The house that Jinnah built
Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Malabar Hill mansion was deeply connected with his dreams of Pakistan and ambitions of being the Great Leader
Perhaps nothing epitomizes the perishing of Jinnah’s dreams more than the decaying bungalow that he had built for himself with such high investment of hope and money nearly 80 years ago. The sprawling white mansion spread over two-and-a-half acres on Mumbai’s Malabar Hill, with its pointed arches and imposing columns, was once so famed for its marbled splendour that hordes of admiring tourists would come up to its guarded gates to try and catch a glimpse of it from afar. Few among these gawking sightseers were aware that Malabar Hill’s most renowned bungalow, the Jinnah House as it came to be called, actually stood on the dust of an older bungalow, a sturdy little house in the Goanese style that used to be called South Court, which Jinnah razed in order to build his new house. It was South Court, perched on the slope of the hill overlooking the Arabian Sea, that 18-year-old Ruttie Petit had entered in April 1918, walking from her father’s palace yards away to secretly marry Jinnah according to Islamic tenets. And it was in South Court that the Jinnahs mostly lived while their marriage lasted, with their only child and dogs and cats and, of course, servants, both the house and husband silently resisting Ruttie’s attempts to transform its “fun-forsaken" bleakness into something more to her taste.
But returning from his self-exile in England in 1934, fired by his “grand mission" as he called it, Jinnah appears to have undergone a transformation both in his taste for houses as well as politics. He was still not temperamentally inclined to the pomp of his mostly Parsi neighbours on Malabar Hill, but instead seemed hell-bent on proving something to the world. Years later, someone who had known Jinnah for long, Sri Prakasa, India’s first high commissioner to Pakistan, claimed that it was upon learning that his arch-rival Gandhi had supposedly remarked that “Jinnah is now finished", that Jinnah grew so incensed that he decided to return from England, giving up his thriving practice in the Privy Council and his comfortable home in Hampstead, in order to prove Gandhi wrong.
In the first five years of his return, this white hot fury of being labelled a “finished" leader found expression in rebuilding a political career from scratch, with Jinnah being consumed with a manic energy as he worked to revive the almost defunct Muslim League and raise a cadre of young Muslims for his cause. But by 1939, his task accomplished and hailed gratifyingly by Muslims everywhere as Quaid-i-Azam, Jinnah was finally ready to build the house he deemed proper for the Great Leader he had become.
For the site of this grand mansion he did not have to look far. There was South Court, occupying prime estate on Malabar Hill but lying derelict ever since he left for England in 1930, heartsick and broken by his wife’s death. Funnily enough, when Jinnah returned to Bombay, as Mumbai was known, he did not move into his own home, but into a similar house a little further up Malabar Hill on Little Gibbs Road. No one knew why but his early biographer, Hector Bolitho, speculates that the ghosts of South Court might have been too oppressive for Jinnah. But now, 10 years after Ruttie’s death and with his self-confidence shored by the worshipping crowds of Muslims wherever he turned, Jinnah was ready to raze the house and its memories and build anew.
He went naturally to the leading architect of Bombay, an Englishman named Claude Batley. Money was no constraint and while Jinnah knew nothing and cared even less about both architecture and furniture, he was clear about what he wanted: “a big reception room, a big veranda and big lawns for garden parties", as Batley later told Bolitho.
But Batley found to his dismay that even if Jinnah had no taste either for architecture or furniture, that was not going to stop him from getting the work done his way. He micromanaged the whole way, even though his busy political schedule took him across the country.
As Batley told Bolitho: “He insisted on choosing the colours of the marble for the terrace, and standing by when the pieces of stone were fitted, much to the annoyance of the Italian stone masons doing the work." Besides the Italian stonemasons, Jinnah also hired a Muslim “clerk of works", an English builder and a Hindu plumber. According to the architect, so long as the house did not leak, Jinnah did not care about the craftsmanship. “Unfortunately," Batley said, “as so often happens in a new house, there was a leak. He was furious." Then, as Batley told Bolitho, “when I passed the certificates for the contractors, Jinnah would not pay. He haggled with the contractors and insisted on reductions when the work was finished."
