The marriage of Rattanbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit and Mohammad Ali Jinnah seemed to be a match made in heaven. At 40, he was at the peak of his career — president of the All India Muslim League, architect of the Lucknow Pact with the Indian National Congress, president of the Home Rule League in Bombay [Mumbai] and chairman of the board of directors of the leading nationalist daily Bombay Chronicle. Indian politician Diwan Chaman Lall wrote that there was scarcely a woman who could hold a candle to Petit in charm and beauty. At 16 she had read widely and was sophisticated well beyond her years. The daughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit, Baronet, she had everything a girl would want.
She found her love in Jinnah not only because he was strikingly handsome, but also because he was a fierce opponent of British rule. So was she. Petit died young in Bombay on her 29th birthday on Feb 20, 1929. Jinnah was in Delhi when he was informed of her death by his father-in-law, who had cut off all ties with his daughter since her conversion to Islam on Apr 18, 1918, and her marriage the next day to Jinnah.
Literature on the short-lived marriage is as sparse as speculation about the causes of its failure but its impact on Jinnah’s personality and politics is plentiful. The couple’s close friend Kanji Dwarkadas’s memoir, Ruttie Jinnah: The Story of a Great Friendship, was published in the 1960s. Kanji remained devoted to Jinnah after Petit’s death till Partition separated them.
Despite the love between them, lifelong companionship was not meant to be for ‘Ruttie’ and ‘J’
Ruttie Jinnah: Life and Love by Shagufta Yasmeen was published by the Royal Book Company in Karachi in 2010. Ruttie Jinnah: The Story, Told and Untold by Khwaja Razi Haider was published by the Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, in 2004. It is a substantial work. Appendix I lists the books on literature, history and spiritualism that she devoured. There would be few, if any, of her age even now to claim so wide a readership. Petit’s intellectual attainments have not received their due.
Sheela Reddy’s book, Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, is a product of great research, well-written and very evocative of the times, blending the personal with the political. In Jinnah’s case it is impossible to separate the two. Petit was also intensely political.
Much of the book is based on correspondence between Dwarkadas, Jinnah’s close friend Sarojini Naidu, and her daughter Padmaja Naidu who was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi on one side and Petit on the other. The mother and daughter did a lot to comfort Petit during the crises in her marriage and her illness.
The author brings to light much that was not known, for which one is grateful, but an understanding of the nuances and complexities of the relationship between this remarkable couple eludes her. To fill the gaps in the narrative, she speculates and makes trite and absurd comments. On the political aspect, she has not been wise in her choice of sources.
To Jinnah, his marriage and deep love for Petit were part of his intensely political life, which he fancied Petit would share. There is no reason to believe that she did not intend to do so. But she had other interests, too. Jinnah was extremely indulgent, but he preoccupied himself mostly with politics — and neglected her with fateful and, sadly, fatal results. She drove herself to death.
The union might have been cemented if she had become a constant companion and partner in public life, a role she did play when accompanying Jinnah to the Nagpur Session of the Congress in 1920. Her attire and demeanour in public added to her beauty, not to her gravitas. Public life demands gravitas. She could be shockingly flippant, telling Fatima Jinnah that she had found a boy for her to marry. Jinnah concealed his displeasure in stony silence, but his silences and failure to communicate widened the divide. Fatima Jinnah played a disruptive role, visiting their home on Sundays, the only day when the couple had time to be by themselves. Fatima Jinnah was a difficult person and thought nothing of prying about the Jinnahs’ daughter Dina. She “used to take the driver aside to find out where she had been and what she had bought,” says Reddy. After Petit’s death, Fatima Jinnah moved into the house.
Neither husband nor wife would permit any one to criticise the other. Petit told off a friend, just as she had Sarojini Naidu: “When you are given a flower, you do not think of the thorn; you revel in its beauty and feast on its fragrance.” The author writes that “anyone could see the power she held over him; he made no attempt to conceal it from anyone, not just her.”
