Friday 28 July 2017

Jinnah and Ruttie: When politics broke up a marriage

Sheela Reddy’s Mr And Mrs Jinnah, on the little-known facet of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s marriage with Ruttie Petit, is a compelling portrait of a broken marriage deeply enmeshed in the tumult of the nationalist movement

Sheela Reddy has worked as a journalist for 35 years and written extensively on politics, history, culture and literature. She was also the books editor of Outlook. In Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, published by Penguin Random House India, Reddy writes about the little-known facet of Jinnah’s marriage with the glamorous Bombay Parsi heiress, Ruttie Petit, the daughter of rich Parsi baronet and Jinnah’s good friend, Sir Dinshaw Petit.

Meticulously researched in Delhi, Mumbai and Karachi, Mr and Mrs Jinnah uses never-before-seen personal letters of Ruttie and her close friends, including Sarojini Naidu’s daughters Padmaja Naidu and Leelamani Naidu and Jinnah’s close friend Kanji Dwarkadas. It is a compelling portrait of a marriage deeply enmeshed in the tumultuous politics of the time. Jinnah, reputed to be a ‘cold’ person, was 42-year-old and a rising star in the nationalist movement. Ruttie was just 16. After they married, Bombay society was scandalised. Soon, the two were ostracized. Ruttie was also excommunicated.

As if this was not enough, Jinnah was unceremoniously thrown out of Congress exactly a year after he got married, for not toeing the party line, putting them both in a limbo. Disillusioned after the marriage, Ruttie walked out on Jinnah. Cut off from her family, friends and community, she committed suicide at 29.

“What could happen to a marriage in such trying conditions? No one could have foreseen that when Ruttie married him,” Reddy told The Punch. She added, “I believe the political isolation they were cast into could have only two effects on the marriage. It could bring the spouses together in a kind of us-against-the-hostile-world or it could break them up. So, it broke them up. This is how politics affects personal life. It’s foolish to believe that if you’re doing a history of a marriage, you can see it apart from what was happening around. It’s all too meshed together.”

Excerpts from an interview: 

THE PUNCH: Mr and Mrs Jinnah bridges a gap. While much has been written about Jinnah and his contemporaries, this aspect of his life — his marriage with Ruttie — remains an uncharted territory. What was the trigger for this book?

SHEELA REDDY: Many things. First of all, it was a journalist’s nose for a good story. In 2009, Jaswant Singh’s book (Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence, published by Rupa and Co.) had come out. There was a lot of personal material, especially about Jinnah’s death, in the book. While Singh mentions Jinnah’s seemingly colourful marriage, he doesn’t dwell on it too much. It was also because I had partly set myself the task of trying to understand the movement of the freedom struggle. I always found history very confusing because it was told from polarised points of view. So, whoever disagreed with Gandhi looked like a cardboard character. I wanted to investigate for myself to understand Jinnah better. When I started looking, to my extreme surprise, I found that there was nothing available. There was one flimsy memoir of Ruttie, may be about 40 years after she died and much after Jinnah died, by one of their close friends. But it was more like a hagiography. It ended up raising more questions than it answered. Also, they say that you write the book you want to read. I ended up doing exactly that.

THE PUNCH: There are so many layers to the person that Ruttie was. Was there enough material on her?

