It was rainy season in September in the year 1963 in a hospital in the city of Hyderabad where a newborn baby was the cynosure of all eyes. The parents were full of ecstasy for their first child was born … That was me!
My father, Late Awaz Sayeed, worked for a public sector undertaking, the Food Corporation of India, as an administrative assistant till he retired in 1982 as a gazetted officer. His life was a transition from great opulence to wanton struggle. Son of a Yemeni-born father who served as the State Financer of the Sultan of a small principality called Mukkalah in Yemen, my father was the youngest of five brothers and four sisters. A reckless wastage of wealth by some of his elder brothers forced him to join government service at an early age.
He had a passion for literature and took up short-story writing in Urdu at a young age, earning great fame in life. Being scholarly and intellectual he used to involve his two children — me and my younger sister, in his literary activities. Any new story written is first narrated to us before it is finalized for publishing or narration on All India Radio. His commitment to story-writing was so great that other aspects of life like monitoring the children and disciplining them when needed were of lesser importance to him. That is where our mother filled the gap and took exceptional pains for our education and upbringing. Being the daughter of a District Judge, she realized the importance of properly educating her children and convinced my father to admit us to a good missionary school, the St. George’s Grammar School in Hyderabad.
I had studied up to the fifth standard in an obscure school, the Jawahar Upper Primary School in the Vijayanagar Colony in Hyderabad, which hardly contributed to grooming my personality in those formative years. The influence of peers in our locality Mallepally also had a negative impact on my academics. The transition from a purely ordinary school to a missionary school was not a smooth one for me and soon I became one of the most prominent back-benchers of my class. My favorite avocation was to bunk classes and go to theatres on the Abid Road and watch movies while still in 6th or 7th class with a blithe lack of concern for academics. I had to ingenuously tamper with my scorecards every semester to save myself from the wrath of my parents for scoring outrageously low marks. I remember the incident when after scoring 2 out of 200 marks in mathematics; I took the courage to ask my math teacher why he had given no marks for practical geometry in which I claimed I had constructed circles and triangles. He had looked at my shabby work and remarked “Is this construction or destruction?”
When I reached the tenth grade, much to the anguish of my parents, I decided to leave the school and appear for the SSC examination as a private student, as I perceived it to be a much simpler education pattern than the ICSE. I got through with reasonably good marks … but missed the first division, which I felt was due to the wrong totalling of my Special English paper… and secured admission in a neighbourhood college, the Anwar-Ul-Uloom Degree College, in Intermediate (10+2) with Biology, Physics and Chemistry as my optional subjects.
When I completed my Intermediate with first division in 1982, my parents wanted me to take the MBBS entrance test, which was, and still is, the most popular trend among all science students in India. I declined to oblige them, for I was not interested in becoming a doctor. I was not sure what I wanted to do…. probably a typical feature of the youth. My parents were heartbroken and gave up on me and owed to make my sister a doctor instead. My sister, Seema Nishat, who was a brilliant student right through, always used to add feathers of academic accomplishment to her cap, and getting admission into MBBS was only a matter of routine for her. I vividly remember the announcements made on the annual day celebrations of St. George’s Grammar School (Girls’ Section) during the price distribution ceremonies year after year “First in class, first in maths, first in science, first in English…. Miss Seema Nishat” … and amidst thunderous applause my sister would go and receive all those trophies, barely holding them together. I thought that she was a nut! She is at the moment a successful practicing doctor living in Tampa in the United States with her husband Dr Wajahat Ali and three children, Maaz, Baseema, and Ammar.
Coming back…. after refusing to appear for the MBBS entrance exam, I developed a passion for writing articles on topics of science published in many students’ magazines like the Junior Science Digest and Science Master. Being not so interested in sports, I used to use my spare time to acquire technical skills like typing, shorthand, telex, etc. I obtained a Higher Technical Degree in Typing and a Lower Technical Degree in shorthand! My short-hand instructor’s dream was to make a first-grade steno so I could become a Personal Assistant to an IAS officer!!
