Flagstaff House, Karachi

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I fussed over my tie-knot as Salim weaved through the traffic in Karachi’s Saddar. There were a few minutes to go till the first meeting of the day. The Avari, however, was close. As I walked briskly into the hotel’s lobby, my phone rang. It was my contact – meeting cancelled. Normally I would have uttered an expletive, but I couldn’t have been happier. With just one more day to go in Karachi, I had been dying to find a few hours to myself to visit Flagstaff House. I had known it was a museum since college days in Karachi, but had been unable to visit. It was time to make up for the omission. Salim gunned the engine and we were off.

The Flagstaff House was one of Quaid-e-Azam’s properties in Karachi. It is now owned and managed by the Government of Pakistan. The house is an impressive stone building, located near Karachi’s busy Saddar Area. Quaid-e-Azam purchased the house from a Parsi businessman much before Partition, but lived in it only briefly. I had been informed that the house was now a museum, and contained certain of his possessions. As we pulled into the driveway, I noticed a group of gardeners tending to the lawns. A smart Pakistani flag fluttered on a pole upfront.

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 seemed quite surprised to see me, and kindly offered to show me the house himself. We walked around to a back entrance. He unlocked an old kundi, and we stepped through into a corridor. It was as if one had stepped back in time. I recognized the musty smell as one I had known from childhood afternoons spent rummaging through my grandfather’s storeroom.

On the ground floor were the main drawing room and dining room. The former was large, and filled with elegant, high quality furniture.  A Persian carpet covered 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 were hung around the room. A layer of dust, perhaps a few weeks old, covered everything. Rashid, who was very well informed, narrated the history of the house.

To the west was the main dining room. A foyer before the room contained a sideboard and an iznik-style ceramic washing-bowl. There was a long, engraved wooden table in the centre. Overlooking it was a sketch-portrait of Ms. Fatima Jinnah.

Next, we took the stairs up to the first floor. Pausing at a landing, Rashid pointed out that when she came to Flagstaff House during a visit to Pakistan in 2004, Mrs. Dina Wadia (Mr. Jinnah’s daughter) had stopped here to take a long, careful look at the photograph frames on the wall. These included a picture of Mr. Jinnah with a 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 Ms. Fatima Jinnah and Mr. Jinnah respectively. The rooms were preserved, as if someone had locked up the house in the 1940s and not returned since. The second drawing room, likely for special guests, was more compact than the first.

Both rooms were sparsely furnished. Ms. 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 Gen. 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 Ms. Fatima Jinnah’s room, there was only a single bed and bedside table, and a small sitting area. There was an intercom system, which must have been quite advanced for the day. 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.

It was time to return. As 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 Rs. 5,000! This shockingly low figure is a good indicator of the respect that the government accords the memory of the man who gave his all to create Pakistan. The house does not require large-scale expenditure, but enough resources should be dedicated to ensure its upkeep and safety.

Rashid then asked me to sign the guestbook, which was an honour. 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, had 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 had been forgotten by the state, but in that moment I hoped that they would be remembered by the people of Pakistan.

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