SHEELA REDDY: No, it was really a lot of dogged effort that got me the material. Not being a trained historian or academician proved to be a virtue. I took interesting stuff wherever I found them without applying any filters. And, thus, I came across tremendously rich material. For example, there is this vast treasure trove of correspondence of Sarojini Naidu’s family in the Nehru Museum. This was a very cosmopolitan family that dispersed all over the world, especially Sarojini, who was crucial to the freedom struggle of that time. She was the president of Bombay Congress and at that time the Bombay Congress was the Congress. She was also a close aide of Gandhi. He depended on her a lot for the harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Her family preserved every letter that she wrote to them or her friends. So, one of the great acts of benevolence that Padmaja Naidu did, besides bequeathing the entire estate to the nation, was that she also gave all the letters to the Nehru Library. For some reason, it has never been properly looked at. When I was looking for files on Ruttie Jinnah’s letters, I thought I would find Ruttie’s letters to Jinnah, but instead I found Ruttie’s letters to Padmaja Naidu. I was surprised to find that I was only the second person to have ever seen that file. A little over hundred pages, it covers almost her entire life — from the age of fifteen-and-a-half to a year before she died. Her entire courtship and her marriage fall in that period. She wrote lively, long letters (to Padmaja Naidu and Leelamani Naidu, Sarojini Naidu’s daughters). I chanced upon those letters almost at the beginning of my research and that is what inspired me to write this book. Once I found the letters, I thought my job would be done, but actually it was just the beginning. I needed to set it in a context.

I tried to speak to the descendants of the Petit’s and Jinnah’s families, but I wasn’t able to meet them. I was forced to go back and only look at the records. In retrospect, this was better. Letters don’t lie.

THE PUNCH: In the political climate of that time, it was a difficult choice for both Jinnah and Ruttie to make. Though they came from progressive families, inter-faith marriages were not so commonly accepted. Gandhi, for example, was not in favour of such marriages.

SHEELA REDDY: Gandhi actively discouraged such marriages. To do Gandhi justice, it’s not because of him that we think of him as pro-Hindu-Muslim marriage. It’s because of the people surrounding him that the myth has been created around him. In his newspaper, Harijan, he wrote against such practices and actively defended his opinion. He felt that it was not the right thing to do. Since he was a powerful figure and carried the nation along, people were forced to adopt his ideas, whether they believed in it or not. At the same time, one must also remember that Gandhi single-handedly gave meaning and purpose to a whole generation of people who transformed us into who we really are. From giving up chiffons and pearls to taking up khadi, many people, including his closest followers, had huge problems with them. But because he carried the nation with him, most of them did not have the guts to oppose him. In that sense, Jinnah was not ready to submit and paid a price for it.
THE PUNCH: Ruttie, too, had to pay a price for marrying outside her religion. She was ostracised by her family and even excommunicated by the Parsi community. How difficult was it for Ruttie to make that choice?

SHEELA REDDY: In Ruttie’s case, the parent’s objection seemed to be about the age difference which was scandalous. What was a girl of 16 doing with a man of 42? Think of this young, sensitive, well-read and intelligent girl stuck in a society where there was really nothing for people to do except groom themselves to be good society hostesses. But she was fired by the same kind of ideals that Jinnah had then — to set the country free. She read and wrote poetry. She felt more strongly than most women in her circle about life. When there was a handsome, very mature and attractive older man, it was quite easy to be attracted to him. She was also brought up in a family where she was given a lot of freedom. There were not many rules. When they turned 16 and completed their senior Cambridge, they were accepted as part of the adult society. All they had to do was find the right husband and set up home. As Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister) says, they were not made aware that their parents would be upset if they chose a mate out of their own religions. At some level, Ruttie knew she was taking on society. Sarojini Naidu says in her letter that she knew the sacrifices she would be called upon to make. Some were due to the circumstances. She belonged to a big celebrity family. Around then, the Parsi community was getting very insecure and wanted to make an example of her. If the Parsi priests or the conservatives came out against her, their voice would be heard. There was an issue piggy-backing on her particularly. The conditions of her excommunication were extremely severe: those conditions had never before been placed upon any man or woman in the community. In her case, even if a priest participated in any ceremony that involved her or Jinnah, the priest would be excommunicated. Also, if her family had anything to do with her in the future, then nobody from her family of origin would be able to have Parsi rights, both for death or marriage. As a result, they were forced to completely excommunicate.

