Part 3: A Journal of Life in Kathiawad, Gujarat & Buganda, Uganda: Habib Rahemtulla Lalani – 1910-1997

Habib 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 3 [Kathiawad: 1920s]

Installment 1: Towns near Bilkha; We all lived around a common yard; Plague, 1920s; The Barwatia (outlaw) Menace, 1923+.

Installment 2: Life in those days 1920s; Schooling; Helping dad; Crossing the Ozat; Playful but Obedient Child; Meals; Dad’s Work; Tobacco, ganja, …; Work; Ginans; Superstitions.

Life in those days, 1920s (continued)


Manibai who was in Nurmohamed Kara’s household, had her parents in Bilkha. Manibai’s father’s name is Jamalbhai who was full of faith and had a very good cutlery business in Bilkha. He from time to time went to Jetpur to get his goods. Jetpur at the time was where there were cutlery wholesale businesses. He would have to even stay overnight or 2 nights. In Manibai’s family there was Alimohamed, and 2 other sisters and a brother. Manibai and Alimohamed were somewhat mature. Manibai was 12-13 years old, Alimohamed 10-11. Her mother’s name was Satbai who was Amulaben’s family relation. And Jamalbhai was our family relation, a brother to our fathers. The two had a good marriage. Satbai was religious too. When she sang Ginans the whole Jamat would rock side-to-side, that’s the kind of voice she had. It was also known in Pakistan. She was very punctual in her dua, prayer, and bandgi, meditation.

Insaan ne kabudhi suje, wickedness comes to people, and so it was with this lady. She, in Jamalbhai’s absence, ran the shop while also taking care of house chores. One time a Bilkha resident, a musalman, came to buy at the shop, as he often came. A friendship developed, eventually becoming deep. The pathan began coming secretively into her abode. Over time she completely took over the business making herself the owner and ruined Jamalbhai. She started feeding him something that made him lose weight and made him very ill. She did not look after him, to the extent that he had to leave and come to Naagri where Jamal bapa gave him a separate house with arrangement for meals. Slowly this incident became known to the Jamat and the affair became grave and the two silently began crying. The lady stopped coming to JK. Because of Jamati pressure she left the religion. She did the same for her children. Jamal bapa tried very hard and quietly freed Manibai and secretly sent her to Naagri and for this he was marked for trouble.

Whenever he went to Bilkha he had Huseinbhai accompany him as a body guard. Jamal bapa would be mounted on his horse, Huseinbhai on foot armed with an iron-tipped wooden club. Huseinbhai often had to use his courage and with Allah’s protection what can enemies do. He was strong and did not back away from even a gang of 5. On top of that he was favorably regarded by the local civic council and he was influential. Jamal bapa, after Manibai, freed Alimohamed. He tried very hard to free the other children but was not successful. After I came to Africa I heard that the other son when grown up had come to the Jamat and was accepted. The 2 daughters were too young at the time and from what I heard they were given to non-Ismailis. Allah’s wish only Allah knows. Father’s faith in such was unshakable and with unbounded faith in Allah he was not afraid of anyone.

When I was in Naagri, many nights we went over to Premji kaka. There would also be Alibhai, Karmalibhai and there was much talking. Often, they gave us guidance. We went home at 1-2 am. Two people would escort me home. In pitch darkness, you had to have a flame-torch. There was another small lighting people used but not often, this was called chor bati (literally, thief’s light) as they said thieves used it when out to steal. Often outside there was noise of gunfire. This was done by lighting a wick in a metal can filled with powder to scare off animals in the vegetable plots. It sounded like gun fire. Even with a gun you could use a pad and lighting it produced the bang. No bullet was loaded as it was only for scaring off. There were other guns in which you loaded an alcohol filled tablet and a metal ball… Those kinds of guns were being used. The Barwatias (q.v. in installment 1) also had guns like these. People made such guns. Later on, guns made in other countries were available.

My sister was born two years after me. She was named Fatma. She passed away at the age of 2-3. In India, medical treatment was not available, for that matter medicine was not available. There were waheeds and many cases worsened. This sister had a boil on her head. Medication not being available she suffered a lot and passed away. Another sister, much younger than me, is in Karachi. I used to make the younger ones play. In my young days, I did a lot of menial jobs such as cotton-picking, moving bundles of sticks from one place to another. Often my clothes were patched up. Despite this I never ate leftover food or water. It is still the same. Even now when I see unclean food I am completely disgusted. I could not eat in a lowly hotel. When I needed to eat in a hotel I could not sit next to someone. Seeing unclean plates disgusted me. My mother had been very careful about all this and instructed me so. Until now it’s been my habit. It was difficult for me to wash plates with leftovers.

