Mohammad Ali Jinnah may have settled for what he referred to as a “moth-eaten” Pakistan in 1947, but despite his towering personality and famous negotiating skills, he was unable to get the asking price for South Court, his magnificent sea-facing bungalow at Malabar Hill in South Mumbai. Jinnah declined an offer of Rs 18 lakh for South Court as late as May 1947 as it fell short of his minimum expectation of Rs 20 lakh. The bungalow was never sold, and is now in the midst of a complex court battle regarding ownership, with calls even being made for its demolition.
Jinnah, an established lawyer, lived in Malabar Hill from the early years of the 20th century. He had stayed in smaller bungalows, and owned a few other properties in the area, but right from the construction of South Court between 1937 and 1939, it was clear that he had cornered one of the most desirable addresses in the city. Spread over a sprawling 15,467 square yards, the plot offered an unmatched view of the Arabian Sea.
The bungalow cost Rs 2 lakh to build, an exorbitant price at that time. An Italian-made Stigler lift was installed in the bungalow by the company’s sole agent in Bombay. At the request of Fatima Jinnah, Jinnah’s sister, extra landing push buttons were given “free of charge” so that the “lift car may be both called or sent from any landing to any landing”.
Jinnah moved into the bungalow in December 1939. Four months later, in March 1940, the Lahore Resolution was passed, which demanded provincial autonomy and which became the basis for the demand for a separate nation of Pakistan.
Hunt for buyers
Jinnah dealt with negotiations for Pakistan and South Court at the same time. But the outcomes of both exercises were very different.
Even as historians and scholars continue to debate endlessly whether Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan was a bargaining tool to extract better terms for the Muslim League, records unambiguously suggest that Jinnah started to seek buyers for South Court within five years of occupying it.
The stylish bungalow, with wooden floors and open verandas, became the site for the historic Gandhi-Jinnah talks in September 1944.
It could have become one of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s several properties. However, Jinnah turned down the Nizam’s offer of Rs 8.50 lakh, after the Nizam’s chief architect Zain Yar Jung valued the property at a measly pre-war rate of Rs 8.30 lakh in May 1944.
On June 3, 1944, Jinnah wrote to the Nizam from Kashmir where he was holidaying: “I am really astonished that the report of the valuation submitted to you is so flagrantly wrong.”
He told the Hyderabad ruler that the land alone was worth Rs 15.50 lakh at current rates. While informing the Nizam that he was “not very anxious to sell it”, Jinnah firmly, but courteously, closed the negotiation. “I am sorry that your present offer is impossible,” he wrote.
In the letter, Jinnah also revealed that as he had given himself “entirely to the cause of Muslim League and Muslim India”, he was “hardly now able to stay in Bombay” and hence the property was of little use to him.
Jinnah may have taken care to not sound anxious to sell to the Nizam, but his close associate in Bombay, MA Chaiwala, was busy looking for suitable clients. Either Chaiwala or another associate of Jinnah’s was in touch with Parsi merchant Jehangir Dinshaw Petit to clinch a deal. Particulars of the property were given to Jessavala, Petit’s secretary, and May 23, 1944, was fixed for an inspection. It is safe to assume that this negotiation too did not go very far.
The bungalow did not escape the wrath of the Bombay Docks Explosion of 1944. Chaiwala reported to Jinnah that few glass panes in the bungalow had cracked. The house also suffered from seepage problems, and the services of several people, including a “water-proof specialist”, Khan Bahadur Mohammad Bin, were used to locate the source of the leakages before the onset of the monsoon in 1944.
In May 1947, the price of the property, according to Jinnah’s architectural engineer, was Rs 25 lakh. He rejected an offer of Rs 17 lakh made by AM Thariani, an associate, on behalf of another party. The lawyer and politician sought instead the minimum price of Rs 20 lakh. Just a few days later, on May 15, Jinnah wrote to architect and property consultant Yahya Merchant, who later designed his mausoleum in Pakistan, enquiring about the negotiations with the Iraq consul.
Jinnah wrote: “I have got an offer of Rs 18 lakh, which I am not inclined to accept. You know, I would rather sell the house to the Iraq Consul than anybody else. But I am not prepared to accept less than twenty lakh nett to me.”
While Jinnah managed to sell his bungalow on Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road (now Abdul Kalam Road) to Seth Dalmia, his refusal to accept Rs 2 lakh less than what he expected for his favourite South Court, which he built himself, left him the kind of scar that millions of ordinary refugees also experienced. After Partition, India announced that the vacant South Court would be at the disposal of the government of Bombay, which was hard-pressed to accommodate the refugees streaming into the city.
However, during Jinnah’s lifetime, thanks to the good offices of Sri Prakasa, India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the house was never really taken over. Jinnah is known to have told Sri Prakasa that he looked forward to going back to Bombay and living in South Court, and had requested the Indian government to lease it to a foreign consulate.
However, 70 years later, a complex court battle (which includes a claim on the palatial bungalow by his only child Dina Wadia) and worse still, talk of demolishing it define the existence of South Court. Whatever the final outcome, this historic bungalow will forever remind us of the frailty of human beings. For a man who managed to carve out a nation, Jinnah was helpless to protect his most favoured abode.