Ambassador Shahryar M Khan - Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Shahryar’s success as a diplomat and negotiator - always subtle and never strident - was equally apparent in his roles as Foreign Secretary and as Chairman PCB.

Ambassador Shahryar M Khan - Envoy Par Excellence

It seems fitting that, if he had to leave us at all, Ambassador Shahryar Khan left on Pakistan Day, having represented us at every diplomatic level for decades in every corner of the globe.

Enough will be written and recorded about him, as entirely due. This is a more personal memoir from someone knowing him, with affection and admiration, since childhood.

After his spectacular showing in the competitive civil and foreign services exam on graduating from Cambridge, Shahryar Khan was assigned to London in 1960 as a junior officer under High Commissioner Lieutenant General M Yousuf, and there also formed a lifelong association with my parents, my father being Deputy High Commissioner.

His marriage to Najma - she, the beautiful and talented daughter of Ambassador and Begum Akhtar Hussain, studying at St Mary’s; and he the dashing Oxbridge-educated prince - was legendary, their having apparently met and fallen in love at first sight at Lord’s cricket ground. The rest is history and they became known fondly and ever after as ‘Mian and Minnal’ throughout their wide circle of family and friends.

For part of my time at Oxford in the 1970s the Shahryars were my guardians, and I felt as ‘at home’ as before when I stayed with them in the late 1980s in the resplendent Residence in North London - alas now lost to us in the tenure of a political appointee. I saw firsthand how genuinely and gracefully they represented Pakistan: during that week they entertained the Pakistani community, Princess Alexandra, and fellow diplomats accredited to the UK. They were also unfailingly kind and considerate to all their staff at home and in the Chancery. In Islamabad they hosted events including qawalis, likewise eagerly looked forward to and talked about long after.

As widely recognised, Ambassador Shahryar Khan rivalled Gen M Yousuf as the most successful of our High Commissioners to Great Britain for decades.

Their children have been similarly beautifully brought up, and interacted with all those they came across as naturally and sensitively as their parents. They would greet their parents’ friends with almost farshi adaabs. Shahryar Khan was a devoted father to Faiz and Omar, Ali and Faiza; and a doting grandfather to all his grandchildren beginning with his adored eldest grandchild Aliya. Having said what good human beings they were, they were a stunning couple - elegant, perfectly dressed, and charming; both of them conversant in several languages.

Another laudable quality - so different from many of his colleagues and contemporaries - was that he did not drink.

He had the gift of making everyone he came into contact with feel special in his or her own way - as per my ‘proud connection’ with him since a pert six year old! - and of encouraging them to pursue whatever their ambition; be it writing, music, or classical music. His own mastery of the tabla was superb, creating an atmosphere of excitement, on the rare occasions - at family/friends' weddings or suchlike gatherings - that one witnessed it. Mian and Minnal - her parents already dear friends of mine - were always kind to us siblings and families, including myself and our sister Zarina; initially in London, wherever and whenever we met afterwards, and then back home in Pakistan.

He - and she - endeared themselves to so many, who would retain this fondness for them always.

Having read Jurisprudence (law) at Christs College (Cambridge) after his public school (Oundle) education, he pursued during service and after retirement - into his eighties - his own love of writing, authoring inter alia excellent histories of his ancestresses the renowned Nawab-Begums of Bhopal.

Shahryar Khan’s mother, Princess Abida Sultaan, is often regarded as a formidable lady. She was, like Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali and Begum Shaista Ikramullah, an able envoy as Ambassador, in her case to Brazil and Chile. She too never forgot her friends - she always remembered my father was the first officer she encountered in Pakistan when she migrated from India with her young son.

Shahryar’s maternal grandfather the Aligarh-educated Nawab Hamidullah Khan was close to Mr Jinnah. We have at home a framed photo of a historic cricket match with him captaining the Aligarh team, having succeeded my uncle in that prized position. Cricket as noted ran in the family, Shahryar’s cousin being the famous Mansur Ali Khan, ‘Tiger’, Nawab of Pataudi.

Ambassador Shahryar’s success as a diplomat and negotiator - always subtle and never strident - was equally apparent in his roles as Foreign Secretary and as Chairman PCB. He was a member of the vaunted MCC and had a passion for cricket himself. Many were the young sportsmen he taught and inspired, my friend’s son Fahad being one such too.

Two intriguing glimpses into how he accomplished all he did, seemingly effortlessly but with great perception and acuity, here follow.

Some years ago with my brothers Tariq and Saad - likewise known to him since their childhood - I  attended a lecture Ambassador Shahryar was giving at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. He described in fascinating detail how a seemingly impossible situation concerning sensitive negotiations with an important fellow Muslim country was resolved by his referencing a passage from the Holy Book.

Another - quite different but equally interesting - was an anecdote he related whilst I sat next to him at dinner years ago at their home in Islamabad. Once whilst heading the Foreign Office he was discussing and negotiating an important agreement with a South American state, his counterpart being the able - and incidentally beautiful - head of that foreign ministry. Somehow she was fixated on an opposing stance, and whatever he suggested as compromise cut no ice.

Perplexed, he racked his imagination for some way across the barrier of her metallic mindset. Suddenly it came to him! As this was a working dinner, he switched the topic to dessert. And his interlocutor too suddenly came to life as she said ‘Trifle! I just love it!’ And by some Spanish version of husne ittefaq or magic realism on the continent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez that very pudding was served just then - and the elusive accord thus won!

In all seriousness, one feels that for all the accolades and tributes that shall deservedly be awarded him, Ambassador Shahryar Khan’s extraordinary contribution to our country seems always overlooked. He gave up the wealth, prestige, and control - if not rule (in a post-privy-purse era) - of a vast territory, the state of Bhopal, to serve Pakistan as an upper middle class citizen to the best of his very considerable capacity. When asked how he had left it all behind he replied easily, ‘it was just a palace’. He was truly a Prince among men; may he be Blessed.