Operation Kerala: How M. L. Sultan family tracked down relatives in India after a century of separation

The M.L. Sultan family and the public paid tribute to a man who changed the lives of thousands, writes Ismail Suder.

When Hajee M. L. Sultan – the noted philanthropist – arrived as a poor migrant from India 130-years-ago, he slogged his entire life in South Africa to ensure that the local community was well educated and cared for before he died.

In today’s currency, his donations towards the educational needs of the community and to charitable causes would easily amount to about R320-million, according to research.

Last week, the extended M. L. Sultan family and members of the public met at the 1860 Heritage Centre in Carlisle Street, Durban, to honour this notable humanitarian and philanthropist who gave away most of his wealth to worthy causes before he died in 1953.

M.L. Sultan’s life was extraordinary. Leaving behind his entire family in the coastal seaside town of Kollam, on the picturesque Malabar Coast of Kerala, he boarded a passenger ship, the Congella, and arrived in Durban in 1880. At just 17, he worked extremely hard, first as a porter on the Natal Government Railway, thereafter as a waiter, as a banana farmer in Escombe and as a businessman in Durban’s Victoria Street.

What was remarkable about this father of 10 was that when he had amassed enough wealth, he began establishing numerous schools in various towns, including in Pietermaritzburg, Merebank, Colenso, Ladysmith, Kranskop and Stanger. Historical records show that he left little of his wealth to his family, except his large Victorian mansion and a legacy of selfless service to humanity.

He passed away in 1953, three years before his dream project, the M. L. Sultan Technical College, was completed in 1956. His funeral in Durban was attended by over 4000 people from all walks of life.

At the commemoration event last week, M. L. Sultan’s grandson, Yunus Sultan – a businessman in Durban – recounted how his extended family had shown a deep desire to connect with Hajee M. L. Sultan’s other family in India – and how that family was eventually tracked down in Kollam, Kerala, his birthplace.

In 2002, some Sultan family members started a search to locate remnants of their relatives in Kollam, but they were unsuccessful. So during a family reunion of the Sultan family in Durban in 2015, a commitment was made to once again  find their roots in Kerala. During the same year, one of M. L. Sultan’s grandsons, Abdul Hameed Sultan, who resides in England, found a diary of his grandfather. This diary contained addresses of M. L. Sultan’s family in Kollam. This was a major breakthrough in the search.

Dubbing their project “Operation Kerala”, they enlisted the help of friends in Kollam to locate the India-based family of M. L. Sultan. The friends put up posters in public spaces around Kollam, in mosques, adverts in local newspapers, and posters were also stuck on shop-fronts.

A friend residing in Kollam, Feroz Khan, was instrumental in the search. “Mr Khan crisscrossed Kollam, day and night, in search of the family of a man who had left his home town 126 years ago.”

After two months of searching, a frustrated Khan was about to end his search, when he stopped at the side of the road and showed a photograph of M. L. Sultan to an elderly gentleman. He asked the man whether he had any family in South Africa.

Khan was shocked at his reply: “What took you so long?”

He told Khan: “I always knew that my family would one day find me.” I am Mulak Mohammed Shumshudeen, grandson of M. L. Sultan’s brother, Myteen Kannu Labba.”

Excited, Khan and the others who had helped in the search, went to the elderly man’s house and was shown a treasure trove of documents relating to M. L Sultan’s life in South Africa. Khan then sent this vital information to Abdul Hameed Sultan in London who then forwarded it to Yunus Sultan in Durban.


A team of descendents of M. L. Sultan – from South Africa, England and Australia – were then tasked to travel to Kollam. “We then met Shumshudeen, the man of the moment who was 83-years-old. After the formalities, Shumshudeen took out the treasure trove of documents. He again reiterated that he had kept the treasure trove of documents because he always knew that the Sultan family will one day find him,” Yunus Sultan said.

One of the documents was a letter dated 18 December 1897, posted by Hajee M. L. Sultan to his sister, Noor – and written in the Malayalam language. The letter was written on a letterhead of the Masonic Grove Hotel in Johannesburg where he worked as a waiter.

Yunus Sultan said the South African team was introduced to over 160 blood relatives of M. L. Sultan, and he keeps in touch with many of them regularly via Whatsapp.

He said the reunification experience was “joyous and humbling” and he encouraged South African families to “be bold and reconnect with their India roots”.

Lecturer and author, Professor Goolam Vahed gave a detailed overview on the life and times of this laudable benefactor.

After the death of his beloved wife, Mariam Bee – after which the Mariam Bee Sultan Centre in Overport is named – M. L. Sultan expedited his philanthropy work.

Another speaker was Shehnaaz B. Sultan, the youngest granddaughter of M. L Sultan. She pointed out that much of what she learned about her renowned grandfather was through her late dad, Aboobaker Sultan, the youngest son of M.L. Sultan. “However, my present-day info is derived from my aunt who will be celebrating her 90th birthday this year. She is M. L. Sultan’s daughter in law, who shared his home with him for the last six years of his life.

“My grandfather was a tall well-built man to whom order and neatness was almost an obsession. A man whose word was his bond, so much so that he was known to have walked from Escombe to Durban, a distance of 12 miles, to keep an appointment when the train service had been dislocated due to a land slide.”

She said her grandfather was known to host grand family functions. He was particular about how his table had to be laid-out with well laundered table cloths and sparkling cutlery. “His Escombe home was grand in itself, with large a dining and living room, and a wraparound Victorian veranda… a memory embedded in my mind as a six-year-old enjoying holidays at this home.

“After attaining success in his business, my grandfather felt the nostalgic call of the country of his boyhood. He went back to India in search of his friends. Most of them had gone, so his desire to stay in India had died. He returned to Durban within six months. He then channeled all his energies towards his charitable work.”

She said the trust which M. L. Sultan had set up, was responsible for building many schools, madrassas and even frail care centres, stretching from Merebank to Stanger and inland towns from Pietermaritzburg to Ladysmith, but his college project in Centenary Road, was “his pride and joy”.

On 25 November 2001, the Sultan family was shocked and disappointed when they learnt that the Department of Education had decided to change the name of M. L. Sultan Technikon to the Durban University of Technology (DUT) as a result of a merger. No amount of appeals to retain the original name would change the mind of the authorities.

However, she said, not all was lost. An approach was made to eThekwini Municipality to consider changing Centenary Road to M. L. Sultan Rd in honour of her grandfather’s contributions – and thankfully this was approved.

“In the light of all that is happening on campuses today, in terms of student unrest, protests, damage to property and violence, we can only hope and pray that although the college lost its original name, Hajee M. L. Sultan’s aims, objectives, vision and legacy lives on…”

Mettle Administrative Services

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