Chapter One – The journey away from home


Chapter One

The journey away from home


or, The Journey to Aligarh

or From Roodeport to Aligarh


Roodeport was, at the time of my birth, a small town about twelve miles from Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.

The population was small, with a mix of all the races. The Whites – both English and the Afrikaans (Boers) – the Blacks, or natives as they were called, and the Indians. The Indians were Muslims, Hindus and Parsees .This was the time of apartheid, which meant that the races were kept apart – in schools, housing, residential areas, buses, trains, and so on. Although the air we breathed could not be separated, nor the sun or the moon kept away from the Blacks and the Indians.

Apartheid, at its pinnacle, was our daily dish at he age of ten or so, and it was humiliating, to say the least.

In this small town, I grew up. The mornings were school-time and the afternoons,  madressah-time. School used to be fun. The atmosphere was friendly, the teachers, male and female, were kind and soft spoken Indians or Malays. In Roodeport, there was only a primary school, up to standard VI, after which we had to go to Jo’burg. In South Africa, after high school, there was no further education available for people of colour like us. This was a general rule, and to acquire further education one had to leave for England or for India.

With two of my elder brothers in India at the time in Aligarh and Bombay, this was the only option open to me.  It was 1946, when this idea of going to Aligarh began to take shape. Along with the Moosa family, a plan was made for seven or eight boys to travel together to Aligarh.

SS Karagola was the name of the ship on which we sailed, a filthy cargo ship bound for Bombay from Durban with a group of ten boys aged between ten to twelve years, on the Deck Class. Several fruit boxes were loaded for us along with our baggage – compliments of the Moosa family.

All of us were excited at first about the journey but as we got on the way, sea sickness got the better of us. Instead of a few young boys enjoying their trip to Bombay, it turned out to be an ordeal. We could not retain food for an extended period of time and survived on plain water. Without food, it seemed like a prison term. All the fruit boxes were emptied out in vomit .Eat and it was out …eat and it was out …

The ship touched some ports on the way. I remember Mombassa, which was a good break. We went out to town and left the stinking ship for a day or so. After a tortured journey that lasted another ten days, we finally reached port in Bombay, in India, the land of our ancestors.

Ahmed “chacha” had been appointed in charge of us, a tough, no nonsense uncle. There to receive us was my elder brother Mohammed (now called “Doc”). He was studying medicine at the Grant Medical College in Bombay which was considered quite prestigious in India. Later, after Partition, he had to move to Dhaka and was accepted in the medical college there. After completing his studies, he migrated to England.

The first brotherly advice Doc gave us when we arrived was “Don’t give your money away to the beggars here who you will see and pity. There are so many of them in India that you will go broke in a short time.”

Yusuf, my second eldest brother, was at Aligarh at the time. So were other boarders from SA, among them Ebrahim Garda, later to become my daughter’s father-in-law.


From Bombay, our first stop was the ancestral villages – Kacholi and Taraj – both of them about 150 miles inland from Bombay. A train took us to Sachin Railway Station, the closet railway point to the two villages.

This was the first time in my life that I had been to a village with the opportunity of observing closely the lives of the people who lived there. These were the villages from which my father and mother had migrated to South Africa. My father had left with some elders when he was about six-years-old.

How they got to SA, what they did to survive, I don’t know. What I do now is that my father worked in some Indian shops for some years, although I can’t say how many.

I will try and find out from Doc who now lives in Manchester.

The villages were small, without electricity, with kerosene lamps the standard lighting in the homes. Water was drawn from the well. The rich had their own wells in the house, while the poor shared the village well. There were no paved roads but only dirt roads that were not motorable when the monsoon rains came. Then, one had to just wade through the mud and the water to get from one place to the other.

The village had one good road – the mall please check – that connected the nearby villages to each other. But even this road was not fit for buses or taxis during the rainy season. At such times, one had to walk to the next village, Lachpur, where a pucca road existed that connected to the nearby town. Here bus services terminated for the surrounding villages.

As young boys, all this was new, unique and fun – walking in the rain to catch a bus from Lachpur to Surat, a big town, a trading post of old. Here we would watch films at the cinema and eat at wayside cafes and teahouses. We would sleep at musafir khanas or at the railway station on the benches in the waiting room. As young boys, life seemed wonderful on such trips to the village. The first trip to the villages was short and we soon boarded a train to Aligarh.

Aligarh was the centre of education for the Muslims but this was 1946 and the Partition of India was just round the corner. Aligarh therefore held a high degree of importance for the Muslims of India which also made it a prime target for the Hindus. Aligarh was the citadel of Muslim thought and culture in UP, India.

As young boys enrolled in school, we did not understand much about the Hindu-Muslim issue. We were made to believe that the University could be the target of Hindu mobs who went about attacking Muslim places of education and of worship. Therefore, we were given some lessons in self defense – how to use a “lathi”, a long pole, to defend oneself and to hit out at an attacker.

The hostel was located in a manner that there was only one entrance, the main gate, and since the gate was secure, the hostel was more or less like a fort. Its four sides were cornered by the rooms and it was a single storey building. The roofs were flat where people used to sit outdoors in the winter sun. In those days, it functioned as the ramparts of a fort where archers and other defenders were made to collect stones and to stack them to knock down any enemy who dared to scale the walls, like in the Hollywood movies.

We were made to do duty on the rooftop in rotation – young boys up at night to perform “defense duties” on the hostel rooftop, waiting for Hindu mobs to attack, which they never did.

Thus we spent our days at the time of India’s partition. From Aligarh, when we had to travel to Surat or Bombay, we moved in large groups. We would go to the railway station many hours in advance and take over the railway compartment that was to be hooked on from the Aligarh station. We went with our lathis and did not allow any outsider to enter “our” compartment as the rowdy Aligarh crowd moved from Aligarh to Surat or Bombay.

It was quite exciting, getting off at the intermediate stations, buying food and fruit from the kiosks and joking with the vendors on the platforms. We enjoyed ourselves and amused others, I think.

In all or activities, there were no girls and everything was an all boys affair.

I gave my Matric examination in Aligarh. Did not work hard or study late into the night. When the results came, it was a First Division and a sixth position in class. Never dreamt that it would be so easy!

Here I must mention that the South African boys were given the option to take “Easy Urdu” for the Matriculation exam. Otherwise, with Iqbal and Hali in Urdu, not one of us would have made it through Aligarh. The only I learnt at the time stays with me… “Lab pe attie hai dua ban ke tamana meri…” check, IQBAL?



Chapter Two

Lahore, the first solo flight