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28. Chhotubhai, Ismail Mahomed Jaffer, Varas - page 88

Ramzan Ali (d. 1886), son of Sabzali Hansraj, a dedicated social worker and businessman in Mundra, Kutchh, had six children: three sons: Mahomed Jaffer (1874-1918), Rahim (1880-1929) and Pir Sabzali (1884-1938); and three daughters: Fatimabai, Jainabai and Sonbai.
Mahomed Jaffer, a successful businessman in Bombay and Europe, generously willed one lac rupees to build a sanatorium for sick and convalescent Ismailis. However, because he passed away before he could build it, it was left to his son, Ismail, to realize his father's humane dream. In 1931, he actually built a large sanatorium in Panchgani, known as Bagh-e-Rahat, at a cost of approximately Rs. 130,000.

Ismail was born to Mahomed Jaffer and his third wife, Shirin. Mahomed Jaffer's daughter, Fatima, was born to his first wife, while both his second and fourth wives died giving birth (the latter, giving birth to twins). Mahomed Jaffer himself passed away on October 27, 1918, and only his daughter, Fatima, and his son, Ismail survived.

Ismail, the son of Mahomed Jaffer, fondly known as Varas Chhotubhai in world Ismaili circles, Chhotu Mia'n of Lady Aly Shah, or the Issu of Prince Aly Khan, was born in Bombay on June 5, 1904. Although he lost his mother in 1906, when he was barely two, the void in the infant's life was quickly filled by his gifted grandmother, Meghbai (1850-1945), who instilled in him a fiercely deep-rooted love for the Imam and service to the jamat.

Meghbai, who often visited Lady Aly Shah at Wadi, Bombay, sometimes also took her grandson, Chhotubhai, with her, as Lady Aly Shah was very fond of him. It was during these visits that she taught him to read the Holy Koran. He was so close to Lady Aly Shah that later on she used to even send special messages through him to the Mukhis of Kadak and Kandi Mola Jamatkhanas. She saw in him a potential leader, destined to render great services to the community.

Chhotubhai attended Saint Mary's Boys' High School in Bombay, later venturing into the real estate business and becoming a leading property dealer in 1927. Philanthropic by nature, he devoted himself selflessly to serving the jamat. Many scholarships and stipends to widows flowed unabatedly from his munificent pockets. It was through his own diligence, hard work, and unwavering and compassionate commitment to community service that he raised to prominence, becoming one of the most recognized household names in worldly Ismaili circles.

Over the years, Varas Chhotubhai served in many jamati and civic institutions. First, his nomination as Mission Secretary (1928-1933) and then as Hon. Chief Secretary (1933-1936) and President of the Recreation Club Institute in Bombay, with Itmadi Rehmatullah Virji as Chief Secretary, for a year (1936-1937) was followed by his appointment as member (1934) and Hon. Secretary (1934-1936) of the Bombay Ismailia Council.

Active in Bombay's civic affairs, he was elected member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and had the titles of Justice of Peace and Honorary Presidency Magistrate conferred upon him by the British Indian Government.

Not happy with just giving of his time tirelessly, he generously opened up his pocket book to many deserving causes. At the opening (by Alijah Mukhi Ali Muhammad Ibrahim Virji) of the Fidai Boarding and Orphanage on December 13, 1928 in Bombay, Varas Chhotubhai enrolled himself as the first life patron.

His service to the Imam's family is legendary: As Prince Aly Khan's personal secretary, he travelled with him in India, Burma and the Middle East. He also accompanied Lady Aly Shah to Syria and Lebanon in 1930-31, sought his counsel and support from the early 1930s till her demise.

After Pir Sabzali, Chhotubhai's uncle, returned from an extensively long touring Central Asia, he persuaded Varas Chhotubhai and other jamati elders to join him on another long tour of Europe and of the Middle East. To mark this momentous occasion, on May 23, 1924, Huzur Wazir Ali Muhammad Rehmatullah Mecklai threw a farewell party for them at the top of the Taj Hotel in Bombay. Departing Bombay on May 24, 1924 on the mail steamer Caledonia of P & O Co., they landed in England and proceeded to Italy, France, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, Syria, and Egypt, returning to Bombay on November 5, 1924 at the completion of a long, successful tour.

In 1925 Wazir Rahim Basaria asked Chhotubhai to be amongst the ten staff members chosen to serve during the Imam's visit to Zanzibar, East Africa. So on January 7, 1925, Varas Chhotubhai journeyed to Zanzibar with Pir Sabzali (1884-1938) and other jamati elders, returning to Bombay on April 18, 1925.

