Many Pakistani visitors like to photograph themselves standing in front of the original fireplace, striking that identical pose, hands in exactly the same position as one of the house’s first dapper owners, all those decades ago.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Mumbai house may be the multimillion-dollar attraction in a two-decade-old controversy between India, Pakistan and industrialist Nusli Wadia, but his other house in Delhi has calmly hosted 16 Dutch ambassadors since The Netherlands bought it for Rs5 lakh in 1951. Ironic, since Jinnah’s Delhi residence, which he bought in 1938 to be closer to the political action, is where it all happened.
It was at venues such as the Viceregal Palace (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the wood-panelled library of Jinnah’s grand residence on 10, Aurangzeb Road that the nuts and bolts of the future of India were hammered out by men such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah. These failed talks eventually resulted in Partition. It was here that Jinnah held his last press conference before he left one newly formed country for another.
Past life: (clockwise from top) The library is a favourite with Pakistani diplomats; the house is set amid 3 acres of greenery; this central hexagon was Jinnah’s living room--the details on the balustrade are original; so is the staircase; and Hiensch (the marble fireplace is in the background). Photographs: Priyanka Parashar / Mint
It’s definitely the most historic house Bob Hiensch, the current Dutch ambassador and the house’s 16th Dutch tenant, has ever lived in. Tracking the recent Indo-Pak talks from his home undoubtedly gave them a “special dimension”, says Hiensch, who is acutely aware that the walls of his library were witness to the original precursor of these talks 63 years ago.
“Pakistan was born in that corner,” says Hiensch, pointing to old images that show where Jinnah usually sat in the library. Of course the Dutch inherited the house emptied of all its furniture and books—the library’s current inhabitants are drawn from Hiensch’s diplomatic stints in Israel, New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Kinshasa. Luckily, the desk he bought in Hong Kong in the 1980s and the restored leather armchairs he picked out in New York look like they could have been selected by Jinnah himself. The room’s antique ceiling fan with little crescent designs too was installed by one of Hiensch’s predecessors, and not Jinnah.
Hiensch says the larger-than-life dimensions of the structure indicate that it was a model house designed to encourage citizens to invest in New Delhi. The foundation stone was laid in March 1920 by Edwin Lutyens, the original architect of the new Imperial capital, though the house itself was built by his contemporary F.B. Blomfield.
“The house reflects the city plan of New Delhi,” says Hiensch, pointing out that the design of the central hexagonal hall around which the ground floor sprawls is mirrored on Delhi’s map where often three intersecting roads converge at a roundabout. “That’s the concept of the house too. From an architectural point of view, it’s very special,” he says. The first floor has three bedrooms and five bathrooms.
Despite several renovations— the bathrooms are redone every 20 years, central air conditioning was installed, and an airy oval drawing room was added in the 1950s—the house remains pretty much the way Jinnah and his sister Fatima left it. Before leaving for Karachi, he sold it to his friend Ramkrishna Dalmia who briefly turned it into the head office for the anti-cow slaughter movement. Dalmia was a vocal critic of Nehru; in 2009 his daughter Neelima Dalmia Adhar wrote a letter to The Indian Express clarifying that after Partition, when her father got wind of the government’s plan to requisition the property, he sold it to the Dutch.
Ask Hiensch if he knows more about Jinnah because he lives in this house, and he replies that he definitely feels a connection. He is often gifted Jinnah books and agrees with former foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s analysis of Jinnah as a complex, secular leader. “Jinnah is much more complicated than to be dismissed as anti-India,” he says. One mystery he hasn’t yet solved though: Which was Jinnah’s bedroom?