Pasha Haroon: A tryst with history

It's not often that one has a ringside view of some of the most significant events in a nation's history.
Published February 14, 2016
Mr Jinnah with Ms Fatima Jinnah and Mrs Pasha Haroon at one of Sir Abdullah Haroon's residences in Karachi. Behind Mr Jinnah on his right is his ADC Taj Hidayatullah.
Mr Jinnah with Ms Fatima Jinnah and Mrs Pasha Haroon at one of Sir Abdullah Haroon's residences in Karachi. Behind Mr Jinnah on his right is his ADC Taj Hidayatullah.

IT’S not often that one has a ringside view of some of the most significant events in a nation’s history and more than a passing association with the individuals who helped shape them. But that is exactly the privilege that life afforded to Pasha Haroon.

The niece of Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III – the 48th Imam of the Ismaili Shias – she was married in 1937 to Yusuf Haroon, son of Haji Abdullah Haroon who was one of the central figures of the Pakistan movement.

The hub of political activity in pre-partition Sindh was Seafield, the elder Haroon’s residence located on the road in Karachi that today bears his name, and it was where Mrs Haroon lived after her marriage.

From that vantage point, and through her own involvement with the independence movement, she got to know closely many of the figures that populate Pakistan’s history, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Fatima Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Raana Liaquat Ali, Ayub Khan, Iskander Mirza, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir among others. Some of them were not only visitors to Seafield but houseguests from time to time.

At the age of 91, Mrs Haroon spoke to Dawn about her tryst with history. Studded with detail, her memories constitute a fascinating and valuable chronicle of the tumultuous pre-Partition era and the years that followed the birth of Pakistan. The upcoming Lahore Literary Festival is also scheduled to feature an interview with Mrs Haroon about her life and times.

Pasha Haroon grew up in what was then known as Bombay and Poona. Much of her childhood was spent as part of the household of Lady Ali Shah, the mother of Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III and aunt to her mother, Wajiha bibi. Mrs Haroon – who was the first grandchild in her father’s family – describes herself as having been excessively pampered by both sides of her family.

“Lady Ali Shah was mad about me, and all her ladies-in-waiting would be running around me when we used to go to Bombay. She’d buy me toys, chocolates, clothes, whatever I wanted.”

Lady Ali Shah was from Mahallat in Iran, as was her staff, and Mrs Haroon grew up speaking Farsi and immersed in the Persian culture of her mother’s family.

During her sojourns at Lady Ali Shah’s home, Mrs Haroon would frequently meet the Aga Khan, who was living abroad at the time but would visit his mother twice a year. He would always bring with him his son by his second wife, Prince Aly Khan, whose days as an international playboy and husband of Hollywood star Rita Hayworth were still far in the distant future.

Interaction with the local Ismaili community would occupy the Aga Khan’s time during the day but the evenings he would spend with his family at their beautiful home on the Malabar hills overlooking the ocean.

One day, when she was 13, Mrs Haroon’s mother informed her that she was to be engaged to Yusuf Haroon, the son of old family friends and someone whom she had met several times. It emerged that although Wajiha bibi had conveyed to the prospective suitor’s mother, Lady Nusrat Abdullah Haroon – who was also originally from Iran – her reluctance to marry off her daughter at such a tender age, the former had appealed to Lady Ali Shah.

Wajiha bibi did not stand much of a chance after the two formidable matriarchs joined forces and in 1937, a month after she turned 14, the young Pasha was married to Yusuf Haroon. At that time, the latter was social secretary to the Aga Khan, who performed the couple’s nikah. Soon after, the bride moved to Seafield, the Haroon family residence in Karachi.

She got along very well with Sir Haji Abdullah Haroon, who adored his new daughter-in-law and loved to indulge her. “When he came back home every day, he’d put his hand in his pocket and take out whatever he’d have left over. Sometimes it would be 10 rupees, sometimes seven, and he’d put it in my hand and say ‘Don’t tell mummy [Lady Haroon]’,” she remembers with a laugh.

