edroos’s biography alludes to his frequent clashes between the Prince of Berar, the Nizam’s oldest son and the Prime Minister, Laiq Ali. Fed up with their constant interference in military affairs, General Edroos tendered his resignation in August 1948. But the Nizam refused to accept it.

As war clouds gathered over Hyderabad, a team of officials from Hyderabad left for Paris, where the United Nations held its meetings. It proved yet another failed mission. In the early hours of September 13, 1948, the Indian army launched “Operation Polo” and entered Hyderabad from all points of the compass. To avoid an unnecessary loss of life, Edroos ordered his commanders to withdraw to the city. The Indian tricolour soon fluttered in towns and villages across the state.

With the Indian army nearing Hyderabad’s gates, Edroos waited in vain for the United Nations to pass a resolution to stop them. To him, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad were of greatest importance. He related little to the outlying areas. But the United Nations adjourned for the weekend and it was far too late.

On September 17, 1948, General Edroos surrendered to General Chaudhuri of the Indian army. Moments earlier, he told Robert Lubar of Life magazine: “It’s the game of life. We did our best.”

From all reports, the monsoon of September 1948 was relentless. We can’t be sure if that afternoon was overcast or sunny, but Edroos never took off his glare glasses. Perhaps it was to mask the devastation in his eyes. Chaudhuri’s military government guaranteed him personal freedom as long as he maintained peace in the city. It also ordered Edroos to disband his army.

A map depicting the movement of troops during "Operation Polo, from the archives of the Chicago Sun-Times. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But the worst was yet to come. In 1950, the civilian government arrested Edroos on charges of helping Mir Laiq Ali to escape to Pakistan. It had intercepted letters written to Edroos from the air marshall and defence secretary of Pakistan. The letters offered condolences to the general on his son Saleem’s death: the 21-year-old who had joined Pakistan’s Airforce was killed in a crash.

For two months, the jail superintendent subjected Edroos to harsh treatment. Subsequently, an independent enquiry cleared him of all involvement in the matter. But by then, a heartbroken Edroos had given up on Hyderabad.

After Operation Polo, the Nizam forsook his commander, a man who was once a favourite. The general’s marriage to “Memsaab” collapsed. He left Pegasus to her and moved to Bangalore. After having led a life of splendour, Edroos spent his last years in a room in the Bangalore Club. His surviving children lived in Pakistan and seldom visited India.

Edroos’s biographer Colonel LR Naik writes that poor health brought on by alcohol dependency marked the general’s final days. Hyderabad’s swift capitulation brought about many dramatic reversals of fortunes. But, perhaps none as poignant and tragic as General Edroos’s, its last Commander-in-Chief’s.

Princess Indira Devi Dhanrajgir is a dear friend of mine. She is now in her early nineties. Historically, the Dhanrajgirs were bankers to the Nizams of Hyderabad. On a visit to see her, I whipped up a photograph of the General and asked her if she’d ever met him in her youth. She replied in the negative and asked me why I carried his photograph around. Why we develop a connection to certain people is a difficult question to answer. Perhaps it’s out of awe for a lost world and a life we cannot imagine leading. And perhaps, the grim realisation that fate can snatch everything from a human being with one swift strike.

Zeenath Khan is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist in Hyderabad.

September 13 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Polo, also known as the Police Action.