He moved into his new house in 1940—the year, ironically, when Jinnah declared for the first time that Muslims were a separate nation. It cost the astounding sum (for that time) of Rs2 lakh, but was totally worth it as far as Jinnah was concerned. It was his answer to all those detractors who had dared to write him off as “finished". It was also useful for impressing people with the transformation he had undergone, from plain Mr Jinnah to the Quaid-i-Azam. Soon everyone had heard about his bungalow, in all corners of the country, and “the fabulous wealth of Mr Jinnah, his grand style of living and his palatial residence in Bombay" became a legend.
In many ways, the bungalow had the same effect on its beholders as Jinnah now exercised on Muslims, especially the younger ones. “Jinnah’s personality was so awe-inspiring," as K.H. Khurshid, a young Muslim League activist, puts it in his memoir, “that when he approached a table, everyone stood up, unable to say much, if anything... " The mansion too left its visitors awe-struck. Catching the first glimpse of its marbled facade, as he entered through the main gates and down a slope and around a big pipal tree with its branches almost touching the balcony above, one visitor, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, exclaimed, “Oh, it is a dream!"
But inside the grand home, with its over-spacious rooms, its two inhabitants—Jinnah and his sister Fatima (Jinnah’s daughter, Dina, had by this time married and been estranged from Jinnah for several years)—continued as they always had, leading their spartan lives with clockwork precision, rarely entertaining visitors. Every morning, at 9.15 precisely, they would come down from their bedrooms in the lift and make their way to the dining room, which they left precisely at 10, Jinnah getting to work at once, not stopping for the next 11 hours or more. Thanks to Gandhi’s revolution, the era of garden parties had come to an end in political Bombay, and both the lawns and the large reception room were seldom used for what they had been designed. It suited Jinnah since he loathed parties anyway, and soon he had converted the living room on the ground floor into an office. In fact, except for the dining room, a drawing room and the kitchen, the entire living space downstairs became an office, with a private study for him. Upstairs there were four bedrooms, two of them for guests. But it was in the large balcony upstairs that he really liked to work, sometimes even holding his meetings with Muslim League colleagues there.
It did not strike him as ironic that the very meetings he was holding and the plans he was tirelessly making under this roof were inexorably leading up to one thing, which he could hardly bear to contemplate—if he got his Pakistan, he’d have to give up this house. There was certainly no way around it. And yet, having loathed gambling all his life, he now grimly got down to the game, playing his cards close to his chest.
It didn’t stop people from guessing, though. As early as April 1941, rumours started flying of his plans to sell the bungalow and move to Pakistan. One magazine, Forum, even came out with the exact figure he was selling it for—Rs20 lakh—and the buyer’s name. The news was stirring, and convincing enough for Dina to break their long silence and write to him from her married home, Pedder House, on Cumballa Hill. “My darling Papa," begins her letter dated 28 April 1941, “First of all I must congratulate you—on having got Pakistan, that is to say, the principle has been accepted. I am so proud and happy for you—how hard you have worked for it." And gets down, like her father, straight to the point: “I hear you have sold ‘South Court’ to Dalmia for 20 lakhs. It’s a very good price and you must be very pleased." Adding: “If you have sold (it), I wanted to make one suggestion of you—if you are not moving your books, could I please have a few of Ruttie’s old poetry books—Byron, Shelley and a few others and the Oscar Wilde series? This request is only made if you are selling the books and furniture and if you don’t intend to keep them, perhaps you could give me just a few for sentimental reasons. I always wanted to read them and as you know I am very fond of reading and it is difficult to get nice editions in Bombay." Jinnah’s reply was to summarily dismiss the news about the house sale as “wild rumour".
Nothing more was exchanged on the subject of either the house or the books between father and daughter, and when Jinnah eventually took off for his about-to-be-born Pakistan on 7 August 1947, he left his house and personal affairs in an uncharacteristic mess. Everything—the house, the servants, his possessions—had to be left behind for his lawyer to deal with. So unlike Jinnah was this hasty, untidy departure that it crossed many people’s minds that he never meant to leave behind his home and land for Pakistan, despite what he had been saying.