Lady Aly Shah was prescient about Chhotubhai's leadership role in life, as over the years, the Imam and Prince Aly Khan relied on his intelligence, dedication, hardwork, and discretion over and over again. In serving the Imam, his family and the jamat, Varas Chhotubhai undertook many trips: A few years after his East African trip, in April 1930, Varas Chhotubhai was called upon accompanying Lady Aly Shah to Damascus, Palestine and other historical cities, as her personal secretary. Later, she settled into a bungalow perched on a picturesque hill in Sofar, near Beirut.

And when Prince Aly Khan's steamer, the Merietta Pasha, dropped anchor at Beirut on July 22, 1930, Varas Chhotubhai was the first one to go aboard to welcome the Prince. He then re-emerged with him and introduced the Prince to the governor of Salamia, Mir Mirza Varas Suleman and other dignitaries.

Soon after, Prince Aly Khan and Varas Chhotubhai were on their way by car to see Lady Aly Shah in Sofar. They continued on to Homs, where 400 Ismaili horsemen gave Prince Aly Khan a rousing welcome. As befitted as a beloved Prince, they entered Salamia in a procession, making their way to the Jamatkhana, where a darbar was held for this historical event. In front of the devout Ismailis who waited patiently to catch a glimpse of the heir-apparent, the Ismaili governor of Salamia read this poignant message from Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah: 'I am sending my beloved son to you, and you should consider him as equivalent to my own coming. I am sending the Prince in the capacity of my heir-apparent.' Prince Aly Khan used the occasion to bestow the title of Alijah on Kamadia Mir Mirza Haji Mustapha, with the help of a wooden stick.

Although Prince Aly Khan was born and raised in Europe, he felt completely at ease riding horses in Salamia, adorned in Arabian sartorial splendor, which prompted Varas Chhotubhai to remark, 'How elegant you look in an Arabian dress,' to which Prince Aly Khan quipped, 'Of course! Although I was born in Europe, the Arabian blood of the Holy Prophet nevertheless flows in my veins.' Major A.J. Lakhpati (1884-1947) was so touched by this charming exchange that he ended up composing a beautiful poem to praise the Prince.

Before Prince Aly Khan returned to Sofar, a six-hour drive from Salamia, where Varas Chhotubhai was to join him in a hunting expedition. But the Prince, who had a penchant for driving fast cars, made it to Sofar in just one hour! From Beirut, Prince Aly Khan returned to Europe, while Varas Chhotubhai went back to Salamia with Lady Aly Shah. He went on to visit Damascus and Palestine before returning to Bombay with Lady Aly Shah on October 3, 1930.

After arriving in India on November 21, 1930 on the mail steamer Ranchi of P & O Co., Prince Aly Khan toured Northern India by rail. The 'Punjab Mail' stopped at Kalyani before arriving at Gwalior on December 8, 1930. Accompanying the Prince, as his guests were N. M. Dumasia, the author of 'The Aga Khan and his Ancestors' (Bombay, 1939), M. S. Jassani, and the Syrian officer Haji Mustapha. Captain Majid Khan (d. 1956), his bodyguard, was helped by Lt. Col. Pir Muhammad Madhani and Major A.J. Lakhpati; Varas Chhotubhai went along as his private secretary.

By December 10, they arrived in Agra to visit the legendary Taj Mahal. Another 23-mile drive brought them to the fascinating Fatehpur Sikhri. The next day in Delhi, they toured the Delhi Fort, Grand Mosque and the enchanting Kutb Minar. Then it was off to Jalandar, where Capt. Dass was waiting to welcome them on behalf of Kapurthala State. Two days later, on December 13, after a short 14-mile drive, their caravan reached Kapurthala, where Maharaja Sir Jagjit Singh welcomed them to Jagjit Palace. Their days were filled with sailing and hunting waterfowls, as well as deer in the jungle. Two days later, on December 13, after a short 14-mile drive, their caravan reached Kapurthala, where Maharaja Sir Jagjit Singh welcomed them to Jagjit Palace. Their days were filled with sailing and hunting waterfowls, as well as deer in the jungle.

Taking their leave after two days, they drove to Amritsar, and from there another 28 miles to Lahore, where more historical sights captivated them, including the Shalimar Gardens, Emperor Jahangir's tomb, and Shahi Masjid.