The Jinnahs as houseguests

Among the many political personalities who frequented Seafield was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. In 1939, he and Ms Fatima Jinnah stayed as houseguests, the first time they’d done so after Mrs Haroon’s marriage.

Although they occupied a suite of rooms on the ground floor, where Mr Jinnah received visitors, they ate their meals upstairs with the family.

There was a hush at the table: only Sir Abdullah and Lady Nusrat, and Ms Jinnah spoke to him – everyone else was expected to refrain from conversation.

From left: Mr Yusuf Haroon, Lady Nusrat Haroon, Ms Jinnah and Mrs Haroon.
From left: Mr Yusuf Haroon, Lady Nusrat Haroon, Ms Jinnah and Mrs Haroon.

Mrs Haroon remembers Mr Jinnah as always being elegantly dressed in a suit, but rather reserved by temperament and particular about his daily routine. “He had simple taste in food; he liked western dishes such as chops or crumbed fish and mashed potatoes. He didn’t eat much, maybe his stomach couldn’t take it,” she says. “They never talked about him being sick [even though he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis by then]. They kept everything very secret, very private.

She recalls Ms Jinnah as being extremely possessive of her brother, and who didn’t let many people get close to him. “But she dedicated her whole life to him,” Mrs Haroon adds. “She was a dentist by profession. Did you know that?”

Quiz: Who was the real Jinnah, beyond politics?

However, by the end of that visit both the Jinnah siblings had become very friendly with the young Haroon daughter-in-law, something that surprised her because “she [Ms Jinnah] didn’t like too many people.”

That warmth translated into an almost maternal protectiveness some years later when Mrs Haroon was living with her husband in Delhi while he was serving as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly in the Lower Sindh and Karachi seat vacated by his father’s death.

Mr Haroon would travel frequently on business, and Ms Jinnah – who also resided in the same city – insisted on Mrs Haroon staying with her during his absence. “At 6pm, her car used to come and pick me up because she didn’t want me to be alone in the house, and she’d have a spare bed put in her room for me,” says Mrs Haroon.

When the Jinnahs were in Karachi, they enjoyed picnics on the beach with the Haroon family. Mrs Haroon recalls one visit – during which she also happened to witness Mr Jinnah eating raw oysters with great relish – as particularly significant in light of a controversy, many years later, surrounding the place of his birth.

On the way back home, she says, Jinnah asked the driver to go via Kharadar where he pointed out a street in which he said stood the house – Wazir Mansion – where he was born.

Read: Jinnah between Kerala and Dubai.

Meanwhile Sir Abdullah Haroon, aside from his political activities that included his work as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi and for the Pakistan Movement, was deeply engaged in social work.

He had founded an orphanage in Lyari, the constituency that he represented. After Friday prayers every week, he would go there and have lunch with the orphans, besides spending time with them on Sundays. “On Eid, the children would come to our house for the whole day and have lunch with the family,” says Mrs Haroon. “My father-in-law didn’t want them to feel like orphans. His own father had passed away when he was a young boy, and he had had a very tough time.”

When Sir Haroon died suddenly of a massive heart attack on April 27,1942, it was a cataclysmic event, for the family, for his political comrades, and for those whom he had taken under his care. Mrs Haroon vividly recalls the events of that night when she and her husband heard Lady Nusrat calling urgently from upstairs. They rushed up to his room and found him lying on the bed suffering from severe chest pains. By the time the doctor came, he had drawn his last breath. “I was with him in his final moments,” she says quietly. “He caught my hand and put it to his chin. He wouldn’t let it go and closed his eyes.”

The funeral was a mammoth gathering: rather than taking his body by van for his burial, the pallbearers chose to carry the coffin all the way to the orphanage where he was interred. Among those who paid condolence visits were Mr Jinnah and Ms Fatima Jinnah.

