The story of an abandoned property in the most expensive part of the city
India and Pakistan won their independence on August 15, 1947. Over the years, Pakistan has observed August 14 as its Independence Day since that was the day that Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India swore in Mohammed Ali Jinnah into the office of the Governor-General of Pakistan.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah remains a divisive figure in the subcontinent’s history. However, long before he became the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah was a well-respected lawyer in Mumbai (then Bombay). As a barrister, Jinnah represented some of the wealthiest clients in the country. Even though he started off in a flat in Colaba, eventually he moved to Malabar Hill, which was emerging as a tony address. The sprawling house sits on a 2.5 acre estate and was just up the street from Dinshaw Petit, one of the country’s richest men at the time and a friend of Jinnah’s. Eventually Jinnah married Petit’s daughter, Ratanbai (Ruttie) which soured their relationship since he didn’t approve Ruttie’s choice of a much older man. It was here in South Court, as the house was called, that Ruttie moved in and it remained Jinnah’s primary residence for nearly 10 years before he moved to Karachi in 1946.
Today, South Court is called Jinnah House. It was here that Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi first held their talks on the Partition of India. On August 15, 1946, Jinnah and Nehru met here for another round of talks and it seemed clear to Jinnah that banishment from Bombay would likely be the price he’d pay for birthing a new nation.
Bombay was a special city to Jinnah. It was here that he arrived with just a few bags and a law degree and set up practice. It was here that he made his fortune, made his foray into politics, and fell in love. It was here too that he lost the one woman he loved and even as he rests in Karachi, his wife Ruttie Jinnah rests in Mumbai. There was no doubt that Bombay held a special place in Jinnah’s heart and so instead of selling off South Court, which would’ve fetched him a sweet deal, he preferred to let it be and requested Jawaharlal Nehru to allot it to any foreign consulate, ideally European, he requested as he hoped a European family would truly appreciate the architecture.
Despite everything that went between them and despite being on the opposite sides of a war already, Nehru and Jinnah shared a fairly cordial personal relationship. And so Nehru agreed to Jinnah’s request and offered him a monthly rent of Rs 3,000, a large sum at the time. However, before the agreement could be finalised, Jinnah passed away in September 1948.
Nehru could have declared South Court as ‘enemy property’ and simply annexed it but he refrained from doing so. Instead, as a personal favour to the now deceased Jinnah, Nehru suggested that it be given to the Government of Pakistan. The Cabinet refused this proposal. In the meanwhile, South Court continued to serve as the residence of the British Deputy High Commissioner till as late as 1983. Then for nearly two decades, the property remained vacant until 2003 when it was given to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) for cultural activities.
For most part, though, South Court or Jinnah House remained vacant. Today it is a shell of its former self, abandoned and in dispute. Due to the ad hoc nature of the agreement between Jinnah and Nehru and Nehru’s decision to not classify it as Enemy Property, South Court has been under litigation between Jinnah’s late daughter, Dina Wadia mother of the industrialist Nusli Wadia, the Government of Pakistan, and of course the Government of India.
In the midst of this, South Court, that majestic 2.5 acre property where history unfolded and within whose walls the fate of two nations was carved out, remains abandoned.