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December 2005
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Men, Missions & Machines

Hoary Rulers Of Arabian Sea (Seafarers of Khandwani Clan)
by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Saga of an Indian family that introduced Haj voyages by sea between Mumbai and Jeddah and took the first car to the desert Kingdom.

At no hour of the day the din dies in Mahim, the erstwhile quiet neighbourhood of Mumbai. Cacophony and aroma of the Mughlai food so familiar to oriental bazaars welcome the senses of the visitors to its bustling environs. Aroma has discernible strands. Fishy smell from the nearby creek on the Arabian Sea, flowers meant for devotees at the ancient Dargah and that appetizing smell from ovens baking bread and roasting mutton, blend together to lend the feel of the place. Yells from the flower-sellers and costermongers, prayers at the oversized mosque ensure the reign of the cacophony. Amid its maze of labyrinthine streets sits a snug, seaside bungalow with a spacious forecourt. Behind its high walls and wrought iron gates live the members of the remnants of the illustrious Khandwani clan whose ships ruled the waves of the Arabian Sea once upon a time and bridged the distances between the Arabian peninsula and Mumbai. The clan divided between the holy land and India is though clearly past its prime, a senior member of the current generation is a Constitutional functionary in the Government of Maharashtra. (This is a reference to Mohammed Amin Khandwani who is the chairman of the Maharashtra Minorities Commission and was previously the chairman of the Central Haj Committee).

Few in Mumbai as well as in India, however know that the Khandwani family was the first to take a motor car to the desert Kingdom and introduced the first bus service between Makkah and Madinah and were pioneers in organizing sea voyages for the Haj pilgrims. With the clan long been dismembered between the holy land and Mumbai, and their shipping business now merely a forlorn memory, Khandwanis are today a scattered lot. But the footprints of its enterprising elders on the sands of time survive the vagaries of intervening decades.

The Khandwani Steam Navigation Company embarked upon ferrying the pilgrims during the Haj season and cargo, mainly foodgrains, for the rest of the year, for the perpetually famine-stricken Hejaz region. Hajj voyage fares would peak up to Rs. 210/- and ebb down to Rs. 10 for passengers who could not spare more.

They were four brothers from Bombay and they set out to set up what may be recalled as the first ever shipping company making sea voyages for Hajj to Jeddah in the early part of the 20th century. Enterprise gave wings to their feet. Success came rolling at their doorsteps. They expanded into commercial shipping and built up an empire. The family grew intimate with the Sheriff of Makkah and the elders of the current ruling family of Sauds. A few of the senior Khandwanis settled down in Taif, Makkah and Madinah, cultivated matrimonies with the Mian, Mohammad Mian, and Abba Mian, all suffixed with Khandwani. Members of the mercantile community of Halai Memons, based in the commercial hub of Mumbai, they set out to purchase Ballard Estate, the property of the Mumbai Port Trust in 1914. The fuse has just been lit for the First World War. Economy had taken a severe beating with the first flush of the war. Commercial shipping was badly hit. The sight of the three German ships standing in the placid waters of the Ballard Estate attracted the notice of the brothers who were on an inspection tour of the Estate riding a horse carriage. Discreet enquiries revealed that the ships were up for sale. They were 1-S.S.Vergemere, 2- S.S.Belvedere and, 3-S.S.Lava. The deal was struck and the family took possession of the ships for a princely sum of Indian rupees 980,000 instead of the Ballard Estate.

Thus began the riches to rags story of the Khandwani family. The Khandwani Steam Navigation Company embarked upon ferrying the pilgrims during the Haj season and cargo, mainly foodgrains, for the rest of the year, for the perpetually famine-stricken Hejaz region. Hajj voyage fares would peak up to Rs. 210 and ebb down to Rs. 10 for passengers who could not spare more. But booking manager had instructions to insist on people paying according to their status, more in line with the spirit of the Hajj. Sans passports and visas, the pilgrims flocked to the ships as the company’s heralds went beating drums around the Muslim localities and mosques of Bombay. The voyages took 10 days to reach Jeddah. The Company did not insure the ships going by the then prevailing Islamic opinion about insurance.

Says Mohammad Amin Khandwani, the senior among the two third generation Khandwanis surviving today, recalling the halcyon days of the family: “My grandfather Abba Mian Khandwani would tie a talisman on the mast and sail off for Jeddah”.

It was not too long ago that a former porter of the Mumbai dockyard, Abdul Jabbar approached Amin while he was chairman of the Central Haj Committee (during 1982-89). The still quite robust looking Jabbar told him that he(Jabbar) travelled in the Company’s ship by paying just Rs. five. Jabbar recalled that the heavy discount though owed itself to munificence of the family, Amin’s grandfather would not let him board the ship free, lest the Jabbar’s pilgrimage suffer from a deficiency in the sight of Allah.

Years passed by. The four brothers grew in fame and riches. The eldest of the Khandwani brothers, Abdullah Mian was a good marksman, an expert swimmer, an excellent equestrian and had a command over almost eight languages. He married an extremely beautiful lady from Istanbul, presented to him by the Sheriff of Makkah. Dada Mian, whose real name was Habeeb, studied at Makkah.

