A Journal of Life in Kathiawad, Gujarat & Buganda, Uganda: Habib Rahemtulla Lalani – 1910-1997

A Journal of Life in Kathiawad, Gujarat & Buganda, Uganda: Habib Rahemtulla Lalani - 1910-1997

Translated from the Gujarati by Zahir K. Dhalla

Habib Rahemtulla Lalani - 1910-1997Habib Lalani was born in British India in 1910, in Bilkha, Kathiawad, Gujarat. He migrated to British East Africa in 1929, later migrating and settling in the Masaka area of Buganda, Uganda. Decades later, in 1972, he with his family had to flee their homeland – forever – given safe haven by Canada.

He tells us that his father wrote down “…writings from text books. Whenever he went out visiting and learned something new about religion he wrote it down. When I learnt how to read and write I used to read these…I too had writings in many notebooks filling up a suit case…

“I had written many old details in Uganda but having to leave the country, many of my papers and journals were left behind. Now I have to start afresh.” In Uganda, he had written his memoirs and historical account but his journals and other papers were left behind after they were forced to flee the country with just the bare minimum.

Habib Lalani however re-wrote from memory his journal here in Toronto. The quality of Habib’s writing reflects his long experience in it and is a good example of fine personal story-telling. Evidently, he was a talented writer.


Habib Lalani’s Journal – Installment 1 [c1915 onwards, until 1929 when Habib migrated to East Africa]

My full name is Habib Rahemtulla Nurmohamed Karim Ladha Poonja Dhana Lalani. When I was born, my father lived in Bilkha and ran a parchuran (sundry consumer goods: handkerchiefs, fulanas, under-shirts or singlets, socks) and produce business. My mosad (mother’s family) was there too.

Habib Rahemtulla Lalani - 1910-1997

Near Bilkha there was a town of Garasiya which in olden days was the seat of a royal family of Kathi Raja and from where they ruled. Naagri was about 8 miles away, in between was Anandpur – these were riverside towns along the Ozat River. [Translator: Search the internet for “Ozat River Gujarat photos” to see what the river is like.] When it was full chumasu, literally of four months i.e. the monsoon rains, and a lot of rain, it sometimes flooded and threatened reaching the town although that never happened.

The locals had a custom whenever such a threat arose: elders of each river town would appoint a person known as a Patel who would take a new chundni, shawl, and a coconut, some barley, some rice, some kanku, red powder used by Hindus to mark a tilak or bindi, dot, on the forehead, wrapping them in the chundni, take it to the river and make a plea “O! River mother, save us from dark waters” and the waters would recede. I witnessed one such case when I was 5-6 years old.

The Patel also had the duty to sound an ominous tattoo on a drum whenever any threat presented. We all ran from our houses, which were built of stone and mud as compared to Canada where they are built of wood. Our motabapa, elder paternal uncle, Jamalbhai had a 3-storey place, where as many people as could get in sought shelter on the upper floors. The others took refuge in trees. It was a dark storm and people could only see others by the flash of lightning, for lighting by lantern was not possible in the wind and rain. Jamal bapa attempted to take a chundni to the river, for he was a town elder. He made it to the town gates and seeing water had reached, he threw it in, and water began to recede.


We all lived around a common yard

When we left Bilkha and came to Naagri I was about 4-5 years old. There was Jamal bapa, Premji kaka, younger paternal uncle, Mohamed kaka. We lived in an old family yard known as deli into which 5 homes backed and which the brothers occupied. In the 5th one lived Rahemtulla Poonja. At night, we pulled our beds out into the yard and chatted away. [Poonja’s family had been there for generations. When I came to Africa in 1929 they still lived in the same place. After that the girls moved out to their own families while husband and wife passed away.]

Jamal bapa’s wife was Amulabai whose parents were the Somani family in Superi. Jamal bapa was influential and was well-respected in government and was helpful to travelers inviting them to meals and was never seen to be sad. Friends and acquaintances would come and stay for months on end. Both Jamal bapa and Amula ma showed lot of love. For all my 19 years that I saw them they were happy and in love. They had 1 bhens, ox, and 1 cow. Every Friday they took 1/8th portion of milk and ghee from the cow to JK. If needed, they would buy that milk from nandi, food offering.