In some sense, it was one of the modern marriages where the spouse was all in all. So, there was pressure on Jinnah, who was already so preoccupied and who didn’t have the skills to play the varied roles. And, as if this was not enough, Jinnah was unceremoniously thrown out of Congress exactly a year after he got married for not toeing the party line, putting them both in a limbo. What could happen to a marriage in such trying conditions? No one could have foreseen that when Ruttie married him. Jinnah was at the height of his political glory and within one year, he was out of everything he had built and constructed for himself over 20 years. He had no alternative though. It’s another matter that he clawed himself back into the political equation, but that was much later. While nobody could have foreseen it, I believe the political isolation they were cast into could have only two effects on the marriage. It could bring the spouses together in a kind of us-against-the-hostile-world or it could break them up. So, it broke them up. It could have gone either way; it just went this way. This is how politics affects personal life. It’s foolish to believe that if you’re doing a history of a marriage, you can see it apart from what was happening around. It’s all too meshed together.

THE PUNCH: How did the marriage affect Jinnah’s equations, for example, with his sister, Fatima, who lived with him before the marriage?

SHEELA REDDY: There is so little to go on except what is there in Ruttie’s letters. What they indicate is that after his marriage, Jinnah made sure that Fatima did not live with them. Fatima was 16 years younger to him and he was her guardian. When she was eight and their father died, he put her into a convent boarding school, a very bold step at that time. The community was dead against her. I’m sure his married sisters would also have spoken up against it because it in a way ensured that she would never get married because nobody would marry a convent “over-educated” girl. It was unlikely to find the right match for her. But it was a risk Jinnah was prepared to take because he felt strongly about the fact that she deserved modern education. Also, he wanted to give her what he didn’t have; she often used to boast that she was a matriculate whereas he was not. When Jinnah came back to India and his first wife was long dead, he didn’t see himself getting married again. It was understood that she could be his companion or helpmate. There is a letter soon after Jinnah’s marriage with Ruttie where she makes fun of Fatima and pretends to look for a husband for her. But Fatima takes it seriously, which is rather sad as it means that she would have started thinking about it.

THE PUNCH: Sarojini Naidu was a great admirer of Jinnah who, in turn, held her in high esteem. Tell us something about their mutual admiration.

SHEELA REDDY: Sarojini got to know Jinnah in 1913 when he was already a member of the Legislative Council. She was very enamoured of him in a way a lot of people were because he was an extraordinary person. Not only was he good-looking and flawlessly turned out, there was something about his personality too which was very striking. Jinnah was a self-made man. His father was fairly well-to-do at some time, and the only reason he agreed to send Jinnah abroad was because he felt that if he went as an apprentice to the British firm he was dealing with as a trader then, he would come back and take over their business and turn it into a successful global enterprise. Jinnah was a drifter at that time. He went abroad for apprenticeship and his father paid three years’ of money in advance. In the first year of working in London, he got exposed to the Indian elites there. An Indian parliamentarian, Dadabhai Naoroji, was fighting an election in UK and all Indians had become part of his campaign. Jinnah got involved with the Indian students who were there to study law. He realised the possibility that he could do something. It was also the last year where one could do law without Matric certificate. So, without informing his father, he secretly studied for that exam which he passed. He quit apprenticeship and used that money for his study. He had very shining ideals at that time and he devoted a lot of time at the British Library, grooming himself.

Jinnah was only the second or third Muslim to be among the top hundred lawyers in an over-crowded field in Bombay, making a mark for himself without any patronage from anyone. By the time he came back to Bombay at 21 to make a living for himself, his father was bankrupt. He had a large family of siblings that he was responsible for. He had no source of income, except law. But within a couple of years, he was able to rise above his condition. He was in the council, he was the metropolitan magistrate. He had lots of money and he did not encourage any of his relatives to have anything to do with him although he supported them. He was brutally honest and never minced his words. He was also a person of shining idealism. He defended Tilak at a trial for free. At that time, Sarojini Naidu was also getting drawn into national politics, not because of Gandhi, who had not yet arrived on the scene, but because of Gokhale, who was her original mentor. When Gokhale was going to London, she had already met and known Jinnah. She persuaded Jinnah to travel on the same ship as Gokhale at the same time. She sent an introductory letter to Gokhale, urging him to meet “this amazing man”. Meeting Gokhale transpired into Jinnah eventually joining Congress politics.