Moved to Mumbai (Bombay)

When I was about 15, that was when I went to Mumbai. As I have already documented, my sister Awalbai had called me over, sending money for my ticket. At the time, the train from Junagadh to Mumbai was about 10 rupees, a 24-hour journey. On the way, there was a change of trains. There were a lot of stations along the way, about every 10 miles. a lot of people getting off and on the train. At every station, there was food and chai available. I was with a resident of Naagri. The train arrived in Mumbai at 10 am. Awalbai’s der, husband’s brother, came to fetch me. My mother had given for them a lot of things, athano, etc.

We went by horse cart to their shop. Meeting Awalbai and others was very happy. Later they had a spice store where I worked for about 4 months but not being comfortable with the job I went to work at another place, which I have documented elsewhere. I used to go to Kandi Mola JK on occasions only because the JKs were far. We went by tram. Sometimes we went to the big JK (Darkhana), sometimes Wadi or Hasnabad. The roads became familiar to me. When I separated from banewi, brother-in-law, in Kandi Mola there was a family named Merali Kanji who also were Lalani who a year ago had come to India Kathiawar and had stayed for a month in Naagri and they had good relationship there. They did Jamatbhai‘s work in Kandi Mola JK and under whom they were other workers. It was a big job. Every saatmi waar, seventh, there were Panjebhais, male group, and there was Saatmi Waar Majalis. Many majalis, religious gathering, had feasts. Making sufras, trays/pans, and other cooking was their job and they knew how to do it. With me they were good. When they came to know that I was going to separate they looked out for me. They found me a good job.

An Ismaili had a shop in Baroda Bazaar and lived in Kandi Mola building. There I was given meals and a salary of 10 rupees. At the time, this was considered a good salary. There was another employee in their shop. To one side they made refined ghee. This local ghee they sold to hotels and made good money from it. Their sundry goods (parchuran) business did well too. Both of us boys had our meals at the boss’s place. At lunch time food was sent from his home to the shop. This was quite common. Whenever anyone’s business was far from home meals in tiffins were sent there from home. Our shop was very far from home and so even for us the food came from home. The boss after finishing business outside would come at 3 pm and sit and see how things were going. The business was done by customer orders. It closed at 9 pm. We went to the boss’ home by tram – that is streetcar – where we had our dinner and then we went to Kandi Mola JK to sleep there. There were many like us who slept there. It was said that in Mumbai you could earn rotlo (millet flour roti) but you could not find an otlo (porch) – otlo means a place to rest, sleep on. We got food at the boss’ but not sleeping quarters. We had a 15’ x 15’ room. Toilet was elsewhere and there was a line up every morning and it was not very clean. JK‘s toilets were also separate. People in the neighborhood took advantage of it and there were line-ups there too. With the exception of JK toilets, all toilets had buckets which bhangis (toilet cleaners) removed and replaced in the morning and came once a day to clean. Water taps were publicly shared by a row of houses and there too there were line ups. Water flowed twice a day, 4 am-10 am and again 5 pm-10 pm. During this time, everyone had to fill up. Some of the toilets that had flushes often overflowed outside. That’s how things were!

Kandi Mola JK was 4 storeys. There was no lift then. I am writing about 1924-25. On the ground floor was the recreation club and library. The next floor was the main prayer hall. Above it was Bait-ul-Khayal, above that special Majalis. When we went there in 1973, then too it was like this except for some changes on the lower level and a lift too had been installed. We slept on the 1st floor, on a comforter with a pillow and a blanket. After bandgi the Jamat came down to say dua and we were all woken up. After dua and abe shafa, holy water, we picked up the shop keys and went by tram to the shop. At the time, there was kept a long robe for the ghat-pat dua, 2nd dua with abe shafa, reciter to wear. The dua reciter wore it and a topee, hat, that is a turban and dressed like this he said dua. Evening prayers we rarely made it to. We were at the shop until 9 pm. On big nights, such as Beej, new moon night falling on a Friday, we left early to come do dua and we also got juro, snack, of mamra, confection, or chana, peas, most of the time, that was the custom.

