When Rut­tie met Jin­nah—a bi­og­ra­phy of the fraught and tragic mar­riage that shaped the man who ne­go­ti­ated the na­tional di­vorce we call Par­ti­tion

India Today - - BOOKS - By Nayan­tara Sah­gal

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


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.



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

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