The Indians get India House. And a serene cross-legged Gandhi in Tavistock Square. And Chicken Tikka Masala, now one of Britain’s favourite national meals. And Bollywood premieres in Leicester Square. When I asked some friends living in London what comes to mind when I said ‘Pakistan’, I got ‘Im-run Kahn’ (New Zealand), ‘houses in the middle of the desert and sand everywhere’ (Brazil), ‘your terrorists’ (Belgium) and ‘no clue’ (Ireland).
So when, during the course of research for my MA dissertation, I read the following sentence in Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Quaid-e-Azam, I thought it might help me feel a little more rooted in London, to allow me to feel as if I could have a foot in both my Pakistani and British worlds: “His father deposited money enough to his account in a British bank to allow Jinnah to live in London for three years. There is no record of precisely how many hotel rooms or ‘bed and breakfast’ stops he rented before moving into the modest three-story house at 35 Russell Road in Kensington…”
He was seventeen when he first arrived in London in 1893 to study law, and still Mohammed Ali Jinnahbhai. It was from this address that he sent a letter to Lincoln’s Inn requesting that his surname be shortened to just ‘Jinnah’, according to Maddy Wall, a spokesperson for the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, also known as English Heritage.
In 1955, the London County Council received a request to install a blue heritage plaque on the house, denoting the historic significance of the site. According to Wall, 35 Russell Road is now a private property, and a quick search online reveals that while the 14-bedroom house was up for sale in 2003, the Pakistani High Commission was unable to rustle up the asking price of 1.25 million pounds. This place, I thought, could show you another side to Jinnah — the young lawyer in London, as opposed to Jinnah the iconic, mythical leader (who is perfectly preserved in a somber portrait at Lincoln’s Inn).
A short walk from Kensington Olympia tube station, past the Irani cornershops and Lahore Karhai restaurant, the house lies at the intersection of Russell Road and Holland Gardens and has been divided into two sections, with seven flats in each section. (There are no rules preventing the restructuring or renovation of these private properties, despite their historic status). Were it not for the ink-blue circular plaque that lies between what is now Nos 35-A and 35-B, you would have never guessed that ‘Quaid i Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah founder of Pakistan stayed here in 1895’.
I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but the house, with its row of silver garbage cans lining the front porch, a lime green tennis ball among the plants and the whine of construction taking place in No 35-A did not conjure any particularly patriotic feelings. I’d read that the house’s banister had been painted green and the halls inside festooned with paper flags, a Pakistani flag draped over the window and Jinnah’s chair, wardrobe and some mirrors preserved in the first-floor room he had occupied. But there was no answer when I buzzed the intercom for the seven flats (at this point I was pretty determined to feel something, even if it meant dealing with a cranky tenant). The blinds on all the windows remained firmly pulled down.
And so my friend and I gave up, walked down the street towards a Japanese restaurant where we ate duck pancakes as Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga played on the music system.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 21st, 2013.