The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is quite rightly ubiquitous.

But almost no-one knows about a similar tragedy, now known as the ‘Indian Titanic’, which claimed the lives of 280 people making the journey from Mumbai to East Africa.

On November 23, 1942, a ship named the SS Tilawa, carrying nearly 1,000 people and thousands of tonnes of cargo, was sunk by a Japanese Navy submarine in the Indian Ocean.

One of only two known survivors of the tragedy still alive today is Arvind Bhai Jani, who was just three years old when he boarded the ship with his mother Vasantben and now lives in Thornton Heath.

The pair had left Arvind’s three siblings at their home in a village in Gujarat, India, to travel to east Africa, where Arvind’s father lived.

Your Local Guardian: Arvind Bhai Jani as a young childArvind Bhai Jani as a young child (Image: Bina Brown)

His daughter Bina Brown, who grew up in Thornton Heath and now lives in Charlton, said her father occasionally mentioned the story when she and her three siblings were children, but its magnitude only hit home when she found out he was the only known survivor.

Bina's grandmother refused to talk about what happened, but Arvind managed to piece the story together from overhearing conversations she had with other people.

On the day of the tragedy, she said her grandmother woke to find water everywhere in their cabin after a loud noise, which she would later find out was the first torpedo hitting the ship.

Bina said: “She grabbed my dad, wrapped him in her sari and managed to get out. But they then both fell into the water and were separated. My grandma was in hysterics as she thought she had lost him, but thankfully someone grabbed Dad out of the water and they were reunited  and watched the ship go down.

“Just thinking about it makes me emotional. It sounds like a movie, but it was real. She said it looked like flowers floating in the water, but they were bodies.”

Your Local Guardian: Vasantben JaniVasantben Jani (Image: Bina Brown)

Fortunately an SOS sent from the ship was picked up by the HMS Birmingham and SS Carthage, which came to rescue 678 people, but the harrowing events took their toll on Vasantben.

“My grandmother suffered from PTSD, she always wanted dad nearby afterwards and would wake up screaming,” added Bina, 47.

The pair were rescued back to India, but after news of the sinking got out both Arvind’s father in east Africa and his family in Gujarat believed they had perished.

“They sent a postcard back to their village in Gujarat, but it never arrived. They arrived back to the village on a horse and cart during the ceremony of the 13th day of mourning for their deaths,” said Bina, who works in admin for a tech company.

Having been saved by his mother, Arvind and his family moved to East Africa. He would later meet and marry his wife Aruna, before the couple moved to Thornton Heath in the 1970s.  

The tragedy seemed to have been forgotten about until the families of survivors started to piece together research and The Tilawa Foundation was born in South Africa. And following that the, was set up by Emile Solanki, who coincidentally lived in Norwood, although he has since moved to Canada.

After getting in touch with Emile, Bina realised that her father was, at that time, the only known survivor still alive.

Last year the Jani family attended a commemoration on the 80th anniversary of the tragedy in Mumbai.

And this year the anniversary was held at Leopold Muller Theatre, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Councillor Dominic Mbang was among the special guests at the memorial.

Your Local Guardian: L to R: Emile Solanki, Tejparkash Mangat, Mervyn Maciel, Greenwich mayor Cllr Dominic Mbang, Arvind Jani, Mr Haroon and Kash Kumar at the Tilawa memorial at Greenwich National Maritime MuseumL to R: Emile Solanki, Tejparkash Mangat, Mervyn Maciel, Greenwich mayor Cllr Dominic Mbang, Arvind Jani, Mr Haroon and Kash Kumar at the Tilawa memorial at Greenwich National Maritime Museum (Image:

They were joined by many families of victims visiting from Canada, South Africa and the USA, as well as the other known survivor of the sinking, Tejparkash Mangat.

Bina said: “We have become this big other family now. Getting to meet everyone from South Africa and all over the world was great.

“Now we are trying to reach out to other families affected by this.”

Also attending the memorial was Mervyn Maciel, 95, of Collingwood Road in Sutton, who lost his father Mathias, who worked for the British government in Kenya, his stepmother Effegiana and three step siblings Josephine (3), Francis (1) and Yvonne, who was just three months old, in the tragedy.

Mervyn was 14 at the time of the sinking, but fortunately for him was at school in India along with his two brothers when the tragedy struck.

Your Local Guardian: Mervyn MacielMervyn Maciel (Image: Mervyn Maciel)

Mervyn, who was brought up by his grandparents, said: “It is a shame that the world has forgotten our story which I’d like to call the Forgotten Indian Titanic, and we are now determined to keep the memory of all those who perished alive.”

He added: “I sincerely hope that, if only to honour the memory of those whose lives were so cruelly taken away by this wartime tragedy, the world will come together to acknowledge it.”

As well as 732 passengers and 222 crew, SS Tilawa was carrying 2,364 bars of silver owned by the South African government and intended to be used to make coins.

Divers from Argentum Exploration salvaged the silver bars from the wreckage in 2017.

But an unprecedented UK Supreme Court hearing between Argentum Exploration and the South African government took place on Tuesday November 28 and 29 to decide who gets to keep the bars. A decision is not expected to be made for some months.

If you know of, or are related to a survivor of the tragedy, email