After getting to Ratlam by train, they drove another 84 miles to Indore, where Mukhi Nur Mohammad Somji of the Ratlam jamat welcomed them. However, as guests of H.H. Maharaja Dhiraj Raj Rajeshwar, they spent the night at his palace before returning to Indore, where they were met by Vazir ad-Dawla, the Prime Minister of Indore. Then they left for Dharampore by the Punjab Express. After Pir Sabzali joined them at the Godhra station, they reached Surat on December 20. In Dharampore, they stayed at the Narshih Vilas as special guests of Suryawanshi Maharana Shri Vijaydevji. The next day, on a hunting trip in the jungle, Prince Aly Khan managed to hunt down a 71/2-foot long panther and a deer. The magnanimous Maharaja of Dharampore, who presented Prince Aly Khan with a fine robe, also gave a gold ring to N. M. Dumasia, gold buttons to Varas Chhotubhai and Capt. Majid Khan, and robes of filigree to the others.

All too soon, Prince Aly Khan's Northern Indian tour came to an end, and he and his party returned to Bombay on December 24, 1930 by the Kathiawadi Express. Prince Aly Khan then departed for Europe on January 17, 1931. As his personal secretary, Varas Chhotubhai had remained by the Prince's side during the entirety of his month-long tour.

At the completion of his successful and eventful Indian tour, on Prince Aly Khan's return to Europe, the Imam sent the following telegram to his Bombay jamats:

Marseilles, France

Children - Bombay

My son arrived. He sends his best affectionate thoughts and I, my paternal blessings to all the councils, jamats, ladies volunteers, punjebhais, boys, and girls for so much loving attention during his short visit . Our affectionate thoughts always with you.

In 1908, when other Indian communities benefited from their co-operative institutions, the Muslim community had none. In 1930, Varas Chhotubhai was instrumental in the establishment of a co-operative institution to help the Ismaili victims of economic depression and unemployment that eventually became a leading financial institution, registered under the Government Co-operative Act by twelve promoters. It was the first of its kind, not only amongst the Ismailis, but amongst the Muslims of Bombay as well.

Prince Aly Khan, who visited the office of The Ismailia Co-operative Bank Ltd. on December 15, 1933, was warmly received by the community leaders, and after inspecting the bank premises, he asked many questions. Varas Chhotubhai singled out by the President for his meritorious service, as the steady progress of the bank was mainly due to Chhotubhai's hard work and persistence, was presented with a shawl by Prince Aly Khan.

After Prince Aly Khan's departure, Hussain Ali M. Rehmatullah, the Mayor of Bombay commented in the visitor's book: 'During my visit I was pleased to see the fine progress made during only a few years, and the efficient manner in which its affairs are managed. I congratulate the Committee on their achievement and wish the Institution a long life of still greater utility.'

On December 14, 1933, Sultan Mohamed Shah together with Mata Salamat and Prince Aly Khan stepped off the Rajputana of P & O Co. to a welcoming thunderous applause. Varas Chhotubhai once again served as Prince Aly Khan's private secretary during this visit, and accompanied him by air to Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Agra, Jubblepore, and other cities. They also visited Rangoon, Burma from January 7 to January 17, 1934. On the way back from Mahableshawar by car on December 25, 1933, when the Imam and Mata Salamat stopped briefly at the sanatorium at Panchgani, Varas Chhotubhai welcomed them warmly. As the Imam inspected the premises, he asked Dr. Ghulam Ali Chandu and Jusab Allana Manji many questions, and after blessing them, he returned to Bombay.

When Prince Aly Khan visited the 'Ismail House,' which Varas Chhotubhai had built at Sandhurst Road, Bombay, on December 14, 1933 at 10.15 a.m., he was warmly received by Varas Chhotubhai, Dewan Mohammad Ibrahim Mohammad Rawjee, and Ramzan Ali Machiswala, along with other distinguished guests. Entering the study, Prince Aly Khan smiled as he looked at a photo of Chhotubhai's late father, and noted: 'The shadow of the central part of your father's image is seen in your face.' Prince Aly Khan then entered the main hall where he accepted the family mehmani, and talked freely with all those present.

A few weeks later, the Imam accepted Chhotubhai's invitation to visit Ismail house as well. In preparation for the Imam's visit to 'Ismail House' on January 9, 1934, a brightly decorated tent was pitched at Sandhurst Road (East) for a grand banquet, and Varas Chhotubhai, Pir Sabzali, Ramzan Ali Machiswala and Alijah Ghulam Hussain Bandali Somji welcomed the 1500 guests at the main gate. When the Imam arrived at 10.30 a.m., he granted the family a private audience and accepted their mehmani on the first floor, and lauded Varas Chhotubhai's significant and considerable services.

