In 1946, my father Ebrahim Rajan Meherally had donated 300,000 Indian rupees for the Diamond Jubilee of Aga Khan III. This amount in today’s terms and value, after more than seven decades, would be equivalent to millions of U.S. Dollars. Since that amount was the highest donation from amongst the Ismāʿīlis of India, my father had the exclusive honor of weighing the late Aga Khan in the Diamonds. In the picture here, my father is seen placing the boxes of the diamonds, on the weighing scale.
In Ismāʿīli tradition, the belief is that “Hazar Imām is the Mazhar of Allāh and is Aql-e-Qul” ( meaning, the living Imām is the All-Wise and All-Knowing Manifestation of Allāh). Like all devout Ismāʿīlis, my father too had the firm belief that Aga Khan possessed a divine power and a ‘Noorani vision’ which enabled him to predict future events with certainty. It is common even in the present-day to see Ismāʿīlis flocking to Canada as per Aga Khan’s instructions. If tomorrow Aga Khan were to instruct Ismāʿīlis to leave Canada and go to Australia, the very next day Ismāʿīlis would start selling their businesses and tender their resignations in a rush to obtain immigration visas for Australia.
My Father’s Move to Congo on Aga Khan’s Instructions
A similar immigration advice was made to my father by Aga Khan III. Since my father was one of the most, if not the most prominent donor in the Ismāʿīli community, he maintained constant correspondence with Aga Khan. My father emigrated from Bombay in the year 1953 and went to East Africa (present-day Kenya). He wrote a letter to Aga Khan seeking his guidance and blessings for the establishment of his business and a quick settlement in Africa. In response, my father was explicitly suggested by Aga Khan to move to Belgian Congo from East Africa. Aga Khan told him that the British Colonies of the East Africa will be the first to get independence, and Belgian Congo will be the last country in Africa to be independent. Therefore, the move to Belgian Congo would provide a longer-term stable business environment.
My father being a devout follower of Aga Khan, immediately moved from East Africa and settled himself in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (now known as Kinshasha, Zaire), in 1954.
A Visit to Villa Yakimour and Aga Khan’s Inquiry for move to Congo
In December 1954, me and my wife had the opportunity to visit Europe and requested an audience with the Aga Khan. The day soon arrived – it was the early morning of December 9th 1954, when we left our hotel in Nice (France) and went out looking for a taxi with a driver that could converse with us in English. I found one and hired that taxi for the day. We asked the driver to take us to Villa Yakimour in Cannes. The Private Secretary to Aga Khan had suggested that we should take a public bus from Nice to Cannes and then hire a local taxi, to save money. My wife was expecting a child, the weather was very cold. Since none of us spoke French, it was not easy to find our way in the South of France under these conditions and reach in time for our appointment in a different town. In those days, we both were young and very dedicated and devout followers of the Aga Khan. This appointment to meet and talk face to face with our Hazar Imam and his young Begum meant a lot to us. We could not take the risk of being late and miss this once in a lifetime appointment of a private Deedar and Mulaqat.
Our taxi arrived at the Villa in Cannes, earlier than our appointment time. We requested the gatekeeper to inform the Secretary of our presence. We were told to enter the Villa enjoy the beautiful garden, see the private swimming pool of the Aga Khan, take photographs of these sites and wait for the next message. We made the most of this rare photo opportunity.
Finally, the seventy-seven year-old Sultan Muhammad Shah and his fourth wife Yvonne Blanche Labrousse (Begum Om Habibeh), who was nearly forty years younger than him, were ready to meet us. We slowly climbed the steps leading to the residence above. We had to be extra careful in climbing these steps since beautiful flowers were planted between the joints of the rocks with which these steps were made. Yvonne Blanche Labrousse (Begum Om Habibeh), who was pushing the wheel chair of her husband who could not walk, greeted us with her candid smile. The Aga Khan also welcomed our visitation as his devoted followers and asked us to come closer. The Aga Khan was wearing a heavy camel color overcoat and heavy blanket of the same color covered his legs to keep him warm. From time to time, the Begum would pull up the blanket which kept on sliding down due to his body movements.
