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Survivors of ‘Indian Titanic’ SS Tilawa that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine

The Solanki family has kept the SS Tilawa story alive. They started the quest to find survivors and the descendants of those who couldn’t survive the tragedy.

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On 20 November 1942, a passenger cargo ship set sail from Mumbai to reach Durban in South Africa. But the ship never arrived at its destination, and met a fate similar to that of Titanic. The ‘Indian Titanic’, as the vessel came to be known later, was torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Eighty years later, the Solanki family, kin of one of the passengers who lost his life, is on a quest to find other survivors and their families. Solankis don’t want those who lost their lives eight decades ago to remain just a forgotten page in history.

After holding the first ever commemoration of the tragedy on its 80th anniversary, UK-based Kash Solanki and his son Emile Solanki, who lives in Toronto, have written separate letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart. The letters, which ThePrint has accessed, request that the prime ministers make historical records accessible and dedicate a memorial place with the replica of the ship – SS Tilawa. They have requested that the ship be displayed in the Indian and Japanese National Maritime Museums, and that representatives from India, Japan, South Africa, and the UK attend the next commemoration event.

“About 30 families have come forward and contacted us. I am trying to find a space for this tragedy in Maritime Museums as this is not a small one to be forgotten,” Emile Solanki told ThePrint.


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The rescue mission

World War II was in full swing. SS Tilawa, a 10,000-tonne steamer would start its journey from Mumbai’s Ballard Pier, India’s western port, to Durban in East Africa.

Before halting at Durban, the ship would make stops at Mombasa and Maputo. It was carrying 752 passengers, 222 crew members, and 600 tonnes of cargo that included 60 tonnes of silver bullion.

On 22 November, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, killing 280 innocents on board. It was hit by two torpedoes fired from the Japanese Submarine I-29 (code name – Matsu). The Imperial Japanese Navy was part of the Axis powers in World War II, and about 11 months ago, had attacked Pearl Harbour.

“I heard a terrible explosion, the ship flared, and sirens were going up,” said Chunilal Navsaria, a Tilawa survivor, in a video he sent to Emile Solanki, which is uploaded on the website dedicated to the memory of the ship.

“Everybody was trying to escape. I had a terrible shock because I was just a teenager at that time, 17 years old. It was another 15-20 minutes later when we heard another explosion and the lights of Tilawa went off,” added Navsaria in the video.

Another survivor, Arvindbhai Jani (83), who attended the event in Mumbai on 23 November, said that he was saved by his mother. “As soon as she saw the water coming into the boat, she tied me back to her by her saree, grabbed whatever she could and jumped on to the last life raft that carried passengers to safety,” Jani recalled.

Another account mentioned on Solanki’s website is that of Ahmed Essa Bobat and his son Yoosuf Bobat, who narrated Ahmed’s story. According to Yoosuf, his father was 25 years old when the incident happened.

After the second torpedo hit the ship and it began sinking, Ahmed jumped into the sea despite not knowing how to swim. “He told me that he went down twice, and struggled his way up the third time. He was helped onto a huge piece of timber, probably a part of the ship. There were about 14 people on the timber. They were adrift from, I think, Monday until they were picked up by a British ship on Wednesday evening. He told me that the waves came in as high as three to four storey buildings, huge sharks circled the raft, and their toes were nibbled at by fish.”

HMS Birmingham and SS Carthage rescued 678 survivors, informed Solanki.

Goolam Dhansay, kin of another survivor Ismail Ali, recalled the story his family told him about how his grandfather was rescued. He said that after the first torpedo was hit, the radio officer sent an SOS signal.

“After receiving the SOS, the British HMS Birmingham departed for a search and rescue mission. My grandfather, holding onto a wooden beam, stayed adrift in the Indian Ocean for three days before Birmingham arrived,” Dhansay mentioned. “He was rescued and given medical treatment. It was discovered that his legs had been bitten by barracudas. These are predatory fish with sharp teeth. Birmingham returned the survivors to Bombay where they recuperated,” he added.

More survivors are getting in touch with the Solankis. Recently, they were contacted by the third survivor, Chotoo Khoosal, who is now 98 years old. He lived in Africa and Canada for many years but has now settled in Gujarat’s Bardoli.

“Unfortunately, we were not aware of this when we held a commemorative event in Mumbai on 23 November. We are in touch with his son and are getting details. They want to remain private at the moment,” Emile Solanki said.


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How did the Solankis come in

The Solanki family has kept the SS Tilawa story alive. Emile Solanki’s great-grandfather, Nichchabhai Solanki, was also on the ship but could not survive.

“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,” Emile said.

Earlier this year, Solanki got in touch with the Maritime Mumbai Museum Society and started his quest to find survivors and their families, as well as the descendants of those who couldn’t survive the tragedy.

After getting the list of passengers from the records of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), they found that the passengers were a mix of traders from Navsari and Kachholi, a group of sailors from Goa, and businessmen from Bombay. Solankis have managed to speak to over 25 descendants of survivors.

“There are many questions that need to be answered like why did the Japanese attack passenger cargo liners? How was Tilawa a threat? Could this tragedy have been prevented? And many such,” said Emile. “Now that we have greater awareness and access to further research, we hope these questions can be answered and this, in coming times, won’t be a forgotten tragedy,” Emile said.

(Edited by Tarannum)

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