Neglected, Petit sought support from Dwarkadas and Sarojini Naidu. By 1926 it seemed to be over: “If Jinnah thought he would make up to her now for the past years of overwork, she did not give him a chance.” But, judging by the record that the author sets out, the breach was never final, still less irreparable: “And yet, despite how far they had grown apart, she was nowhere close to getting over J. (as she called him). Some part of her still clung to him, even as the rest of her struggled to break free.” Tragically, the same was very true of her husband also. He loved Petit dearly. But while he put up stoically with her quirks, her extravagance and her moods, he withheld from her what a wife has a right to demand — his time, and a continuous demonstration of the affection that she craved. His undemonstrative nature and political commitments wreaked havoc.
Where the record is sparse, the author draws on her imagination and speculates; sometimes creatively, sometimes not. Invention triumphs over facts. She writes of “the rare instances when Jinnah took up a civil suit.” In fact, the bulk of Jinnah’s practice was in civil cases. To write that he had “no obsession with making money for its own sake” and, worse, “demonstrated his indifference by throwing away quantities of it” is to indulge in fancifulness. Jinnah was notoriously close-fisted with money as the Jinnah Papers and Mirza Abul Hasan Ispahani’s memoirs reveal.
Reddy seems to be possessed of a desire to put her own spin on facts where none is called for. India had never seen a criminal trial as sensational as the Bawla murder case in 1925. It did not “obsess” Petit. Her desire to rescue Mumtaz was a normal reaction. The author’s account is wrong. It was not “a Prince of Indore”, but reigning Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar who kept Mumtaz forcibly in his harem. She escaped and found a lover, Abdul Kadar Bawla. They were ambushed as they drove past the Hanging Gardens in Bombay. Bawla was shot. British officers, hearing the shots, rushed at one of the goons who was attacking Mumtaz with a knife to disfigure her. The Maharaja was forced to abdicate. Nine officials of Indore were charged with murder. Jinnah was counsel for the ninth: Anandrao Gangaram Phanse, adjutant-general, Indore Forces. Reddy confidently asserts that Jinnah “managed to get an acquittal for him.” Phanse was, in fact, sentenced to transportation for life. Reddy’s is not a careless slip. It is an invention.
The author opines that “Ruttie, without sharing Jinnah’s animus against Gandhi, turned away from the one who might have saved her.” Yet, whoever allowed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to interfere in his or her marriage came to grief. Jayaprakash Narayan was one such person. Gandhi also scolded Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, for marrying the man she loved simply because he was a Muslim.
It is a reckless falsehood to write that Jinnah had an “animus against Gandhi.” At a public meeting on Feb 19, 1921, he expressed “the greatest respect and reverence for Mr Gandhi and the men who were working with him because he knew of what noble stuff they were made.” This was soon after the Nagpur Congress in December 1920 where Jinnah, and Jinnah alone, opposed Gandhi’s new programme.
Reddy’s stripes emerge in full glare in her remark on Jinnah’s tears in 1947 at the plight of the refugees. “The tears were less for the refugees than for what he had just done — destroyed yet again that which he loved the most.” This is too clever by half. Jinnah had accepted the Cabinet Mission’s proposal of May 16, 1946, based on a united India with groups of provinces. Congress rejected it.
It was Gandhi who destroyed India’s unity, a role he had played with his brand of politics since 1920 as H.M. Seervai records. It is a cheap way to end a book with terrible tragedy. Its poignancy is reflected in a letter that Petit alone could have written to Jinnah on Oct 8, 1928, shortly before her death. It tells all: “Darling — thank you for all you have done. If ever in my bearing — your once lined sense found any in ability or kindness — be assured that in my heart there was place only for a great tenderness and a greater pain — a pain my love without hurt. When one has been as close to the reality of life — (which after all is death) as I have been, dearest — one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments — and all the rest becomes a half-veiled mist of unrealities. Try and remember me beloved as the flower you plucked and not the flower you tread upon.
“I have suffered much sweetheart because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to the measure of my love. … I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved. I only beseech you that our tragedy, which commenced with love, should also end with it. Darling good night, and good-bye. Ruttie.”
Jinnah sobbed as inconsolably as a child as her body was lowered in the grave and bore the pain in silence for the rest of his life, never to be the same man again.
The reviewer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai
Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India
By Sheela Reddy
Penguin/Random House, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017