The house that Jinnah built and the tales Sheela Reddy tells


Love him or hate him but you cannot deny that MA Jinnah remains a fascinating character who draws historians to him like moths to the flame. The latest book on him doing the rounds by an Indian journalist Sheela Reddy, Mr and Mrs Jinnah, is a proof of this, for you cannot imagine a Pakistani writing a book on Nehru or Gandhi. The book is well researched and well written, it not only tells us aspects of this mysterious and charismatic man we did not know, but also makes us wonder if his personal problems played a role in how he shaped the political history of the subcontinent – for, his impact on history is undeniable and everlasting.

Sheela Reddy herself is flying high on the success of the book and she deserves all the praise, and cashing on this and the knowledge she has acquired while researching for the book she continues to write –her latest being an article published on 18th of August titled, The house that Jinnah built. It is a fascinating account of South Court, a bungalow half way up Malabar Hill in Bombay where Ruttie walked to, when she left her parents’ house around 100 yards away at the bottom of the hill with just an umbrella. At that time, it was a drab little bungalow where Jinnah did not live, yet it became the house of Mr and Mrs Jinnah till the day when Ruttie walked out of it again never to return.

According to Mrs Reddy, Jinnah had resisted any suggestions of reconstructing the bungalow until the time when after his return from self-exile in 1934 he had re-established himself as a leading Indian politician and undisputed leader (Qaid-e-Azam, the great leader) of the Muslims. And then he decided to demolish the old bungalow where he had not lived since Ruttie had passed away and built there a fabulous mansion costing an astonishing (for that time) 2 lacrupees. The fame of this house spread far and wide and people used to come from all over India just to stand outside the guarded gate and gawk at the wonders inside.

Alas Jinnah left the house soon after Partition. Astonishingly, it was in this house that the creation of Pakistan was discussed and made into a reality and one can only wonder how Jinnah could have planned something that he must have known will mean him giving up the house.

Sheela Reddy’s article is, like the book, well researched and well written, but I have a few issue with it. She claims that after Jinnah had moved to Pakistan the Indian government wanted to requisition the house as evacuee property and the first Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sri Prakasa, was asked by Nehru to tell Jinnah of this intention. According to Sri Prakasa Jinnah was taken aback with this and said, “(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.”

Well I don’t think so.We know that Jinnah, while fastidious with money, had little respect for it.To imagine him, a man with great pride and belief in his worth, to plead with Nehru to let him keep a house is not likely to have happened.

Nevertheless, Sheela Reddy is only quoting another person and we can accept or reject the account of that person.

Sheela Reddy

However, in the same article she quotes a letter by Jinnah’s daughter Dina Wadia, who has just passed away, written to her estranged father in April 1941 when she heard that he was selling this house. We are told that Dina wrote: “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.”

Now I am sure that a meticulous researcher like Sheela Reddy would have seen this letter before quoting it. What I am not very convinced about is what she writes next:

“Jinnah’s reply was to summarily dismiss the news about the house sale as ‘wild rumour’”.

Well possible but what is the source for this? As far as I know none of Jinnah’s letter to Dina are public, so where did Sheela Reddy come to know about Jinnah’s curt reply? Did Dina tell her or was it someone else who told her. It would have been nice to be made aware of the source.

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