Even after Sir Abdullah Haroon’s death, Seafield remained a centre of the Pakistan Movement in Sindh with the rest of the family equally involved in the process.

A seminal event in that struggle took place one evening in the dining room while Mr Jinnah was a houseguest. The Pakistan flag had been commissioned; the first version was brought and placed on the large, teak dining table. The soon-to-be founder of the nation had some reservations.

The dining table at Seafield where the design of the Pakistani flag was finalised.
The dining table at Seafield where the design of the Pakistani flag was finalised.

According to Mrs Haroon, he said: “No, this band representing the minorities is too narrow. I want it wider because I want more space for minorities.” The flag was modified accordingly, after which Mr Jinnah insisted that it first be hoisted by Mahmoud Haroon at Seafield.

Young people like Mrs Haroon were a driving force in the independence movement, but sometimes their enthusiasm got the better of them. During the elections in Karachi in 1946, in which Mrs Ghulam Ali Allana was contesting as a Muslim League candidate, she and her sister-in-law Zeenat cast multiple votes. “I think I cast 12 or 13 votes,” she says sheepishly. “My sister-in-law voted about six times. We were so proud of ourselves, because we had to get Pakistan.”

In the evening, as per routine since she was by now so familiar with Mr Jinnah, Mrs Haroon gave him an account of what had transpired that day pertaining to the campaign. Upon hearing about the fake ballots, Mr Jinnah got very angry. “He said, ‘If this is how I’m going to get Pakistan, by cheating, I don’t want Pakistan’. I ran, Zeenat ran, and he stalked out. We didn’t see him till the next day,” she recalls.

The Quaid’s death

December 25, 1947 was a poignant day for the Quaid-e-Azam, and unknown to most, a bittersweet one. It was his first birthday after Pakistan came into being and, as it turned out, his last – although he himself and a handful of others who knew that he was dying of tuberculosis probably expected it to be so.

That evening, there was a private celebration for him at the house of Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, the governor of Sindh. At the small gathering of close friends and associates, Mrs Haroon sang a song written especially for the occasion by a Lahore poet.

Read: Looking for Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Mrs Haroon was in London when she heard of Mr Jinnah’s death. Ms Jinnah called Lady Nusrat with the news and asked her to have the funeral arrangements made. When her son Yusuf was informed, he contacted Syed Hashim Raza, the administrator of Karachi, to help him with the task and choose the burial spot.

The Quaid’s last rites were in accordance with traditions of the Shia Isna Asheri sect, to which Haji Kallu, the man asked to give Mr Jinnah his final ghusl, also belonged. “The funeral inside was very private, while outside the whole public was there,” says Mrs Haroon. “No one had known he was so sick.”

Explore: Photo exhibition chronicles Jinnah’s life

Over the previous years, Mrs Haroon’s distaff side of the family had also developed ties with the Jinnahs. She remembers an occasion, some years after Partition, when the rather prim Ms Jinnah was caught off guard by a remark made by Mrs Haroon’s seven-year-old nephew, Ghazanfar Khaleeli.

“My mother had come from Bombay and we paid a visit to Ms Jinnah to invite her to my brother’s wedding. All of a sudden, Ghazanfar, who was sitting on the ground, piped up, ‘Bibi, aunty [Ms Jinnah] has ears like Jimmy’. He kept repeating it when the adults paid no attention. When Ms Jinnah asked ‘who’s Jimmy’, my mother said ‘Jimmy’s his friend’ to which he responded, ‘No, Jimmy’s not my friend, he’s my dog.’ My mother gave him one kick and we quickly took our leave!”

Other members of her maternal family visited Karachi as well. Among them was her cousin Prince Aly Khan, who had been close to her since their childhood days when he’d accompany his father, the Aga Khan, on his visits to Bombay.

By now he was well known as a jet-setting lady-killer, although by the time of his 1948 visit to Karachi he had only embarked on one of his several marriages.

