NON-FICTION: RUTTIE AS FICTION

Published August 14, 2022
Entry in the Sindh Madressatul Islam’s general register about Jinnah leaving school to get married | Photo courtesy the reviewer
Entry in the Sindh Madressatul Islam’s general register about Jinnah leaving school to get married | Photo courtesy the reviewer

Ruttie Jinnah: The Woman Who Stood Defiant
By Saad S. Khan and Sara S. Khan
Vanguard, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9694026381
320pp.

There are some decisions in one’s life, usually taken during moments of passion, which result in lifelong pain and regret. One such decision perhaps was taken by Rattanbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit and Mohammad Ali Jinnah to marry each other, transcending differences of age and religion in the conservative society of 1918 India.

During the initial few years, their love could gloss over the stress and strain of an otherwise incompatible marriage. But soon a time came when neither partner could bear the pain and perils of their failing matrimonial relationship, with Ruttie vying for separation and Jinnah realising his mistake in marrying her.

Many years later, a candid Jinnah — as quoted by his biographer Hector Bolitho in the book In Quest of Jinnah — observed: “No one could ever understand what happened between Ruttie and me. We never got on: she got on my nerves — she drove me mad. She was a child, and I should never have married her. The fault was mine.”

Despite the failure of their marriage and ultimate tragic fate of their relationship, this heart-wrenching tale of love and tragedy has inspired immense public interest since its inception, translating into the publication of several books and articles on the subject for over a century.

A book on Ruttie and Jinnah’s relationship is devoid of authenticity at several places and in contravention of historical facts

The latest addition to these publications is Ruttie Jinnah: The Woman Who Stood Defiant, by Saad S. Khan and Sara S. Khan, who travelled to India in search of information on Ruttie. However, the descendants of Ruttie’s family did not extend any cooperation, limiting the Khans’ information to much of what is already in the public domain.

The book has been conveniently divided into three parts, dealing with Ruttie’s life, her politics and her legacy. It provides background to Ruttie’s paternal family as well as her extravagant lifestyle and her interest in books, parties and music. An extensive section of the text is devoted to describing Jinnah and his political discourse.

The authors describe in detail Ruttie’s interest in social causes, particularly women’s rights, giving account of her visiting such taboo areas as brothels to help reduce the “cruelties and inhumanities of the trade.” The book gives her due credit for her relentless efforts aimed at the passage of the Bombay Children Act 1924, which helped remove boys and girls below the age of 16 from the “immoral surroundings” of brothels.

The book is rich with anecdotes that highlight the unflinching bond of love between the woman and her husband, as well as occasions which caused irritations in their relationship. One such tale quoted is related to the disappearance of Ruttie’s pet cat while the couple was in Delhi, just before their scheduled departure for Bombay [Mumbai] by train.

Ruttie flatly refused to leave till her cat was recovered. This annoyed Jinnah a great deal and he was compelled to proceed alone, leaving his wife in the care of family friends.

On the other hand, the book also tells of occasions when Jinnah annoyed Ruttie, resulting in setbacks in their matrimonial relationship. One such major cause has been described as Jinnah’s preoccupation with his interest in law and politics, which made him ignore Ruttie’s birthdays and their wedding anniversaries, causing her anguish and emotional distress.

Here, it is pertinent to state that the book does suffer from several historical and factual inaccuracies.

For instance, the book claims — without any plausible proof — that Jinnah’s first marriage to his cousin Emibai, when he was approximately 15-16 years old, was a fiction created by his sister, Fatima Jinnah. To prove that Ruttie was Jinnah’s first and only wife, the authors have devoted several pages to discredit Fatima, alluding that she created a fictitious tale about Jinnah’s first marriage in her book My Brother just because of her jealousy to Ruttie.

The Khans’ only argument in support of their claim is an absence of corroborating evidence regarding Jinnah’s first marriage, other than Fatima’s narrative. The fact remains that Jinnah’s first marriage was recorded through an entry dated Jan 30, 1892, in the General Register of the Sindh Madressatul Islam (SMI) — a copy of which is with this reviewer — which gave reason for him leaving school as “Left for Cutch on marriage.”

Both the dates and place of Jinnah’s first marriage — Cutch — as mentioned by Fatima stand in conformity with this school record.

Then, sometimes one feels that the book is promoting a particular type of narrative, showing Jinnah as a deeply religious man. For instance, the authors state that the “better part of [Jinnah’s] education was also done in religious schools, including Sindh Madressatul Islam.”

The fact remains that SMI was never a religious school, but a modern cosmopolitan institution. It was inaugurated by then viceroy of British India, Frederick Dufferin, and had several non-Muslim teachers and students. The book also does not highlight the fact that, after SMI, Jinnah went to Karachi’s Church Mission School, where he studied till his departure for London.

In the same spirit, the book discusses Jinnah’s last will, stating that he “bequeathed part of his legacy to both these institutions [SMI and Anjuman-i-Islam school in Bombay] [which] points to the fact that he remained religious till his death.” Here, too, the authors do not mention that, in the same will, Jinnah bequeathed to the University of Bombay double the amount that he had bestowed upon the Anjuman-i-Islam school.

It also fails to mention that the will had been written on May 30, 1939, many years before Jinnah’s death. At the time he had strained relations with his daughter Dina and, against that background, had declared the educational institutions — rather than his daughter — the major beneficiaries of his legacy.

Another claim made in the book, that Ruttie influenced Jinnah in making Pakistan, does not find much authenticity in historical literature. In the ‘Preface’, the authors state that Ruttie’s “influence on the making of Pakistan, both directly and through Jinnah, merits historical attention.”

Then it states that “the transformation of Jinnah from a staunch nationalist to a two-nation theorist [was because of] his marriage to Ruttie.” The fact remains that Ruttie died in February 1929, about 18 years before the creation of Pakistan and, during her lifetime, even Allama Muhammad Iqbal had not presented his idea of Pakistan.

Another concern is that, although the book is supposed to be a biography of Ruttie, she is regularly denoted by her matrimonial title of “Mrs Jinnah” instead of her own name. Well, being Jinnah’s spouse was a part of Ruttie’s life, but to deny the subject her own name in most of her own biography seems an injustice. I was also particularly perturbed by the derogatory remarks used in the book for Ruttie’s father, Sir Dinshaw Petit II, such as “bootlicking”.

One cannot help but reach the conclusion that the book presents a fictionalised version of Ruttie and Jinnah’s relationship, devoid of authenticity at several places and in contravention of historical facts.

This becomes understandable when one reads the objectives of the book in the ‘Preface’, which states: “Another objective of highlighting Mrs Jinnah, through this biography, is to seek [the] attention of Hollywood, Bollywood, or Lollywood to produce a biopic on her.”

If that is the case, then the book should be seen from a different perspective: a fictionalised biography rather than a scholarly work.

The reviewer is former vice-chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University, Karachi, and has served as Fulbright Scholar at the American University, Washington DC. He can be reached at drshaikhma@gmail.com and tweets at @DrMAliShaikh

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 14th, 2022

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