For one who has written three biographies in the past decade, I have grappled with the acute shortage of source materials that provide evidence for not just the narrative of the life one is reconstructing but also the social and political issues of the times the person lived in. The book by Sheela Reddy is evidence of how rich and credible the narrative can be if such resources were available. However, it is not just access to the resources that makes her book unputdownable, it is her intensive and meticulous research, based on first-person accounts as well as secondary sources, that makes the nearly 50 pages of notes (of the 421-page book) as interesting and engaging as the story of the ‘marriage that shook India’. I did miss an index, though.
There is no shortage of drama to the story of this marriage, especially when the protagonists are MA Jinnah and Ruttie Petit. Twenty-four years older to her and a friend of her father (Sir Dinshaw Petit, a fabulously rich baronet and a prominent Parsi mill-owner), Jinnah was a leading Muslim barrister in Bombay and, by then, already a powerful politician. The only daughter of Sir Petit, Ruttie was a girl of 16 when they fell in love, so pretty, vivacious and fashionable that she was known as the ‘flower of Bombay’.
The story started as a fairy tale: Sir Petit not just spurning Jinnah’s offer but getting a court order barring them from meeting; the two-year wait until Ruttie turned 18 during which they would manage to converse only at political meetings because Jinnah was too ‘correct’ to do otherwise and go against the court orders; their steadfast devotion to each other during this ‘blackout period’ and his meticulous plan for Ruttie’s conversion to Islam a day before the wedding (because without it the mullahs would not perform the wedding rites; she was formally renamed Mariam—a name that would only be used on her tombstone), her eloping from the Petit house ‘with her dog and an umbrella’; Jinnah forgetting to bring a ring to the wedding ceremony; her father fainting when he read the wedding announcement in the paper and slapping a charge on Jinnah for kidnapping his daughter, prompting Ruttie to stand up in court and tell the judge that “Mr Jinnah has not abducted me: in fact, I have abducted him” (p131).
But, despite their love and devotion to each other, it ended up as one of the gloomiest love stories ever.
The book is based on a bunch of private letters preserved by Padmaja and Leilamani Naidu, daughters of Sarojini Naidu, who was a close family friend of the Petits and later Ruttie’s role model and confidante. Ruttie was a prolific letter writer and Sarojini and her daughters were the recipients. Apparently, the author stumbled upon them in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Padmaja “had the foresight and imagination to collect and preserve her family’s vast and lively correspondence... and put it at the disposal of the curious in the NMML archives.”
What the author has done remarkably well is interpreting the content of the letters, bringing the solitary, misunderstood Jinnah and the lonely, wistful Ruttie to life, weaving deftly the social and political ethos and issues of the times. Some examples of such observations are: the impact of this Muslim-Parsi marriage on the education and upbringing of Parsi women; the kind of parenting—or rather the lack of it among the upper strata of society—where children were left to the care of ‘governesses’; the discovery of barbiturates in the 1920s and its popularity among the idle rich women driven by ennui and depression; atheism being a popular trend in the 1910s and 1920s; the emergence of Paris as the cultural and intellectual centre of the world, especially after the end of World War I... the list is endless. And these observations are completely unobtrusive to the main narrative. In fact, I was impressed with the fact that, despite the tumultuous events, the ferment of ideologies and ideas, and the number of important and interesting people that criss-crossed the lives of this star-crossed couple, the author does not lose her focus on the main narrative.
Sheela gives a glimpse of how the politics of the times as well as his personal life gradually transformed Jinnah from being a liberal Muslim (and a ham-eating, cigar smoking, alcohol-drinking one to boot, who sent his sister to a missionary school, where she was the first Muslim girl to be admitted), to a more staunch and conservative individual.
Sheela narrates an incident which brings alive not just his chivalry and tenderness for Ruttie but also his belief in women’s right to dress as they pleased. The Jinnahs had been invited for dinner to the Bombay Governor’s residence. Their hostess, Lady Willingdon, asked an ADC to bring Ruttie a shawl “in case she felt cold.” It was a slim excuse to cover a blouse which the governor’s prim wife felt was too low-cut (and perhaps she was not too pleased that an Indian woman was the object of many admiring English eyes!). At that, Jinnah rose from his seat and told the governor’s wife that “When Mrs Jinnah feels cold, she will say so, and ask for a wrap herself.” After which he led his wife out of the dinner and, post the incident, refused all other invitations to Government House (p149).
Perhaps the romance, and the marriage, was doomed because of the huge age difference between them. She was vivacious, full of energy to explore and live life to the full, while he was seriously involved in the politics of the times. She wanted to be by his side and participate in his life to the fullest—something that was not viewed kindly by the Muslim community that gradually became Jinnah’s main constituency as the Home Rule Movement and then the Indian National Congress changed gears, after Gandhi’s emergence on the Indian political scene. Unused to playing second fiddle, Jinnah became more and more involved in strategising with the Muslims, to the exclusion of Ruttie. So, in this triangular love story, she lost out to her competitors—politics and Jinnah’s overarching ambition.
Even as she appeared outwardly to be settling into her role as a dutiful wife and homemaker “as thousands of modern young women like her were doing all around her, unable to resolve their dilemma of what to do with this new freedom that an English education had given them,” her persona was withering. Even the birth of their daughter could not bridge the chasm that had grown between them. The couple so neglected the child that, as Leilamani wrote to her sister Padmaja, she was not named even though she was six years old.
To get over the disappointment with life, Ruttie experimented with séances, with drugs ‘from the long needle’, social work for women from the red light areas with Jinnah’s friend Kanji Dwarkadas, short encounters with theosophy, none of which got her out of the gloom. A decade after they got married, she mustered the courage to break out of the cycle of love and guilt to tell J—as she used to call him—that it was finally over. “She told him to his face, in their first-class coupé, on the train... On 4 January 1928, they parted wordlessly at Victoria Station, she going to the Taj with Sarojini (which had a room permanently reserved for her), who had been on the same train, while he went home alone, too proud and hurt to stop her. He had not seen it coming.” Their meteor of love had extinguished itself.
Ruttie died on 20 February 1929, her 29th birthday, alone in a house where she stayed after moving out from the Jinnah residence, consuming an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving behind her daughter, Dina, and her inconsolable husband, who never married again.
A must-read for all those interested in politics, history and the power of an unforgettable love story.