Then I graduated from the PG College of Science, Saifabad taking a rather rare and less popular subject, Geology, about which I had no background. My parents were now almost certain that I was a nincompoop. However, my life turned from this point and I took an exceptional interest in studies so much so that I passed my graduation as a top ranker in my college and scored the first rank in the entire university in the entrance test for securing admission into the Masters. My penchant for studies helped me emerge as the brightest student of Osmania University in geology which won me the Y.G.K. Murthy Gold Medal in the Masters. Thereafter, I received a scholarship from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a premier organization for science and research in India, again after securing exceptionally good marks in their qualifying test. This enabled me to register myself as a research fellow at Osmania University in Hyderabad.
At this point in time, one of my professors called me and advised that I should look beyond my normal career options and take a go at the Civil Services examination, which is one of the toughest competitive examinations in India for entry into different prestigious services in the government. I took his suggestion to heart and started serious preparations, working almost 12-15 hours a day for nearly a year. It was a phase when the thought of getting into Civil Services used to linger in my mind day in and day out. I was obsessed by this ambition. Even when I was with my friends or relatives I used to think and plan about the exam while feigning I was happily conversing with them on subjects of their interest. My efforts paid off when I got selected for the Civil Services examination in 1988 and joined the service in August 1989.
While preparing for my subject Geology for the Civil Services examination I faced certain difficulties like paucity of good reading material, lack of awareness of the examination pattern, etc., since the university professors were not conversant with the pattern of competitive examinations and could not guide me properly. This prompted me to write a book in 1990 titled ‘Trends in Objective Geology for Civil Services’ for students like me who aspire to become civil servants. This book is now in its 33rd year of publication and is still widely referred to by geology students.
Joining a prestigious service, like the Indian Foreign Service, did not deter me from continuing my studies. I continued with my research work, which was half completed when I joined the service, and finally obtained a Ph.D. in 1992. This gave me immense academic satisfaction. I am a firm believer in the concept that a man learns at every stage of life and should therefore never be complacent.
After a rather long probation period lasting for about two years during which I was exposed to various facets of diplomatic and office work in India, I was sent to Egypt in 1991 as a language trainee to learn Arabic and familiarize myself with all aspects of work in diplomatic missions abroad. I studied at the American University in Cairo for three semesters and picked up the Arabic language to the best of my abilities. After two memorable years in Egypt during which I extensively travelled and explored this ancient country, I was posted as the Regional Passport Officer in my home city of Hyderabad in India in May 1993. It was a challenging job that required me to meet over 500 people a day and try to solve their problems. I tried to devote my time to simplify procedures and make life easier for the common man unmindful of the stiff resistance from vested interests in different quarters and the consequent personal inconveniences I had to bear, which are best left unsaid here.
I joined the Consulate General of India, Jeddah in January 1995 as Consul (Haj) and spent one year ameliorating the hardship of 60,000 odd pilgrims from India who came to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage. In March 1996, I was deployed with the Embassy of India, Riyadh as First Secretary (Economic and Commercial), an assignment which I will not forget for providing me with a lot of challenges and for enabling me to contribute my mite for giving a visible thrust to the vibrant Indo-Saudi bilateral economic and trade relations. This was followed by my posting to the Embassy of India, Doha, Qatar as a First Secretary/Counsellor (Commercial). I served as Consul General of India in Jeddah from August 2004 to July 2008.
Thereafter, I served as Joint Secretary (Director-General) for West Africa in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, looking after bilateral relations with around 25 countries in Western and Central Africa. This was followed by stints in Yemen as the Ambassador of India and in Chicago as the Consul General of India in Chicago, the High Commissioner of India in Seychelles, and the Ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia. After completing 34 years of diplomatic service, I retired in September 2023 as Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs responsible for Consular and Diaspora affairs.
I have three sons, Faateh aged 32 years, Faaleh, aged 28 years, and Azhaan aged 25 years. I am fortunate to have a good, caring, and loving wife Farha, who is an egg sculptor and a painter. This sums up briefly my journey from childhood to adulthood and to a career as a diplomat!
* This article was written by me several years ago but updated slightly thereafter to provide inspiration to others. Originally it was an ice-breaker speech delivered in the Kohinoor Toastmasters Club, Riyadh, in 1997.