We paid homage and offerings to our spiritual leader as any devout Ismāʿīli would on such occasions. He accepted the offerings and showered us with his usual paternal and maternal blessings. Thereafter, my wife made a request for the name of our second child which she was then bearing. My second son Abbas, who was born three months later, has the name that was given on that day.
When all the religious ceremonies were over, the Aga Khan asked me if I had made my plans for going to Belgian Congo. I was caught off-guard and I replied that I had not considered any plans of moving to Africa. I was at that time living in Pakistan and only a few days ago my parents, whom we had met in London, had suggested that I should move to Belgian Congo where my parents had already moved early in the same year.
As devout Ismāʿīlis, my wife and wondered if it was a miracle or his divine power that out of all the things to talk about the Aga Khan spoke of Congo when we had not even given him the slightest hint of our conversation with my parents in London. It was only later that I came to know that the Aga Khan used to maintain personal files of families of all key office-bearers and donors and it was the job of his secretary to make sure that the Aga Khan would review the file of every person he was meeting. Needless to mention, Aga Khan must have reviewed our family file before meeting us that morning.
When we were about to leave Villa Yakimour, the Begum asked us if we would like to take our photographs with her husband. In the happiest excitement of the special Mulaqat, the child’s name and the out of the blue mention of Congo, we had totally forgotten about the photos. She very generously offered to take the snaps with my Roliflex camera. Thereafter, my wife suggested that I should take the photos of the Aga Khan and his beautiful wife – the former Miss Lyon of 1930. The Begum suggested that she would request her Secretary to take the photos so that we all can come in the picture. Below is that memorable picture taken by the Begum’s secretary.
It was now time to go down those flowery steps, get into a taxi and head back home. At this moment, the Begum noticed that my wife was wearing her silken Sari but had no overcoat to cover her body from the cold weather. She inquired about the overcoat and was informed that my wife had left it in the taxi below. She immediately whispered into the ear of her husband and he asked me to give my overcoat to my wife. Begum was happy to see my wife wearing my overcoat. She gave her usual smile and they both waved us good-bye, not knowing that we were to meet again, after two days.
From Nice to Rome
On 11th of December 1954 we arrived with our baggage at the airport in Nice. It was a small airport and our twin engine plane which was to fly us to Rome was waiting on the tarmac. Before the passengers would embark on the plane, a big car with the police escort come right up to the tail of the airplane. Out came the Aga Khan and his Begum. The couple was holding diplomatic passports and was the first to embark the plane. Once they had settled comfortably in their seats, the rest of the passengers numbering a dozen or so were allowed to embark. When Aga Khan saw me and my wife entering the airplane he surprisingly shouted: “Mr. Meherally, you did not tell me you were traveling on this plane.” I replied to him that I had no such plans on that day of the Mulaqat.
During the journey, Begum and I exchanged the seats. She sat with my wife and I sat next to the Aga Khan. We briefly discussed about my article on the subject of “The Ismāʿīli Theory of Ten Incarnations – Das Avatar”, which I had already sent to him.
This article was based upon ‘Juni Gatpat ni Dua’ (the old Ismaili prayer that was recited in the 1950s and published in Gujrati from the Ismaili Press in Bombay) and on a Gujrati text book for the religious night schools, entitled; ‘Silsila-e-Imamat’ (the continuous lineage of Imamate). Aga Khan promised to send me his approval and suggested that I should get it printed in the Ismaili magazines.
While Aga Khan and myself were discussing the Ismāʿīli beliefs of the unceasing physical manifestations of God as Avatars and the “Triune of Allah” (Allah, Muhammad and ʿAlī) vis-à-vis the “Trinity of Christian Doctrine” (The Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost), my wife informed the Begum that as the winner of an essay competition, I was awarded a free trip to London and Rome. During the showing of the famous movie Roman Holiday (starring, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), the film studio in Rome, the owners of the theater in Karachi and the traveling agents had jointly sponsored the free trip to Europe to the winner of an essay ‘The City of Rome’. The panel of judges had declared me the winner and hence I was on this trip with my wife. Begum gave this good news to her husband who turned around, smiled at me and asked; if I was that lucky winner?
