An intimate study of history

January 15, 2023

Sheela Reddy’s new book explores Jinnah, the man behind the politics

An intimate study of history


heela Reddy’s account of Jinnah’s marriage with Ruttie (Rattanbai Petit) is the most well-researched study of the subject I have had the privilege of reading so far. The author is a journalist and there is a tendency in journalistic writing – one that annoys academics – to weave interesting stories that read like novels. However, where academics are right is that most journalists do not do adequate research and, while they do interview people, they do not read documents and published writings let alone archival material. This book, however, combines both the journalistic virtue of reading like a novel, and a gripping novel at that, and the scholarly virtue of using all possible sources: interviews, biographical writings, newspaper accounts and archival sources.

The book starts with high drama, which grips the reader’s attention straight away. Jinnah, a successful barrister and a promising politician, asked Sir Dinshaw Petit, a rich Parsi businessman and a socialite who kept a good table, whether he approved of inter-faith marriages. When the baron, ever fond of showing off his liberal, nationalist (as opposed to communalist) credentials assented enthusiastically, the barrister coolly asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage (p. 13). The poor baron was awe-struck and ‘taken aback’. Jinnah was then nearly forty and Ruttie was only sixteen. Secondly, he was a Muslim and she was a Parsi (p. 13). Sir Dinshaw refused and Jinnah left the house. But Ruttie was in love with the cool, intelligent barrister whose words, though only of politics, mesmerised her. She was given to devouring the classics of English literature and listening to serious matters like politics – just the very things which Jinnah specialised in. But now Sir Dinshaw was acting the part of the protective Indian father – a role that Jinnah and Nehru were destined to play later. The girl was, of course, underage so Jinnah, always the scrupulous upholder of the law, did not marry her secretly nor did he elope with her – that would have been suicidal for his political career. However, they did see each other in Lucknow, where Jinnah was the celebrated ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. The meeting must have been a brief one and there is no indication that there were other clandestine meetings between the two. Both waited till Ruttie turned eighteen, when she could choose under the law whom she could marry. This was April 19, 1918, and Ruttie had to convert to Islam to do so, though only nominally. The marriage took India by storm and Sir Dinshaw Petit and Lady Petit were forced by the religious leaders of the Parsis to banish their daughter and have no social relations with her.

All this is known already since there are writings on Ruttie both in Jinnah’s biographies and also separate writings devoted to Ruttie herself, for instance, Khwaja Razi Haider’s Ruttie Jinnah, The Story, told and Untold (2004); magazine articles, some decorated with photographs; and some writings in Urdu and Hindi. The reason Reddy’s book surpasses all others so far written on this subject is not that its focus is primarily on Ruttie; it keeps shifting the searchlight from Ruttie to Jinnah and back. Also, she mentions the politics of both Jinnah and Ruttie as well as both of them as human beings. As far as politics is concerned, Sheela Reddy suggests that Jinnah was what was called a nationalist in India in the 1920s. This was a person for whom religion was a personal matter that should not be dragged into life too much and should definitely not affect politics since, if introduced to the latter, it would work against other religious communities. British rule was to be opposed and self-rule demanded but, as Jinnah believed, it was to be done in a constitutional manner. This assumed, of course, that there was trust in the British sense of fair play and legal methods. In this kind of politics, Ruttie threw herself with the passion so characteristic of her. In a protest against Lord Willingdon, the governor of Bombay, she stood outside the town hall and gave an impassioned speech though the police drenched her with a water cannon; this despite the male gaze that would have daunted other women not to mention the highhanded methods of the police. She went to other political conferences too, as the author tells us, but was mostly left in the hotel where the kind old man, Moti Lal Nehru, Jawahar Lal Nehru’s father, gave her company for lunch.

An intimate study of history

The question that the author poses but leaves unanswered on the last page of her book is whether Jinnah would have abandoned Hindu-Muslim unity and taken the communalist line injecting religion into politics for which he had earlier castigated Gandhi had Ruttie not died. 

But Jinnah did not leave her alone all the time, as some historians have written. Ruttie went to the court to accompany him back, though, being an attractive girl, she must have made heads turn in those all-male spaces. But Jinnah was an indulgent husband and, of course, it becomes abundantly clear that he, like Ruttie, had a secular and Western lifestyle. She wore diaphanous sarees and low-neck blouses and shirts and he not only let her but stood by her if someone dared cast aspersions upon her (as Lady Willingdon learnt to her cost). The couple often invited people for impromptu dinners, after which they played cards. Ruttie was given the name of Maryam after her conversion, but, as her letters reveal, she had converted only in name and did not adhere to any religion in theory or practice. She was always a spendthrift with little care about money and Jinnah indulged her in this matter. In fact, she sailed away to Europe, stayed in France and England and other places, and Jinnah never seemed to have complained about this extravagance. It is true that he was well off, but Ruttie’s expenses seemed, to say the least, immature; even unbalanced. Even after she left Jinnah on January 4, 1928, and started living in a room in the Taj Mahal Hotel it was Jinnah who paid for her expenses till she died on her birthday on February 20, 1929. At her burial, Jinnah broke down, and reserved Thursdays for visits to her grave as long as he was in Bombay. So the idea that he was completely cold and callous is wrong.

Many people blame Jinnah for her death, saying he ignored her when within a few years, he got over the romantic infatuation with her. However, it was Ruttie who left Jinnah, not vice versa. Of course, he had little time for her. Most successful politicians, scientists and scholars as well as media persons and businesspeople have little time for their families. But, at least at the beginning of their marriage, they did spend nights together in animated political conversations with friends. Also, for a balanced and rational man like Jinnah, it must have been a trial to put up with Ruttie’s excessive expenses, cats and dogs and sudden departures of months for exotic places. The fact is that Ruttie paid little attention to her daughter, Dina, to an incredible degree – to the extent of not even giving her a name. When she left Jinnah, she left her daughter, too, who was only eight at the time. But in the matter of naming the child, Jinnah, too, was not without blame. However, later he did take her to England with him and did seem to have given her some companionship as she called him Grey Wolf (this was the title of a biography of Mustafa Kamal Pasha Jinnah gushed over before her).

The question that the author poses but leaves unanswered on the last page of her book (p. 271) is whether Jinnah would have abandoned Hindu-Muslim unity and taken the communalist line injecting religion into politics for which he had earlier castigated Gandhi had Ruttie not died. This question can never be answered. However, if it means that Jinnah did not really mean to create Pakistan and that all he wanted was security for Indian Muslims then that is the thesis of Ayesha Jalal and Jaswant Singh among others. However, some parts of the answer may lie in looking at Jinnah’s lifestyle and indifference to religious practice, which is convincingly illustrated in Reddy’s book. This line is taken by Yasser Latif Hamdan in his book Jinnah: A Life (2022). Hamdani argues that Jinnah was essentially a secular person in his beliefs and lifestyle as mentioned above and it was only when Nehru left him no option of keeping India united even as late as the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946 that he accepted partition. The book under review is valuable since it helps us understand Jinnah the man behind the politics. It provides us with insights into what went into the formation of Pakistan as few academic tomes do. It is a must-read for everyone and especially for students of South Asian studies.

An intimate study of history

Mr and Mrs

Jinnah: the

Marriage That Shook India

Author: Sheela Reddy

Publisher: Liberty Publishing, 2022

Pages: Paperback, 421

Price: Rs 1,395

The reviewer is an occasional contributor

An intimate study of history