As Sri Prakasa writes in his memoir, Pakistan: Birth And Early Years: “A British journalist in Karachi, representing an important English paper, once told me that the greatest shock of Mr Jinnah’s life was the conceding and establishment of Pakistan. He really never wanted it; and when it came, he did not know what to do with it. He found it almost impossible to manage it." Others agreed, including the then chief minister of Sindh, M.A. Khuhro, who told Prakasa: “Nobody had really wanted the partition of the land and a separate Pakistan." Prakasa writes: “He himself, he said, had been in the inmost counsels of the Muslim League, and should know what he was talking about. They were asking for Pakistan only in a spirit of bargaining, so that Muslims might have larger and still larger place in the scheme of things in the united India as she was."
At first, Jinnah’s house was not requisitioned like other evacuee property, out of respect for him. But prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru faced so much embarrassment on account of this courtesy from his parliamentary opponents that he finally instructed Prakasa to tell Jinnah that the government could no longer keep his property lying vacant. Prakasa writes: “His (Jinnah’s) heart was very much in his two houses at Bombay and Delhi, perhaps the only things that still bound him to his old country. He had already successfully negotiated for the sale of the Delhi house... So far as the Bombay house was concerned, which he dearly loved, it was left undisturbed by the Government of India out of courtesy for him. Government had to hear many uncomplimentary remarks on this account. At last I had a telephone call from the Prime Minister telling me that the situation was most embarrassing for Government, and that they felt that they must requisition the house. He wanted me to see Mr Jinnah and find out his wishes, and the rent that he would like to have."
Jinnah was taken aback, Prakasa writes: “(He) almost pleadingly said to me: ‘Sri Prakasa, don’t break my heart. Tell Jawaharlal not to break my heart. I have built it brick by brick. Who can live in a house like that? What fine verandahs! It is a small house fit only for a small European family or a refined Indian prince. You do not know how I love Bombay. I still look forward to going back there.’
“Really, Mr Jinnah," Prakasa said, “you desire to go back to Bombay. I know how much Bombay owes to you and your great services to the city. May I tell the Prime Minister that you are wanting to go back there?" Jinnah replied, “Yes, you may."
Nehru kept the house vacant for some more months, but eventually the pressure on him from the opposition was too much. And Prakasa was sent again to tell Jinnah that they would have to rent his house out, but he could state the figure he was expecting. Jinnah was ailing by then, and had gone to Quetta or Ziarat, from where Prakasa received his reply: He had been offered Rs3,000, Jinnah said, and hoped his wishes regarding the nature of the tenant would be respected. Another condition Jinnah laid down was that if ever he should want the house for himself, the tenant would have to vacate it immediately. Accordingly, Prakasa writes, the house was let out to the British high commission for its deputy commissioner.
But there was no going back home for Jinnah. In September 1948, he died in Karachi under what many, including Prakasa, felt were mysterious circumstances. The Indian lawyer who came from Bombay to settle Jinnah’s affairs told Prakasa that Jinnah had left his house to Fatima in his will. It was probably soon after that the Indian government purchased the house from Fatima, but the British high commission continued to rent it on a short lease.
When Prakasa visited the house several years later on becoming governor in Bombay, curious to see if it matched Jinnah’s picture of it, he came away impressed. “I do not wonder that Mr Jinnah’s heart even as Governor General of Pakistan, was not in his Government House in Karachi, but in his house in Malabar Hill in Bombay."
Since then, however, the house has been locked up, barred to all visitors, because it has become the centre of bitter dispute, with not just Pakistan demanding it as its consulate, but with both Dina and her son, Nusli Wadia, joining the dispute as its legitimate claimants. As the Sunday Observer, London, wrote in 2001: “These days bats are the only inhabitants of the house.... In the garden where Lord Mountbatten once strolled snakes preside over an untrimmed empire of rotting vegetation, ferns and towering palm trees..The elegant building, with its pointed arches and pleasant columns, was clearly in poor shape. Much of the walnut panelling had rotted." Sixteen years after the London paper’s report, its words ring more true than ever: “Despite advancing decay, the bungalow continues to occupy an important place in the sub-continent’s divided history."
Sheela Reddy is the author of Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India.