A very common misconception about Sarojini and Jinnah was that she was madly in love with him. Sarojini was a person of vocal enthusiasms when it came to people in her life and she was very extravagant about them which, at such a time, could get misconstrued. However, she was not emotionally involved with Jinnah because at the same time, she was deeply involved with another man — Syed Mahmud. The two exchanged passionate letters, but never acted on their feelings. This man eventually had a nervous breakdown. When he recovered, he got married to somebody else. But the special relationship between them stayed for the rest of their lives.

THE PUNCH: What could have been the reasons for Ruttie and Jinnah growing apart?

SHEELA REDDY: I couldn’t afford to speculate. I had to stay within whatever little I found and was able to suggest that much. We have no way of knowing what could have happened within the marriage. She wrote letters to Sarojini’s daughters and a friend. But her letters were not at all self-revelatory. She never talked about her dissatisfactions with him. It came as a total surprise to Sarojini (a close confidante) in the end, when she separated with Jinnah, that they had actually gone through a rough patch.

If I have to speculate, we all know women like that who tend to love too much. Eventually, they deplete themselves and don’t know the right time to run.

THE PUNCH: In her last letter to Jinnah, Ruttie wrote that what began with love should end on it. Did she actually commit suicide?

SHEELA REDDY: There is Kanji Dwarkadas’s account. Although he did not say in his book what actually caused her death, in an interview six months before he died, he said quite unambiguously that she had committed suicide: she had taken sleeping pills. So, it’s clearly established that it was a suicide.

THE PUNCH: What could have led to Jinnah’s vilification in India after Independence?

SHEELA REDDY: I would have to study what happened in those confusing 10 years after my story ends. I can clearly see in the middle of the story that It could have never been his option that he wanted a separate country for the Muslims. He started as a profound nationalist who always said that he was an Indian first and a Muslim later. And suddenly he was pushed into the other side. Who was responsible? These are really hard questions we have to ask ourselves.

I hope that some opening of this skeleton in the cupboard starts. It was a time of extreme tension. Sarojini Naidu has written that Jinnah was giving all the time and the Hindus were pushing against giving him anything at all. He was trying to come to some kind of amicable settlement. And we have Jinnah’s statements throughout till the end that he went begging to them for some little thing, but they just refused to deal with him. There are no simple answers. The minute you say it was not Jinnah’s fault, they’ll start thinking that it was Nehru’s fault. I don’t think it was anybody’s private property to be at fault. I’m glad as it’s the beginning of telling the multiple truths of the freedom struggles. There is no one absolute truth.

THE PUNCH: What was Jinnah’s equation with Nehru?

SHEELA REDDY: At this point, Nehru was not an actor on the scene. It only started coming towards the end when the marriage had anyway broken down. It actually started with the Nagpur Congress. Motilal Nehru was a good friend and ally of Jinnah. He totally betrayed Jinnah for Gandhi because of his sons and from there, the marginalisation started. Nehru had a huge contempt toward Jinnah and his contempt was based on frivolous things. For example, he thought that Jinnah was less cultured than him or that he was only a newspaper reader and didn’t read books.

THE PUNCH: Out of the three stalwarts of the freedom struggle — Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah — do you think the former two controlled the narrative through their writings while Jinnah remained a very private person till the end?

SHEELA REDDY: Jinnah discouraged all biographers from delving into his personal life. Very early on in his life, there was one biographer who tried really hard, out of almost nothing that was available, to make some kind of personal biography of him. He was very badly snubbed by Jinnah. He was always very dismissive of any attempt to look into his life.

(Source: The Punch Magazine)

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