“I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved…” – Rattanbai (Ruttie) in her last letter to Mohammad Ali Jinnah (October 25, 1928)
Not enough is written about the woman who was the chosen companion of the founding father of Pakistan. And only a handful of books have been published about her life. Rattanbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit (she officially became Maryam Jinnah after her marriage to Mohammad Ali Jinnah although she never actually used that name) was born on February 20, 1900; she was the only child of Sir Dinshaw and Lady Dinabai Petit.
The Petits were one of the wealthiest Parsi families of Bombay and their home played regular host to the crème de la crème of high society — ministers, intellectuals, poets, businessmen and prominent lawyers all gathered at their place to engage in stimulating debate and to socialise. It was in this environment and among such people that Ruttie grew up.
The ‘Flower of Bombay’, as she was called, was a force of nature — well read and mature beyond her years. She had three passions in her life: books, clothes and pets, and was somewhat spoiled by her parents who indulged her every whim. From a very young age, Ruttie was a natural charmer, beautiful, witty and obstinate, having an independent nature.
At the same time she was an incredibly soft-hearted person, generous, an ardent humanitarian and often spoke out against the ill treatment of animals. She was politically aware but rarely engaged in politics. Her love for fashion had established her reputation as one of the most well-dressed women in Bombay’s high society.
In the summer of 1916, Sir Dinshaw Petit invited a young lawyer, who he thought had a very promising career ahead of him, to spend a summer with his family in Darjeeling. Ruttie had met this lawyer on occasions when he came to their house to attend some of their dinner parties but it was during this trip that she got to know him better.
The lawyer was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a resolute bachelor and 24 years her senior, but discovered that he and Ruttie shared quite a few similar interests: they both loved horse riding, books, were nationalists and harboured a healthy curiosity about the world around them.
Two years later, on April 19, 1918, at the hands of Maulana Nazeer Ahmed Khajandi at the Jamia Masjid in Bombay, Ruttie embraced Islam. Clad in a sari, bringing with her only her pets from her old life, she left her family to be with Jinnah. They married at his residence, South Court on the upscale Malabar Hill, and spent their honeymoon in Nainital.
Soon after her wedding, Ruttie busied herself with redecorating South Court and building up her wardrobe of finely tailored saris and suits.
She stood by her husband through thick and thin though her foray into anything that remotely resembled politics was short lived.
In May 1919, Ruttie was slated to speak at the first All India Trade Union Congress and she delivered a speech that was both eloquent and forceful. But the experience made her realise that facing an audience and speaking to them was no easy feat. That was the only public speech she ever gave. However she was very active in social welfare spheres.
Other than her efforts on behalf of animal rights, Ruttie worked extensively to improve the living conditions of the women working in the brothels of Bombay. She was concerned for the welfare of the children living in that district as well and with the support of her friend, Kanji Dawarkadas, pushed forward a Bombay Children’s Act to the Bombay Legislative Council in 1921. The act was passed in 1924 and enforced several years later.
She and Mohammad Ali visited England in May 1919; as a couple they often went out for walks, to the theatre and to the opera. Their daughter, Dina, who was named after Ruttie’s mother, was coincidentally and perhaps ominously born on August 14, 1919.
As Jinnah’s political career became more demanding he had less time to spend with Ruttie; it was around this time that Ruttie’s health also began to deteriorate. She was diagnosed with colitis and exasperated her doctors by not heeding to their advice. Soon, her illness became chronic.
Although she kept busy — she read as many books on the metaphysical as she could, went to theatre and the movies, and had friends over for dinner — she felt lonely and neglected. Her health continued to deteriorate; from 1926 through 1928 she was restricted mostly to bed.
Accompanied by her mother, Ruttie went to England in 1928 and later to Paris where she was admitted at a clinic in Champs Elysee. She was in a semi-comatose condition there and a visitor remarked that she would often whisper the following lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Harlot’s House: “And down the long and silent street, the dawn, with silver sandaled feet, crept like a frightened girl.”
Mohammad Ali Jinnah went to Paris and stood by her side, even eating the same food she was given. Ruttie’s health improved and she moved to Bombay where it took a turn for the worse again. Her loyal friend, Kanji was by her side the night before she died. The last thing she had said to him was, “If I die, look after my cats and don’t give them away.” Ruttie passed away in her sleep on February 20, 1929 — on her 29th birthday.
Jinnah was not a man given to public display of emotion but as Ruttie’s coffin was being lowered into her grave, he broke down and wept without reservation. He had all of her belongings — her clothes, ornaments and pictures packed in boxes and stored away. It is said that he occasionally asked for those boxes be brought to him and would go through her belongings lovingly — then, just as suddenly, he would pack them up again and have them taken away.
It is perhaps, not wrong to say, that the ‘Flower of Bombay’ bloomed forever in his heart.
February 20 was Ruttie Jinnah’s anniversary.