A House for Hamida Begumhttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/life-style/a-house-for-hamida-begum-4595520/

A House for Hamida Begum

An actress known for her lavish parties and besotted patrons. A policeman in love, whose life ends in murder. Tales from Kishori Court, a house in Mumbai under the Custodian of Enemy Property, whose walls still bear traces of its colourful past.

Tell me a story: Kishori Court at Worli Sea Face, Mumbai. (Source: Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

At the northern end of Worli seaface, Mumbai, an anachronism amidst high rises such as Godrej Bayview, stands a sprawling white two-storey bungalow. Kishori Court, worth at least Rs 500 crore in today’s prices, traces its ownership to a Pakistani actress of the ’40s known for a flamboyant lifestyle. It is now in possession of the Custodian of Enemy Property, and, unsurprisingly, is also on the radar of property developers. Some of its tenants fear it is haunted and perform a shanti puja at the courtyard every year.

Kishori Court was owned by Bai Hamida Begum, popularly known as Kishori, an influential actor and businesswoman of the 1940s. She left for Pakistan in the late 1950s. However, unlike others who willingly migrated to the newly formed country, Kishori didn’t want to leave India because she had amassed a fortune, which included a sea face villa, interest in a cinema theatre, accounts in various banks and jewellery in more than one bank locker. She had some of the country’s richest Marwari patrons. There was just one hitch: she had just finished a five-year jail term for allegedly murdering a police inspector, Dattatraya Sadashiv Nadkarni. She also owed huge sums to the government in taxes. When Kishori left for Pakistan, the Custodian of Enemy Property quickly impounded her property under the Enemy Property Act.

The murder of Nadkarni on February 8, 1949, with its mixture of glamour, intrigue and elements of crime passionnel were splashed across newspapers. Even today, the website of the City Civil and Sessions Court in Mumbai lists the Nadkarni murder case as one of the most important case tried at the court, among “Lloyds Bank Dacoity case, the Kasab Case, Telgi case, the Chunawalla Murder Case and Comm. Nanavati case.”

Barrister Khalid Latif Gauba, whom Kishori consulted during the trial, wrote about her case in his book Battles at the Bar (1956). On February 8, 1949, Nadkarni was pushed to death from the first-floor balcony of this bungalow. Who was he and what connection did he have with Kishori?

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According to Gauba’s book, Nadkarni was a former police inspector. He had become Kishori’s constant companion and wished to marry her. That night, there was a loud party on the first floor. By that time, Kishori, “the handsome courtesan”, was known for throwing lavish parties and, despite prohibition, she served some of the best liquor to her patrons, which, Gauba writes, could “make the mouth of the most ardent prohibitionist water”.

“All the powerful people used to visit Kishori Begum. At that time, this house was on the most deserted road in Bombay. So, anyone could do anything here. No one bothered to disturb,” says Kandarp Desai, 66, whose family has been the tenant at Kishori Court since 1950.

Kishori’s home comprised two flats on each side of a courtyard — it had large rooms on each side, a drawing room, dining room, music room, several bedrooms and bathrooms. According to Gauba, Kishori’s own bedroom was “the last word in delectable slumber”. “In Kishori’s room, there was, in addition to other items of luxury, a glass showcase in which about 500 different perfumes, the costliest from Paris, New York and London, in proud display…The reception room ‘B’ was decorated in Western Style, ornate with mirrors, deeply cushioned sofas, radiogram and books,” writes Gauba.

“My very first memory of Kishori Court is when my parents and I came to see the house before we started living here. I was over five years old and I distinctly remember my mother and I inspecting the rooms. The moment we opened the main bedroom facing the sea, my mother covered my eyes as the walls of the room were full of erotic drawings. My father got the walls painted before we moved in. Ten years ago, while we were redoing the room, I could still see the faint drawings. So I got both the walls covered with wooden cabinets,” said another tenant who didn’t wish to be named.

Gauba’s book says that the February 8 party was arranged by Kishori for two Delhi-based millionaires. Nadkarni, who sometimes spent his nights at Kishori Court, arrived around 11pm, but did not join the party and sat in a separate room. Later, he objected to the party going beyond midnight and insisted it break up. “Kishori was palpably annoyed and called on Nadkarni to pay off the dancing girls himself,” writes Gauba.

According to Sadhu Dondhu Pawar, a domestic help who was a witness for the prosecution, Kishori and her helps assaulted Nadkarni in her bedroom until he was unconscious. The building’s gardener later testified that he saw Jagdish and Rampal (Kishori’s helps and co-accused) throw Nadkarni out of the covered balcony on the north side of Kishori Court. Jagdish held Nadkarni by his neck and Rampal by his legs. “Nadkarni died a few days after being admitted to the hospital and, thereafter, Kishori and her servants had to face a charge of murder and not merely of attempted murder,” writes Gauba.

She, however, didn’t go without a fight. “Kishori was a very powerful lady. Powerful in terms of finance, connections and her personality too was powerful,” adds Desai, a businessman who has interacted with Kishori in the past. Thus, when Kishori’s bail application succeeded and she was asked to furnish two sureties in substantial sums, “a highly placed military officer and a prominent motor car dealer” immediately stepped in and bailed her out, writes Gauba.

But, eventually, her influence didn’t help as she was convicted and spent five years in lock-up, before leaving the country in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, a Mumbai-based businessman, Ramnik Shah, bought Kishori Court in an auction conducted by the tax department to recover municipal taxes owed by Kishori Begum. But, within a few years, the auction was reversed due to ownership issues. The property, as per a Bombay High Court order, was re-vested with the Custodian of Enemy Property.

Today, the drab white bungalow is occupied by four tenants, who have been there since the early 1950s.

“We have been paying rent to the custodian as per the Tenancy Act as the property vests with it,” says a tenant who didn’t wish to be named. Tenants didn’t say what their current rent is, except that it was “nothing as per the current real estate rates.” Typically, at Worli Sea Face, the current rate of rent for a two bedroom- hall-kitchen house is over Rs 1.2 lakh a month. “Since the (Nadkarni) incident, we perform a shanti puja to ward off evil spirits,” says the tenant.

Evil spirits or not, the property, located in a prime area, just 50 metres away from the Bandra-Worli sea link is on the radar of many people. “A lot of politicians have been eyeing this property. We have received request from all kinds of people who want to take control of this property,” said the unnamed tenant quoted earlier. Property developers, too, have been interested. In 2006, Orbit Corporation Ltd, in its initial public offering prospectus, said the company has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to acquire Kishori Court. However, Orbit’s claim was challenged by Kishori’s son, Hameed Ullah Lalji, in court. According to sources, the dispute is stuck in the lower court. Pujit Agarwal, chairman of Orbit declined to comment.

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On March 14, Parliament passed a bill amending the 49-year old Enemy Property Act, making the Custodian the owner of enemy property retrospectively from 1968. The new law prohibits legal heirs of enemies from inheriting enemy property.The law also voids the legal sales undertaken by enemies of such properties since 1968. This means that a person who may have bought an enemy property in good faith when such sale was legal, now stands to lose the property. While the new law empowers the government to sell enemy properties, the tenants of Kishori Court may soon have to vacate.