During one of his brief trips to Karachi, Mrs Haroon and her husband were struck by the fact that on each of the three evenings he was in the city, he took them to watch the same film – The Loves of Carmen starring Rita Hayworth. “When I asked him why,” says Mrs Haroon, “he said ‘I’m in love with her.’ I thought he was very fond of her as an actress. We didn’t know he’d already met her.”

A couple of months later while Mr and Mrs Haroon were on a visit to Geneva, Prince Aly Khan called and told them he was coming over to pick them up for lunch. When they walked up to his car, they saw there was a woman sitting in the front. “I couldn’t believe it – it was Rita Hayworth! He said, ‘I wanted you to meet her; I’m going to marry her.’ So we went out and had lunch together. She was beautiful but she wasn’t very warm.”

During Mr Haroon’s time as a member of the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, the couple became good friends with the Quaid’s close associate Liaquat Ali Khan and his wife, Raana Liaquat Ali Khan. “They were lovely, hospitable people,” she says. “Liaquat was so down-to-earth, and he didn’t mind any criticism.”

Back in Karachi several years later, when Mr Khan was Pakistan’s first prime minister, he would quiz his barber Yousuf Mover about what the man on the street was saying about the government. “After Liaquat was assassinated, his family was left penniless,” reveals Mrs Haroon. “He was a very honest politician.”

A reprieve for Yahya Khan

Begum Liaquat headed the Pakistan Women National Guard, in which Mrs Haroon was an officer. The PWNG was attached to a brigade headed by a certain Brigadier Yahya Khan. During the Shah of Iran’s visit to Pakistan some time later, the National Guard salute was to be offered to him in Begum Liaquat’s presence.

Mrs Haroon (front centre) with Mr Jinnah and other members of the Pakistan Women National Guard.
Mrs Haroon (front centre) with Mr Jinnah and other members of the Pakistan Women National Guard.

“When her car arrived, there was some problem and Yahya Khan was a couple of minutes late in opening the door [as protocol required] and she was very upset,” recalls Mrs Haroon.

Late that night, the National Guard adjutant came to inform her that the brigadier stood in imminent peril of being discharged from the army, and asked if she and Mr Haroon could use their good offices with the commander-in-chief Gen Douglas Gracey to salvage the Brigadier’s career. That is what the couple did – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nearly two decades later, when Yahya Khan became president, he invited Mr and Mrs Haroon to dinner in Islamabad. “At the table, he said ‘I want you all to know that I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for this lady, Pasha Haroon.’ I got such a shock – it was so embarrassing!”

In Karachi, the Farsi-speaking residents formed a kind of informal fraternity. Thus it was that Naheed Mirza, daughter of an Iranian statesman and second wife of Iskander Mirza, Pakistan’s first defence minister and later president, was also well known to Mrs Haroon.

On one occasion, Mrs Haroon was privy to an interesting exchange between the president and his army chief, General Ayub Khan. She and her husband had been invited to accompany the first couple to Rawalpindi by the special railway salon for VIPs. During the journey, a game of bridge got underway.

Among the players were the president and his army commander. At one point, Mr Mirza jestingly accused Ayub Khan of cheating against him. “And Ayub khan said ‘No sir, I’m not cheating against you. If you cut my hand, every drop of blood will say ‘Iskandar, Iskandar, Iskandar’,” recalls Mrs Haroon. “Yet a few years later, he was the man who would remove him [from power].”

When General Ayub Khan forced Iskander Mirza to resign and go into exile in London, Mr and Mrs Haroon happened to be in that city and they went to receive the former president and his wife at the airport. They both looked shaken, and Mrs Mirza was trembling. She narrated to her friends the ordeal they had undergone on the flight from Karachi to Quetta with armed guards pointing their guns at them.

