POWER AND PASSION
When Ruttie met Jinnah—a biography of the fraught and tragic marriage that shaped the man who negotiated the national divorce we call Partition
Sheela Reddy’s is book is a sumptuous read, starting with vivid descriptions of early 20th century Bombay. The British empire is firmly in place and Bombay is awash with Parsi enterprise and Parsi millionaires—of whom Sir Dinshaw Petit is one. In his luxurious home, Petit Hall, with its French furniture and Persian carpets, all is well. His children are brought up by English governesses, and his cosmopolitan lifestyle takes him and his family on vacations to Europe. At home, hospitality is never-ending. An army of servants serves lavish meals to an unending flow of visitors. Sarojini Naidu is a close friend and frequent guest. Mohammed Ali Jinnah is a frequent visitor. A successful barrister and member of the Viceroy’s Imperial Legislative Council, he is a rising star in politics whom Sir Dinshaw greatly admires. He has been a familiar figure in Ruttie Petit’s home since her childhood. She is still in her teens and Jinnah, aged 43, is just three years younger than her father when they marry in secret and she converts to Islam, creating a scandal that engulfs both their communities. This unlikely love story plays out against the social and political scene of the time. There are personality problems. Unable to cope, Ruttie runs away from her marriage and later comes back, but there is
no repairing the mismatched relationship. Disowned by her father and her community, cut off from her family and all contact with her convivial home and carefree past, she turns to Sarojini Naidu for understanding and companionship and to Padmaja Naidu, her closest friend, for unfailing support. Ruttie tries to make a life for herself in a variety of ways—from unbridled shopping to theosophy and séances—but slides into a state of despair, into drug-induced illnesses and death at the age of 29.
“She was a child and I should never have married her,” confessed Jinnah years later. “The fault was mine.” Sarojini Naidu’s was the more perceptive epitaph: “What a tragedy of unfulfilment Ruttie’s life has been— she was so young and so lovely and she loved life with such passionate eagerness, and always life passed her by leaving her with empty hands and heart.”
The marriage appeared to have been flawed from the very beginning. “She yearned to break through the veils of his many self-repressions and discover for herself the real man … but the real J kept eluding her, hidden behind his cool and rational mind, never giving himself up to even a single display of deep emotion. Worse, sex with him was not thrilling, even before the initial novelty wore off.” Nothing could have been more disillusioning for the adoring 18-year-old whose beauty, sparkling vivacity and hero worship of him had captivated Jinnah. Ruttie had associated marriage to this handsome, distinguished man with high romance—that he would prove a passionate lover who would sweep her off her feet. She was too young and inexperienced to realise that his lack of demonstrativeness during their courtship was a sign of his habitual forbidding reserve, or that in his struggle for professional success, intimate relationships had apparently played little or no part. Intimacy was not his style. He was also rigidly bound to his routine and almost fanatically focused on his legal work and political career. He comes across as a man set and fixed in his habits—reading several newspapers from beginning to end (including the advertisements) first thing in the morning and disliking interruptions of any kind. I found myself wishing he had occasionally put down a newspaper and spared a moment for a quick cuddle before going to work. It might have made all the difference to his marriage. His love for Ruttie fell far short of the needs
RUTTIE DIDN’T REALISE THAT JINNAH’S LACK OF DEMONSTRATIVENESS WAS A SIGN OF HIS HABITUAL, FORBIDDING RESERVE
of her physical and emotional nature, and they had no tastes in common except horseback riding.