Plague, 1920s

I remember a karkario dukar, severe drought. Those were bad times and an infectious disease called marki, plague, broke out. Even in the small town of Naagri there were 3-4 deaths every day, later 7-8 per day. Households began to become empty. One day 10 people passed away. Our forefathers’ faith helped. Special morning prayers were started. People gathered at 3 am in the JK, doing bandgi, meditation, with zikar, chanting, until daylight. With Allah’s blessings, not even one Ismaili suffered even a headache and did not experience any hardship and were saved from this with ease. I remember this very well. After a while the disease subsided. Elsewhere in other towns where giryazari, special prayer of plea, was being done there too they were saved.


The Barwatia (outlaw) Menace, 1923+

Barwatia was a constant fear. Barwatia means outlaw and its associated lawlessness and harassment of the public with much looting, robbing, kidnapping / ransoming and revenge for past issues. Every now and then there was fear of this happening. They were well-armed and resorted to kidnapping and demanding ransom. They would arrive at night in a small town and loot what they pleased. For their personal safety people just hid in the fields or hidden spaces in their homes. Especially vulnerable were those whom the outlaws had a grudge against or a score to settle with. The police tried hard to apprehend them sometimes with violent confrontations. Many books have been written on these Barwatia. Even songs have been written about them. In 1923-24 they came to Naagri and Jamal bapa’s place being prominent they decided to loot it. Jamal bapa was not at home so they scared Amula ma to hand over valuables. They came at 11pm, disguised, because they were well known.

They broke the lock on the town’s gate and came in. There is a big square in town close to which was our place. As soon as they entered the square, the town policeman saw them and recognized some of them. They captured and tied him up threatening to shoot him if he made any noise. And now they could proceed to Jamal bapa’s. We too had a gate to our group of buildings which we locked at night. They forced the captured policeman to announce out loud that a town official called so-and-so had arrived and they needed ingredients for tea from Jamal bapa’s dukan, shop, and that this was so-and-so town policeman calling out. Whenever a government official needed something Jamal bapa always obliged under a contract with the government on a monthly billing. At night when something was needed the dukan window was used instead of opening the shop door. The dukan was next to our courtyard and the customer was served through its door all of which the captured policeman well knew.

Even the dacoits knew all this. At this moment Amulama hearing this locked the house door which was very strong and could not be broken down. Kamadia Rehmtulla Poonja lived next door and at this time slept in his osri, verandah, on account of the heat. He heard the policeman shouting and through the window told Amula baa about the deli ugadwa mate, shopping need, and so what to do. Amula baa, mother, knew about such occurrences and the needed goods had to be provided. So, she gave Poonja bhai the dukan keys, instructing him to provide them with whatever they wanted. Rehmtullabhai took the keys and came to open deli no darwajo, shop door. As soon as he opened it he saw the hawaldar, watchman, tied up and the dacoits pointing a gun to his chest. They told him to open Jamalbhai’s house and that they were Barwatias and “If you make any trouble we will kill you!” They all went to Amulabai’s where Rehmtullabhai called her out asking her to open the door. The barwatias added if the door is not opened we will burn it down and kill Rehmtullabhai.

There was fear of the door being set on fire as there was a can of kerosene right outside. So out of fear of harm she opened the door. Taking Allah’s name, she pushed it open and immediately two dacoits came in and poked Amula bai in the chest with a pistol. Before opening he had warned her that there were Barwatias outside wanting to come in. She could only say Ya Ali, Ya Ali. She told them she had nothing and whatever there was in this house they could take. Jamal bapa had a number of patanas in the house – lokhan ni petio, iron trunks – which were durable and would not burn in a fire. The dacoits demanded the keys and Rehmtullabhai handed them over. They told the hawaldar to see what was in the patanas as they themselves didn’t want to lest the heavy lids shut on them accidentally or deliberately. Among the things, the hawaldar took out was money, and also jewelry. Some of the jewelry was pawned by their kheruton, farmers, a business that Jamal bapa also ran earning interest on money lent. In addition to money and jewelry they also demanded the gold earrings and bangles Amulabai was wearing. She did that, saying “You are my brothers after all, take them”. They put the loot in their pockets. As they were doing this, gun fire was heard outside and so only with whatever they had pocketed they fled leaving the rest behind.