Later during the flight some technical difficulties arose and the engine on our side of the airplane came to a complete stop. The propeller was stationary. The airplane was virtually flying on a single engine. The propeller on the side of the Aga Khan was rotating. He and his Begum were unaware of this stoppage of one engine. When the Begum came to us for a chat we informed her of the situation. She looked outside from our window and saw the stationary propeller with an awe. She requested us not to tell of the engine failure to her husband who had by then fallen fast asleep.
Aga Khan was not in good health – the Begum repeated her request. We agreed not to say anything. Throughout the journey, the Begum kept on looking at the stationery propeller to see if it had restarted. Finally, we landed in Rome. The pilot (probably requested by the Begum) made no mention of this abnormality to the passengers, during the flight. At the airport in Rome, the Aga Khan and his Begum were the first to disembark and got into their car which was driven right up to the airplane. The couple waited till we both got down and wished us a happy journey. They kept on waving to us from their car. Begum, who loved her husband so much and used to take great care of her husband, must had been happy that we had observed the silence as requested by her.
Back in Karachi – Reminder of moving to Congo
Shortly after I came back to Karachi, I received the letter of approval of my article “The Ismāʿīli Theory of Ten Incarnations – Das Avatar”. It was an endorsement to the Ismāʿīli belief in the ten manifestations of Lord Vishnu, with the Prophet’s (pbuh) companion ʿAlī (ra) being the tenth and final physical manifestation of Lord Vishnu.
At the bottom of the letter, the Aga Khan wrote in his own shaky handwriting:
“When do you go to the Congo?” – Aga Khan
My wife and I considered this line of repeated questioning to be an insinuation. I hurriedly submitted my letter to chief missionary Al-Waiz Kassamali Mohammed Jaffer in Karachi who forwarded the article to Bombay from where my my article was published in the Ismaili magazine “Ayina”. In his own Memoirs published in the same year, Aga Khan mentioned briefly about all the messengers of the Old and New Testaments and the Qurʾān and went on to mention Krishna, and Ram as Messengers of Allāh. Today, we know that Krishna and Ram were not historical characters that lived physical lives in India, but were fictional characters of Indian mythology.
Nonetheless, I began preparations to move to Congo and in February 1956, after selling my business and personal assets, I finally moved to Léopoldville in Congo with my family.
Life in Congo
In just over a year after we moved to Congo, Yvonne Blanche Labrousse (Om Habibeh) became a widow. Here in Congo, the independence movement gained momentum. On 4 January 1959, a prohibited political demonstration organised in Léopoldville by a Colgolese political party, which was very vocal against Belgian colonial rule, got out of hand. At once, the colonial capital was in the grip of extensive rioting. It took the authorities several days to restore order and, by the most conservative count, several hundred died. The eruption of violence sent a shock-wave through the Congo and Belgium alike. The movement for independence was in full swing.
I left the Congo and came back to Pakistan. From here, began the series of events which were in total contradiction to what Aga Khan had ‘foretold’ his followers: In June 1960 Belgian Congo and in August 1960 French Congo became independent. In the entire continent of Africa, the Congo was the first region (as opposed to being the last, as Aga Khan had predicted) to become independent. Kenya, which was supposed to get its independence first, as Aga Khan had predicted, was actually the last to become independent on December 12, 1963 – all these events seemed to me as if they happened for a reason – as if to prove, that no one but Allāh alone knows what will happen in the future – no matter how much Ismāʿīlis think that Aga Khan is the possessor of Aql-e-Kul, he actually had absolutely no knowledge of future.
Aga Khan himself, knew this very well. Upon his death, he mentioned in his will that his wife, Yvonne Blanche Labrousse (he mentioned this name and not Om Habibeh) would guide the next Aga Khan (Karim Aga Khan) for a period of the first seven years of Karim Aga Khan assuming the position of the Ismāʿīli Imām.
How can a mortal woman who is not an Imām, guide someone who Ismāʿīlis ask health, wealth and happiness from and assume him to be the bearer of all knowledge?
This further solidified all the doubts I had in the divinity of Aga Khan.