Jinnah's Flagstaff House, neglected but not forgotten
This summer, when a meeting in Karachi was cancelled, I finally found an opportunity to visit the Flagstaff House. I had known it was a museum since college days but had been unable to visit it. I felt it was time to make up for the omission.
Flagstaff House is an impressive stone building located in the Saddar area in Karachi, and was one of the residential properties of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He had purchased it from a Parsi businessman before partition.
As we pulled into the driveway, I was surprised that one could drive right in. There was only a single semi-interested security guard.
Upon walking up to the house, I was greeted by its government-appointed caretaker, Rashid. He kindly offered to show me the house himself and we walked around to a back entrance. Rashid seemed very well informed and narrated the history of the house to me. He unlocked an old kundi (lock) and we stepped through into a corridor. It was as if one had stepped back in time. I recognised the musty smell as one I had known from my childhood afternoons spent rummaging through my grandfather’s storeroom.
The ground floor had the main drawing room and dining room. The former was large and filled with elegant, high quality furniture and a Persian carpet covering the floor. There was a study area on one side. One of the table-top decoration pieces showed a map of the two wings of the Pakistan of 1947, which Mr Jinnah had called ‘moth-eaten’. I wondered what term he would have used for what remains today.
Several portraits of Mr Jinnah hung around the room. A slight layer of dust covered everything. To the west was the main dining room. A foyer before the room contained a sideboard and an Iznik ceramic washing-bowl. There was a long, engraved wooden table in the centre and overlooking it was a sketch-portrait of Fatima Jinnah.
Next, we took the stairs up to the first floor. Pausing at a landing, Rashid pointed out that when Dina Wadia (Mr Jinnah’s daughter) came to the Flagstaff House during a visit to Pakistan in 2004, she had stopped here to take a long, careful look at the photograph frames on the wall. These included a picture of Mr Jinnah with young Dina and their dogs – a black Doberman and a white Terrier.
On the first floor, there was an open area with a breakfast table, a second ‘upstairs’ drawing room and two bedrooms belonging to Fatima Jinnah and Mr Jinnah respectively. The rooms are preserved well, it seems as if someone had locked up the house in the 1940s and has not returned since. The second drawing room, likely for special guests, was more compact than the first.
Both rooms were sparsely furnished. Fatima Jinnah’s came first, and had a separate dressing area. Inside, I noticed a picture frame depicting a laltain (lantern). This was her campaign symbol in the 1965 election, during which she had led a coalition of parties to give fierce opposition to Ayub Khan. Many say that had it been a direct election, she would have won.
Mr Jinnah’s room was done in dark-wood furniture. Like his sister’s room, there was only a single bed and a bedside table, with a small sitting area. There was an intercom system, which must have been quite advanced for the time. A pair of his iconic two-tone shoes lay on a rack in the corner. I took a few minutes to observe the room in silence.
Mr Jinnah’s house and his possessions contained therein reflected his personal style well – austere, but of high quality; befitting of an individual of substance.
When it was time to return we made our way back down. Rashid, who has cared for the house for decades with pride, informed me that the per annum maintenance allocation for it was just Rs 5,000. This shockingly low figure is a good indicator of the respect that the government accords in the memory of the man who gave his all to create Pakistan. The house does not require a large-scale expenditure, but enough resources should be dedicated to ensure its upkeep and safety.
Rashid then asked me to sign the guestbook, which made me feel honoured. When I opened it, I understood why he had been surprised to see me earlier; there were only a handful of entries per month. Flagstaff House, like the principles of the man it belonged to, has been largely forgotten.
As I walked along the gravel-lined driveway towards the car, I looked back at Flagstaff House, Pakistan's flag fluttered proudly in front of it. Perhaps Mr Jinnah’s principles have been forgotten by the state, but I hoped that they will be remembered by the people of Pakistan.