For tram fare, we were given 1 anna. For breakfast, we were given another anna. We made do with one anna at a hotel to have chai nasta, breakfast. For 2 paisa half a bread, 2 paisa a cup of tea, we had breakfast and made it to the shop and opened it at 7am. [Translator-Transcriber Note: 1 rupee = 16 anna; 1 anna = 4 paisa, thus 1 rupee = 64 paisa.] Business began immediately and it was busy until 10 am, then less, again picking up at 2 pm. I worked here with the other fellow who for some reason left and I worked alone thereafter. I was not familiar with everything but it all fell on me. What to do? The boss began coming 2 hours earlier than usual but did not do any work. Once I became familiar with it I became used to it. I got 1 anna for breakfast, I made do with it, what to do? I took care of the business including all the cash but I could not spend any of it for myself as that would have been wrong. My father’s letters that came also had advice along the same lines. Never eat anything ameeti (that you did not sow in the soil) and to always be careful. Even if not well or having other difficulties the work still had to be done. There was no time to rest, just taking doctor’s medicine and being careful. When one had a fever, the doctors had quinine tablets for that or drank quinine powder that came in packets.

I continued like this for 8 months. My meals were taken care of and an increase in pay was likely but the boss suddenly took ill and in a short time passed away. I was sent a message at the shop to shut it and come home right away. I closed shop taking all the money and went home where all was in an uproar. When there was a moment I gave all the money to the boss lady. I handed over the shop keys to the boss’ brother. After funeral rites were all done she asked for the shop keys. I told her I gave them to the boss’ brother. She told me they had double-crossed her and taken them away. This type of enmity, jealousy, etc occurred in many families quite a lot. I asked for keys from the boss’ brother telling him that his sister-in-law had asked for them. He handed them over and I handed them over to the boss lady. At this time in the shop there was a container with small change money in the amount of 200 rupees. Such small change was always collected and kept separate. This was used for purchasing household needs. Often, I was sent on such errands by myself. I took this money, there was more than 200 rupees, and handed them over to the boss lady. She was very convinced of my faithfulness. If I had spent it no one would have known. 200 rupees at the time were like 2,000 today.

After that I inquired about a job elsewhere. Eventually Meralibhai’s one kaka’s shop “Bhaikala” was nearby where he arranged a job for me. His residence was in the same building and he also was a very humble man. Food and accommodation arrangements were good. And sometimes I got time off to visit relatives. Boss and his lady were both nice and humble. I went often to see Awalben. Her status was difficult and getting worse. Her husband had his mistress living with them. What to do, I did not have any solution. This went on and bai suffered a lot. Then Jamal bapa with his influence in the Council had her brought over to Naagri and later on they divorced. The day divorce papers came she passed away, her 5-yr old daughter who had come with her also had passed away before her.

I was okay in my job. It was not really a job. They kept good relations with me. I also did the work well. It required just sitting in the shop and selling. There were shops like this all around. There was a seat to sit on with a money box beside it. The boss sat there and whenever it was busy I would bring out the goods. There would be a hanging balance scale, like we had in Bukoto (near Masaka, Uganda), and which was there in all shops. Business was retail, 2 anna items.

Different communities of Naagri

Junagadh is 10 miles from Naagri. Sometimes, we went there by foot. Sometimes, we went by train from Dungarpur. We had good relationships with all the different communities there. I was young and was already working. Among the residents there were Dwana, Brahman, Khatri, Kanbi, Mochi, etc. All had their own neighbourhoods. The place was small but every group lived in their own area doing their work in the same area. That was the custom at the time.

The khumbhars also have a big wado. If we were invited for lunch to one of them we took utensils from home so as not to pollute. Theirs were made of clay whereas ours were made of glass like we have today. The world then was amazing. If you touched a dedh bhangi you were polluted. Likewise, if a Musalman touched their utensils it was polluted.

There were people who made cooking oil for you by milling in their dhanis grains which you brought to them. They charged us for the labour. Things like this you only rarely saw in Africa. In the Ginan it says “Ek dhori e…” This dhani was made of wood 6-foot-high, with a round bag with a pipe going into it and a wooden pillar. The contraption had large grinding stones. Blindfolded bulls were harnessed to do the work. The oil would flow through the pipes and into containers. It had a good flavour. And any leftover husks would be very tasty to eat with jaggery. Such fresh things we enjoyed eating.