At the reception, where the Imam stayed for 45 minutes, he presented Chhotubhai with a gold medal with the Imam's image on one side and an English inscription on the other, on behalf of the Ismailia Cooperative Bank's directors. And before the entire audience, he also pledged the sum of one thousand rupees for the Fidai Boarding on Varas Chhotubhai's behalf.

So on January 20, 1934, when the Imam and Prince Aly Khan visited the Fidai Boarding, Varas Chhotubhai translated Prince Aly Khan's speech into Hindi for the audience. As he approached the microphone, he blurted out, 'This is the first time I have ever used a microphone,' to which Wazir Ghulam Hussain H. Thavar (1907-1963) remarked, 'But it is one of the best opportunities to do so.' Overhearing their little exchange, Prince Aly Khan cheerfully added, 'Yes, it is a very fine opportunity.'

After the Imam's departure from India, The Central Panjibhai Club of Bombay hosted a grand reception at the Recreation Club Institute to honor the new title-holders and leaders on March 17, 1934. The programme began with a stirring speech by Huzur Wazir Ali Muhammad R. Mecklai, as one by one, he highlighted the meritorious services of the distinguished leaders. Referring to the services of Varas Chhotubhai, he said, 'Alijah Ismailbhai Mahomed Jaffer, known as Chhotubhai, is Prince Aly Khan's personal secretary, and the Imam casts a graceful eye on him at all times. He was destined to serve the community and religion since his childhood, and became a leader at a very young age. He has served with great sacrifices, travelling to Syria with Prince Aly Khan, where his services were highly valued. And he has recently been appointed a member of the Bombay Council.'

In 1934, when the Ismailia Students' Education Society was first established, with Ghulam Hussain B. Somji as its first President, it faced many challenges. However, under Varas Chhotubhai's dynamic leadership -- as its second President -- the society engaged in a flurry of constructive activities: for example, it organized regular elocution and essay writing competitions, debates, symposiums, social gatherings, sporting events, and numerous other activities to enhance the students' opportunities and education.

After providing the Society with suitable premises as well as generous financial aid and books, Chhotubhai became known as the father of the I.S.E.S., as he continued to nurture it with his paternal guidance, helping the disadvantaged students with scholarships and textbooks. Additionally, he also set up a library and an information bureau for the students.

The following year Chhotubhai was called upon to get involved in the significant Jubilee celebrations. In response to the Imam's telegram to the Bombay Ismaili Council on August 12, 1935 asking them to set up a committee (of active, educated members) to prepare for his Golden Jubilee celebrations, the Aga Khan Golden Jubilee Committee was formed, with Lady Ali Shah's help and advice, which she inaugurated on October 16, 1935 at Bombay's Aga Hall.

Sir Ibrahim Rehmatullah (1862-1942) was named President and Ghulam Ali G. Merchant Vice-President; Pir Sabzali, who headed up a working committee responsible for collecting donations, sought Itmadi Ghulam Hussain's support to include Varas Chhotubhai in the Committee as well. The Working Committee, which met at Varas Chhotubhai's home, debuted their fund-raising campaign with the Kathiawar jamat, succeeding in raising five million rupees.

Nine sub-committees were also set up to synchronize the various aspects of the Jubilee celebrations. To eliminate duplication, Varas Chhotubhai, President of the Control Committee, which coordinated with the Presidents of the Reception and General Arrangement committees, ensured that the thousands of guests were received and seated appropriately.

Five short months after the prodigious groundwork was laid, the great moment finally arrived. The historic Golden Jubilee celebrations were held at Hasanabad on January 19, 1936, and Ghulam Ali G. Merchant, the Vice-President, read a welcome address on behalf of the jamats. In his response, the Imam expressed his happiness at the occasion and accepted the gold presented by his followers, pledging to use it for the upliftment of the Indian jamats. So, to put that plan into action, he asked Ghulam Ali G. Merchant, Rahimtullah Chinoy, Kassim Ali Manji Nathoo, Ali Muhammad R. Mecklai and Varas Chhotubhai to form the Gold Grant Committee.

That same evening, though, the Imam, with Begum Saheba, took a drive through Ismaili neighborhoods to enjoy an unsurpassed display of illuminations: they headed for Mazgon from the Willingdon Sports Club, arriving at Dongri via Hasanabad, and were met by homes adorned in ribbons of light, bursting in color.

According to 'Golden Jubilee Granth' by N. M. Budhwani (Dhoraji, 1937, p. 32), 'Ismail Mahomed Jaffer, J.P.'s

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