The couple spent their exile in straitened circumstances. “Iskander wasn’t a crook: he was a regular army man,” says Mrs Haroon. “Naheed began to work for a porcelain maker in order to earn a living.” Upon her husband’s death in 1969, she wanted to take his body to Pakistan, but president Ayub Khan refused to give permission.

“Finally, Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah of Iran’s foreign minister who was ambassador to London at the time and a close friend of Naheed’s daughter, called the Shah who sent a plane. We accompanied Naheed to the airport with the body, which was taken to Tehran to be buried. Can you imagine – how cruel!”

A stormy ZAB-Nusrat union

Among the people known to Mrs Haroon who were to later achieve prominence on Pakistan’s political firmament was Nusrat Sabunchi, the stunning daughter of an Iranian businessman who decided that moving to the newly formed country of Pakistan would be a financially astute step.

He was an old associate of Mrs Haroon’s parents, who requested Lady Nusrat to put up Mr Sabunchi at Seafield until he found his feet in the city. “My mother-in-law of course agreed without hesitation,” says Mrs Haroon. “As an Iranian herself, she took anyone who was Iranian under her wing.”

Lady Nusrat soon persuaded Mr Sabunchi to bring his wife and two unmarried daughters – Nusrat and Behjat – from his first wife to Seafield as well, where she gave them the guest quarters to stay in and encouraged him to start a business dealing in Persian carpets.

As was her wont, she became fiercely protective of the Sabunchi family and remained very close to them even after they moved out of her house. It was a trait that manifested itself often after Nusrat married Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a stormy union if there ever was one.

Following a particularly nasty row between the husband and wife, which saw Mrs Bhutto come sobbing to Lady Nusrat along with a young Benazir and Murtaza, the latter firmly declared she wouldn’t allow him to take her back. She only relented after Mr Bhutto agreed to seek his wife’s forgiveness. “When Zulfi came to the house, I took him up to my mother-in-law’s room,” says Mrs Haroon. “He got down on his knees, placed his hands on Nusrat’s knees and begged her to forgive him. Then my mother-in-law said, ‘Ok go’.”

However, that didn’t deter Mr Bhutto from continuing to give his wife grief. In the early ‘60s, when he was foreign minister, Princess Ashraf, the Shah of Iran’s twin sister, arrived for a visit. Mrs Haroon served as the princess’s lady-in-waiting during her stay. On the evening before her departure for Tehran, the Bhuttos threw her a farewell dinner at their house, 70 Clifton.

“Zulfi came to me during dinner to say that I should go home and tell Nawab Chhatari who was chief of protocol, as well as the ADCs to leave and take her ladies-in-waiting to the government house where they were staying,” recalls Mrs Haroon. Mr Bhutto told her he would himself take Princess Ashraf back to her lodgings afterwards. She did as she was told.

“At 3am that morning, the phone next to my bed rang. It was Nusrat. ‘Where is my husband?’ she asked. I said I don’t know, and I really didn’t know where he was!”

Many years later, Benazir – now a seasoned politician – would once again visit Seafield. This took place shortly after a dinner party at the home of her parents-in-law, to which Mr and Mrs Haroon were also invited. As it was a small gathering, she had brought along her mother who was by now increasingly descending into Alzheimer’s. Benazir thought it would be pleasant for Mrs Bhutto to meet old acquaintances and speak in Farsi with them.

“Later that evening Benazir was talking to me, and asked if she could come and see the room that her mother and aunt had stayed in when they first came to Pakistan,” says Mrs Haroon. The very next day, she came across to Seafield, staying for over three hours reminiscing with the couple about the early years of her mother’s arrival in the newly created nation. “I had not seen her for a long time, not since she was a little child,” says Mrs Haroon, adding pensively, “BB had a way of reaching out to people.”

Today, while still as spry and alert as ever, Mrs Haroon lives at a more sedate pace, dividing her time between an apartment in New York and her living quarters in Seafield, which she still calls home.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2016