In the same way like the khumbhars were the others who made shoes, bead work, clothes, cloth making. Bharwads (shepherds) looked after animals – cattle. From their milk, they made butter and ghee to sell. All day they are in the jungle, sometimes even at night. They were very good with animals. Their gestures and sounds with which the animals were trained were responded to individually by each animal. They even took care of unruly animals belonging to other people who could not control them. Among the same people, there was a waeed who treated animals or people who had broken a bone, setting it for healing, better than even doctors with degrees. When I saw him he was about 60 years old. He was a big ganja addict. When anyone went to call him over for treatment he at once started cursing. They approached him very gently. Then he would quickly dress up and no matter what the weather was like or time of day or night he would come at once. Whenever he spoke it was laced with swearing but he would fix broken bones no matter how bad. With 4-5 people holding the sufferer down he would examine the wound and then set the bone. The sufferer would be screaming but those holding him down would not let him move at all. The wound was then covered with an oiled cloth and bound with wooden slats on all sides so that the bone could not be disturbed. And he would have no talk of paying him money. He would not hear of it. He never took a penny except if a well-to-do insisted in which case he would tell him to buy some household item of need.

One time I remember one man whose bullock fell into a hole in the field and broke a leg and couldn’t walk any more, making loud noises. Its owner came running to the waeed. It was late at night. He called out, calling him “Kaka, kaka” – everyone in town called him that. Kaka had his ganja hookah in his mouth and was totally high. He immediately let off swear words, asking who had come at this hour. It would have scared anybody off but in the village, everyone knew him and were used to it. The man told him “Kaka, it’s me – so-and-so. I have come this late because my bullock’s leg is broken and is making loud noises in the field.” The waeed responded with a lot of pity and gathered things he needed. On arriving he asked the owner if he had carried all the things needed from his home. The owner said yes, but there was one thing left behind. The waeed swore loudly at him, saying aren’t you ashamed, the poor animal is suffering! He ordered him to run back and get it while he and other men went into the field. He walked so fast that the others had to run to keep up. In the field, he had the bullock completely tied up so that it could not move. A bullock was valuable and was treated with more care than one’s child. He examined the broken leg, set it, bandaged it. The bullock calmed down somewhat. He was tied to a tree and in a few days, was fully rested and properly fed.

The bullock owner wished to give dharmad (donation, for example food, to the poor with a religious intent). This type of people in the name of their devi (goddess) gave alms. They would gather everyone around and feed them fresh ghee. People brought their containers, filling them up and gulping it in such quantities that you would just stare at them! And as much as people wanted they had to refill container after container. All the while they recalled their devi. Then would follow a jaman of lapsi. After giving benedictions, the guests would leave. This event would take up the whole day. In Kathiawad, especially in small places, this was common.

But in small places there were also difficulties. Animals like cows, bulls, goats, etc would be shitting and peeing everywhere. Even people with their water container just went outside to do it and their droppings the animals and dogs would eat. Flies would be everywhere. The same flies who descended upon the shit would sit on food in the house. Because of this there were diseases from time to time. There were no urine / blood tests to determine the disease. If there were it was only in big cities. In 1973, we saw similar things in Mumbai and Karachi. From big buildings, people throwing garbage down to the street. Pedestrians sometimes get caught in this. Nothing can be done about it.

And among pedestrians there would be frequent quarrels and fights. Even now in India and Pakistan it is the same. In Karachi, we were visiting a neighbourhood where you would feel like vomiting. There was a spot where all excrement was dumped. You had to pinch your nose as you passed it. In the alleyways, there would be excrement everywhere. People peeing everywhere. There were many Ismailis in the area, living here for a long time. There were purpose-built toilets but just a few and there would be line ups. Little kids would relieve themselves here and there, but adults wanted to use toilets – what to do? My aunt by good fortune had a flat but with very few amenities. Hazar Imam has built many colonies for Ismailis and by his mercy many Ismailis are happy. The residents are all used to the conditions. I too when I was young in Naagri used to all the playing and fooling around but upon going to Mumbai those habits became embarrassing and again when visiting from Africa we found it even more, but what to do? You live according to the environment. Coming to Africa was as if coming to an alien place. And land like Europe is heaven. Mowla bapa sent us to such a place, infinitely thankful. Compare India, Africa, UK, Canada, US. Mowla sent us to these places by his mercy for which there is no equal. Infinite thanks.



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Author: ismailimail

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

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