Lord Sebastian Coe, President of the International Association of Athletic Federations, was in the news in December when he rooted for India and its capability to host major international athletics events. He said he wanted to see IAAF events being held in India in the near future, including the prestigious Diamond League event.

Lord Coe – officially The Right Honourable The Lord Coe, CH, KBE – is more popularly remembered as Sebastian Coe, the legendary British athlete who won two Olympic Golds (for the 1500 metres), and two Silvers (for the 800 metres) at the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics, respectively. He later went on to a successful career in Conservative Party politics, and is considered in Britain to be the epitome of the posh Englishman. He was also in the news recently when a journalist unearthed the embarrassing fact that his ancestor was a plantation owner in Jamaica in the 17th century who had owned 300 black slaves.

So it would come as a surprise to many that the posh Lord Coe is the grandson of a Punjabi gentleman named Sardari Lal Malhotra.

Family tree

It is a romantic story. Sardari Lal was an Indian student from a middle class family who went to England to study law in the 1920s. While in England, he met an English girl, Vera Swann, a member of Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, and they fell in love and got married. But life for an inter-racial couple in London was not easy in those days, and Sardari Lal and Vera decided to move back to India.

Back in Delhi, Sardari Lal worked in the insurance industry. Later, with the outbreak of World War II, Delhi offered many interesting business opportunities, and Sardari Lal found himself one such: the Marina Hotel in Connaught Place, with its prime location, was one of Delhi’s top hotels. It had been run by an Italian hotelier who had recently been interned as an enemy alien, so Sardari Lal, a gregarious bon vivant, took the hotel on lease. But by then he and Vera found that if life had been difficult for an inter-racial couple in England, it was even more so in India. The marriage broke up and Vera returned to England with their two young daughters. Neither Sardari Lal nor Vera would ever remarry.

Business must have been good at the Marina Hotel, because before long Sardari Lal was able to buy himself a flashy Cadillac, in which he was spotted all over town. Meanwhile, in 1948, the Marina would enjoy a brief moment of notoriety, when Nathuram Godse, on his mission to assassinate Gandhiji, stayed in one of its rooms, with his accomplice Narayan Apte.

The Marina Hotel, in its present avatar.
The Marina Hotel, in its present avatar.

Lord Coe is the son of Sardari Lal’s older daughter, Angela, and it has often been pointed out that he has a strong resemblance to his grandfather. He also has another Indian connection: his mother’s sister, Sheila Malhotra, married Samar Sen, the eminent Indian diplomat and former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, so he has a family of Bengali first cousins as well.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when Lord Coe was controversially dropped from the British Olympic team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics – where he had a decent chance of winning a third Gold – there was talk of the possibility of his being inducted into the Indian team, and helping India in its long quest for an Olympic athletics Gold.

Lord Coe is a somewhat polarising figure in Britain today. One the one hand, he is disliked by some as being overly posh and arrogant. But on the other hand, he is attacked by right wing goons for his Indian heritage. On Stormfront.org, a White Nationalist mouthpiece, for example, there is a detailed discussion on Lord Coe’s ethnicity: it notes that he is 1/8 Punjabi, and and chillingly, discusses how “Indian appearance fades out quickly within a generation or two.… This goes to show how nationalists must use a great deal of discernment and look beyond appearance when judging who is white and who isn’t”.

But this, of course, is the new illiberal reality of our times – not just in Britain, but all over the world. To misquote a former British diplomat, “The lamps are going out all over the world; we shall perhaps not see them lit again in our life-time.”