This did not deter Ruttie from trying to coax him out of his fortressed reserve, and she fully shared his public life. She not only adapted to her role as a leading politician’s wife, but had an absorbing interest in the field herself and was proud of his eminence. She believed in his political mission of eventually freeing India from British rule and took part in the public events that claimed him—sitting on the platform with him and listening to hourlong political speeches with fortitude. But their personal life had no such glue to bind them. Ruttie was widely read, wrote poetry and had a poetic way with words. In an era of letter-writing, her exuberant and highly literate letters to her friends reveal her as a young woman of intellectual capacity and rare sensitivity. In a letter she wrote while at Mahabaleshwar, to Padmaja Naidu, who was a 16-year-old like herself, Ruttie wrote, “All nature seems to be astir with song birds and little insects, and often while you are feasting your soul on the exquisite and fierce grandeur of the ghats, the mist will rapidly and almost suddenly veil the scenery as though it were jealous. A few days ago while returning from Bombay Point, the delicate strains of a shepherd’s flute caught my ears.” A year later, in 1917, puzzled about Jinnah, then her secret fiancé, being so restrained toward her, she wrote to Padmaja: “I revel in the storming passions that burn and tear at the fibres of my being till my very spirit writhes in an agony of excitement.” Later, as a newly married woman, she wrote to Padmaja’s younger sister Leilamani, about forgiving Jinnah his stiffness and inflexibility, and said she still nursed the dream of “pouring love on parched unlighted souls and through sympathy and understanding” hoped to let her “passionate desire grow into a fair and fragrant flower—so beautiful that it shall draw and command love through its own loveliness”. These are remarkably mature letters, a striking contrast to the illiterate, abbreviated and
misspelt texts that pass for communication among the young today. Sheela Reddy acknowledges that the book owes much to the treasure trove of letters she had access to from Padmaja Naidu’s rich collection of her family’s correspondence. Certainly nothing illuminates Ruttie’s personality more vividly than her own words. In contrast, Jinnah’s is a severely curtailed personality, concentrated on his career and lacking the lightness and humour of ordinary give-and-take. The political scene he dominated during World War One centred on his leadership of the Muslim
League and the Congress. The latter had been founded by an Englishman in 1885 as a loyal opposition to His Majesty’s Government, and Congress sessions were well-dressed events attended by the English-speaking political and industrial elite and their families, to pass resolutions petitioning the British government for a greater role for Indians in the governing of India. Its approach was gradual, legal and constitutional, eminently suited to Jinnah’s training and frame of mind. He disapproved of Tilak’s ultimatums demanding freedom without delay.
The most radical demand until then had been Annie Besant’s, for Home Rule. Into this ‘correct’, westernised political climate came Gandhi, whom Jinnah was immediately disposed to dislike as a rank outsider, who insisted on speaking in Gujarati and Hindi, dressed Gujaratistyle (before he took to the langot), and preached civil disobedience. Indian politics had had no greater shock than the arrival of Gandhi, and it was a sign of Jinnah’s distance from Indian realities that the man whom Tagore hailed as a Mahatma and the masses as their deliverer from suffering, was to Jinnah a virtual gate-crasher on the political scene.
The difference between these two men made the partition of India inevitable. Gandhi had sought to keep India together, looking upon this composite civilisation and culture as the very meaning of ‘India’. Jinnah had worked to divide it, as had the British, into religious identities that suited Britain’s intention to divide and quit. But I am thinking of the sheer human difference between them, which must have contributed to India’s partition in the way that all historic events reflect something of the character of the humans who bring them about. Gandhi, before he became a crank about sex, was, according to his own autobiography, thoroughly acquainted with lustful love, delighting in a fulfilling sex life with his wife in a marriage that produced four sons and a devoted lifelong partnership dedicated to the fight for freedom. Kasturba Gandhi died beside her grieving husband while she was imprisoned with him in Poona. Jinnah’s married life is bleak, one in which sex is more absent than present. His only child, a daughter unnamed for years until her grandmother took charge of her after Ruttie’s death, was ignored by both parents who went their own ways, leaving her to servants. I like to think (and maybe Freud would have agreed) that Jinnah would have been a more relaxed and open-minded negotiator if he had a normal sex life. The high priests of religions are never accommodating men. Asceticism does not make for human give-and-take.
It remains something of a mystery why an anglicised Khoja Muslim who belonged to the Ismaili sect, who ate pork, enjoyed his whisky and was unfamiliar with the Koran, came to be the founder of a Muslim nation based on its religious identity. But this is a contradiction that seems to repeat itself in history. Napoleon was a Corsican, not a Frenchman. Hitler was Austrian, not German and both made their mark through imagined identities.
This is an important book. As the title indicates, it is primarily the story of a relationship, but is also interesting for its portrayal of Jinnah the Indian nationalist, before there was thought or talk of Pakistan. Ruttie’s friend and admirer, Kanji Dwarkadas, firmly believed that had the marriage endured, her influence on Jinnah might have kept his politics from taking a communal turn.
THE BOOK PORTRAYS JINNAH THE INDIAN NATIONALIST, BEFORE THERE WAS ANY THOUGHT OR TALK OF PAKISTAN
Mr and Mrs Jinnah The marriage that shook India By Sheela Reddy
Ruttie as a teenage bride (left); at age six, with brothers Fali (L) and Manek
A TACITURN MAN Jinnah with daughter Dina