The cause of gunfire: two of the 4 dakus, dacoits, had stayed outside while two had gone inside the house. One of the two outside stood guard at the door. The other patrolled outside the court yard where he encountered a village man who was out getting help for his ailing wife. He was slapped and roughed up by the daku who ordered the man to immediately return home which the dazed man did. But then the dacoits began worrying that the man might go alert others and they would cause trouble. He was afraid they would be recognized as in reality they were not really Barwatias. So, he fired a signal shot for the others which they all had previously arranged as a precaution. Also, the town folks who heard it realized there were Barwatias around and it was wise to remain hidden indoors.

The dakus left the house bolting the door from outside after ordering silence. Outside in the court yard they joined the sentry who had an unsheathed sword and a gun. On the other side lived Premji kaka and Mohamed kaka’s children. From the gap between their closed window doors they spied. Mohamed kaka’s daughter Sikina (Alibhai Premji’s wife) and her younger brothers were there. Karmalibhai, and others were there. The kakas were out of town. With lights turned off and shaking with fear they spied through the gap. Our house being off to the side we were not in a position to see. The dakus went away and left town by a side road, taking with them the hawaldar because he had recognized them.

When they were outside of town they shot him and took off. Two of them in reality were policeman in Anandpur and the other two were their acquaintances. Their objective had been to rob and get much loot while Jamal bapa was absent but they did not accomplish it since if Allah was going to protect Jamalbhai they could not. The two policemen had in the past visited Jamal bapa and had lunch with him. They had his food and then they wanted to rob him. They had seen his place but Mawla ni gati nyari chhe, Mawla’s way is amazing. They were caught and admitted to their crime. Jamal bapa recovered all his stuff and he forgave them in court saying he did not wish to press charges.

But this being a criminal case the public prosecutor had them tried and sentenced. One of the convicted was the son of a wealthy man who used his influence to have him freed. Out of shame he could not face Jamal bapa and left town. During this Barwatia episode we were there in our house but we could not see his house nor did we hear even the gunfire thus not awoken otherwise we too would have panicked and escaped through the window to a secluded path nearby. Allah saved us from this. It was only after the Barwatias had left and there was commotion of the town folk that we became aware. Mawla ni ghati Mawlaj jane chhe, Mawla’s way only Mawla knows.



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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

4 thoughts

  1. Amazing contribution to our (East African Asian) history. A person of great memory recounting things he wrote in Uganda but were lost at the expulsion (1972), writing again in Canada. Because he came to Uganda much later than the pioneering stock and lived in Gujarat as a youth we get such a nice account of life in Gujarat for our pioneer stock. Zahir Dhalla has to be thanked by us all for preserving this history. I myself am doing it through my book Uganda Asians, stories of the expulsion but also pioneering days and settling down in Canada and returning. Stories in people’s own words, like here. I finished it last week at 2277 pages, after 10.6 years in writing. My book has archival material about HH Aga Khan and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (as UNHCR head)’s roles at the expulsion. Launch in November.


  2. Mr. V.Jamal, thank you for your kind words. I know my dad was a very good journal keeper as well as a great writer.My only regret is that I (unlike my other family members) I could not read Gujarati to appreciate it. You said it well, and I agree that Zahir Dhalla does marvellous job translating our history into understandable English before it get “lost”. It is much appreciated. Zahir also did a tremendous job in putting together our beloved mom -Sherbanu H.R. Lalani’s centennial birthday(1916-2016) family history book. Looking forward to your book.
    Bashir H. Lalani


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