SS Tilawa: In memory of the ship that didn’t dock

Updated on Nov 25, 2022 01:40 PM IST

The SS Tilawa, which carried 752 passengers, 222 crew members, and also 600 tonnes of cargo, including 60 tonnes of silver bullion, was bound for Durban via Mombasa and Maputo. The ship never made it.

SS Tilawa set sail for South Africa on November 20, 1942 from Ballard Pier in Mumbai with 222 crew members, 732 passengers and 600 tonnes of cargo (SS Tilawa website) PREMIUM
SS Tilawa set sail for South Africa on November 20, 1942 from Ballard Pier in Mumbai with 222 crew members, 732 passengers and 600 tonnes of cargo (SS Tilawa website)
ByGautam S Mengle, Mumbai

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1896 changed Bombay’s fortunes turning the city into one of the most important ports in the region. The Arabian Sea was reclaimed to build the city a new pier and the Ballard Estate. One of the jewels of this precinct was the Grand Hotel.

On Wednesday, the Grand Hotel, now way past its heyday, and in a city that is now called Mumbai, became the venue to illuminate a slice of history that is fraught with loss and tragedy. About a 100 people gathered in the hotel’s banquet hall to hear Arvindbhai Jani , one of the two survivors from the SS Tilawa, a 10,000-ton steamer, that left Ballard Pier on November 20, 1942, and which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine as it neared Seychelles, killing 280 Indians on board. Jani, now 83, recalled the story of his mother tying him to her back with a saree and jumping into one of the last life rafts that carried them to safety.

The SS Tilawa, which carried 752 passengers, 222 crew members, and also 600 tonnes of cargo, including 60 tonnes of silver bullion, was bound for Durban via Mombasa and Maputo. The ship never made it . Two days after it set sail from Bombay, it was hit by two torpedoes fired from the I-29 Matsu Japanese Submarine. The Imperial Japanese Navy was part of the Axis Powers in World War II, and just the previous year, had notched a big win with a sneak attack on Pearl Harbour. What remains unclear is why and how an Indian merchant ship became a target, even though India was a British colony at that time and fighting on the side of the Allies. Was it deliberate or an accident? These are some of the questions that the survivors and the descendants’ of those who lost their lives, are still grappling with.

The 80th anniversary of the SS Tilawa’s tragic voyage on Wednesday was an attempt by the descendants of the victims and the survivors to keep alive the memory of what they term the “Indian Titanic”, and to provide a common platform to respectfully mourn the deceased and share their stories of loss. While Arvindbhai Jani, who now lives in the UK, was the star speaker, the family that has been keeping the SS Tilawa story alive through the decades is the Solankis — UK broadcaster Kash Kumar Solanki and his son Emile, whose great grandfather Nichchabhai Solanki was on the ship and lost his life.

“My grandfather , Nichchabhai’s son , told me how he was raised by his uncle when he lost his father. It was a humbling reminder of the miracle of life. I might not have been standing here today if my grandfather had not been taken in by his uncle. It taught me to never take life for granted and at the same time made me want to find out more about this tragedy that touched hundreds of lives. This effort is an attempt to get some closure for all of us,” said Emile.

Earlier this year, he got in touch with the Maritime Mumbai Museum Society and together they started looking for survivors and other family members of those who were on the ship. They got the passenger manifest from the records of the Transvaal Indian Congress and discovered the passengers comprised a mix of traders from Navsari and Kachholi, a group of sailors from Goa, and businessmen from Bombay. In all, the Solankis spoke to descendants of 25 survivors, including Jani himself. As word of their efforts spread, the other survivor, Tejprakash Kaur, reached out to them. Now 90, Kaur stays in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her family.

“I lost my mother and three younger brothers when SS Tilawa was attacked, while my father and I survived,” Kaur said in a video message. The banquet hall resounded with video messages from descendants of other survivors and victims as well. Mervyn Maciel, 93, a London resident, lost his father, step mother and three step brothers in the tragedy. “For a long time, we refused to believe that our father was dead. We used to write letters to him, in the hope that he would one day write back,” Maciel said, as many of the attendees broke into tears.

Alex Gemmell, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Mumbai, was the evening’s chief guest and said the SS Tilawa victims must be seen and acknowledged as part of India’s war efforts. “It would be our privilege if you would let us lay a wreath to honour the victims of the SS Tilawa. It would also allow us to acknowledge the role played by India in the war effort,” Gemmell said.

Among the many photographs that were put up in the room, and sourced by the Maritime Mumbai Museum Society, was one of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s posing with the crew of the same Japanese submarine that sank SS Tilawa. “Five months after the tragedy, this same crew granted safe passage to Bose from India to Japan,” claimed Emile Solanki.

Other than this band of Indian families, the story of SS Tilawa has had other international repercussions as well. In 2016, Ross Hyett, a British champion racing driver, undertook a six-month-long daring deep-sea diving mission in the Indian Ocean to recover 2,364 silver bars from the wreckage of SS Tilawa which he then carried back with him to Southampton after notifying the receiver of the wreckage in the UK. However, when the government of South Africa found out, they sued Hyett, claiming the lost silver was their property. The South African government won and in 2021, Hyett had to hand over the 32-million-pound treasure he had found buried in the Indian ocean.

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