One of his batchmates, Abul Kalam Azad, later rose to become the leading light of the national freedom struggle in India and became the first education minister of free India after 1947. Dada Mian had an unquenchable thirst for books and enjoyed the company of sufis. Third in line, Mohammad Mian resembled the British monarch, George V, wore Fez cap and mingled with the members of the Bombay elite during evenings at the West Indian Club. Fourth of the Khandwani clan, Abba Mian, grandfather of Amin Khandwani, was caretaker of the family at Mumbai.

Khandwani ships were key suppliers of foodgrain to merchants of Hejaz. They were awaited eagerly at Jeddah. Often Sheriff and his men would show up at the Jeddah dockyard. It was in 1918 that the Khandwanis carried a car and a generator to be gifted to the Sheriff of Makkah. A large Sedan, it had a collapsible canvas hood. Wonderstruck bedouins chased it wherever it went. Dubbed ‘Satan’, it was burnt down when the opportunity presented itself. Guided by superstition, they could not stand the sight of something that moved, but did not consume fodder. As Amin recalls the accounts from his elders, the car could not survive beyond 40 days.

The family also introduced the first bus service between Makkah and Madinah. The journey took 14 nights for the bus to cover the distance to Madinah. A dirt track in the sand was all that constituted the highway to the Prophet’s (Pbuh) City. During the day time, the bus would rest at designated halts to stave off searing heat. Frequently, the bus would get stuck into the sands. Pilgrims would then be asked to get down, slip wooden planks beneath the wheels and push the vehicle out. The family ran the services till late in the 30s and as Hejaz came under the reign of current dynasty, the buses were acquired by the Makkah Electric Company (Amin is not sure about the correct name of the company) and the family was given shares of the company for equivalent value. Dividends from the stock still come to the descendants of the Saudi branch of the Khandwanis.

As the family riches grew, fortunes soared. The family’s house in Makkah was situated near Harem Shariff from where the azan is called today. Often it was hired by the family of Sheriff of Makkah for residence during the Hajj pilgrimage.

They acquired enormous properties in and around Bombay and Pune. The Pune bungalow was constructed at a cost of Rs. 25 lakh, a fabulous sum for the 1920s when Rs. 100,000 was sufficient to build a grand mansion. Its dining table could seat 76 persons around. Another of the heritage value building was the Zariwala Orphanage in Mahim, which was demolished three years ago. It sheltered 3,000 riot victims in 1993 in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim violence triggered by the Babri Masjid demolition.

But then the family’s fortunes took a sharp dip in 1922 when its ship S.S.Belvedere sank in the Arabian Sea. The telegram carrying the message came as a thunderbolt exactly when the family members had gathered at Poona for the housewarming ceremony at their new, posh and sprawling bungalow.

Ships being uninsured, liabilities to be paid were huge. Six years later another ship sank off Bombay coast only adding to the mountain of liabilities. All the family’s 76 properties, recorded on a single document, had to be auctioned to pay off liabilities. Fortunes declined further, never to rise for several decades. Family women were asked to gather their jewellery on the large dining table. They complied without a demur. The mountainous pile that formed was huge enough to obscure the sight of people on the other side of the table.

Amin was born to one of the four sons of Abba Mian in 1932 just after the economic decline had set in. It did not take much time for the illustrious family to get dispersed. Family silver and heirloom went up for sale. Amin recalls that he had to dispose off a large table sized compass, several cupboards filled with books, expensive silver cutlery used on board and countless pieces of ornate furniture from time to time. But a bundle of roubles paid for fare by some unknown passenger (bearing dates of 1898 and 1910) and still carrying the pictures of Czarina were found stacked in a cupboard in the company’s office at Ballard Estate. A book titled Life of Mohammed: The Prophet of Allah by E. Dinet and Sliman ben Ibrahim and illustrated by E. Dinet (and pages ornamented by Mohammed Racim) survived the squandering of the heritage.

Heartbroken with the economic downswing, Amin’s grandfather, Abba Mian set sail for Makkah. Hit by a sunstroke, he died there in 1935 on 18th Muharram and was buried in the graveyard of Jannatul Maalla. The scion of the family Abdullah Mian was shot dead in 1935 in Taif after a court intrigue and was buried there.

Decades later, Amin Khandwani was appointed the Chairman of India’s Central Haj Committee and erected Mumbai’s 21-storey Haj House, recognisably the most impressive edifice to be built by Muslims in independent India, and without a single farthing coming in aid from the official sources. Nor did he go for public donations. All resources were generated from within the Haj operations. Amin also represented Mahim in the Bombay Municipal Corporation for 27 years and was also elected a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. He also recalls that some 20 years ago, he received a letter from a British firm informing him of the shipwreck of S. S. Belvedere being located in the Arabian Sea. But then, the cost of rescue operations outweighed the cost the metal would yield. The ship was left to rest and rust there.

Today Mohammad Amin Khandwani and his younger brother, Yakub still live in their seaside bungalow in Mahim. Recalling from his subdued glow of memory, he says, the bungalow was just a guest house and remained from being auctioned off. But the stamp of endearing ways of the family and its munificence is still very strong on Bombay.

(The writer can be reached at maqbool_siraj@rediffmail. com)