They remain the subcontinent's most mysterious couple despite being one of the most prominent.
The marriage of Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Rattanbai (Ruttie) Petit shocked India as it shattered all of society's unwritten rules and norms — he being Muslim and she being of Parsi descent. But very little is actually known about the state of their tragic marriage.
Sheela Reddy painstakingly paints a picture of their life together in a most immersive book, Mr and Mrs Jinnah. She has beautifully pieced together precious insights into who they were as individuals and what actually happened.
She writes about each person objectively but so tenderly, making them come alive. She gently exposes all the societal and cultural factors and skilfully pinpoints Ruttie and Jinnah's own traits that led to one of the most tragic love stories in the subcontinent.
Here, a candid conversation with the author.
Images: How did you come about to write about this topic?
Sheela Reddy: For all of us on both sides of the border, there are two political figures who we are familiar with from our schooldays. It intrigued me that while so much has been written about the personal life and relationships of Gandhi, no biographer has ever ventured before into the personal story of his arch-rival Jinnah, fascinating though his life was in all its drama and human complexity and loneliness.
Then there was his young wife who fell madly in love with him, so it seemed like an interesting project to undertake, taking the marriage as a lens to examine the man.
Images: Was Ruttie in love with Jinnah and his social and political persona (whether in public or in private with friends like Kanji) rather than Jinnah the man or husband at home?
Sheela Reddy: I think that was their whole tragedy—he believed his social and political persona was the whole of him, and the real man was locked up so deep within him that even Ruttie could not break down those fortressed walls, as deeply in love as they both were.
Images: Interestingly when Jinnah’s public role shone, Ruttie’s desire and love for him burned as well. But as his public role declined, it seems that the state of his marriage deteriorated as well. Do you think Jinnah felt that as long as Ruttie was physically present his marriage was fine therefore allowing him to focus more and more on his public role?
Sheela Reddy: All of those involved in the freedom struggle neglected their personal relationships—you have Nehru confessing in his autobiography of his guilt at neglecting his wife and putting his political life over her and Sarojini Naidu as well. No, I think the problem with the Jinnahs was different—even when they were together, they could never really be close because the real Jinnah was lost or buried so deep within that even Jinnah could not reach him, let alone Ruttie.
Read on: Inside the Quaid's house
Images: Two people who refused to be defined by society and its norms were ultimately destroyed by that same society and norms. While Ruttie fought off jibes in Sarojini’s suite at the Taj there is little to suggest that Jinnah was ever affected by such gossip or interactions. Why did they let society influence their marriage then? Did societal interaction mean more to each one than their marriage?
Sheela Reddy: Jinnah was certainly much tougher than Ruttie—he had after all carved a place for himself at the Bombay Bar, starting out at 21 without a patron or kin to give him a leg up and making it big within a few years. He was used to the loneliness and envy that is the lot of a successful man usually, but she experienced it for the first time only after her marriage to him.
But these were no ordinary societal pressures that they had to cope with—Ruttie was excommunicated from her community, a trauma so severe that it cannot be overstated. And he was practically jeered out of the Congress, which was his whole life and passion, because he refused to toe the party line.
How can such traumatising circumstances not affect a marriage—it can either bring a couple very close by making them protective of each other against a cruel world or splinter them so far apart that it destroys them altogether.
Images: Ruttie tried to push social and religious boundaries in the name of progress or simply to shock. But in her own marriage she doesn’t either feel the need to do the same or out of respect, she succumbs to so much in her marriage. Was it really a compromise on her part to make the marriage work? Or was it a surrender of sorts to her husband’s lifestyle to avoid hurting his public role? Or was it simply resignation given how she cut off ties with her family and community?
Sheela Reddy: Like all of us, I don’t think she was aware of the difference between what she thought she was and what she really was and the contradictions therein—a fiery feminist on the outside thumbing her nose at society and a docile, submissive wife within, hungry for approval.
Our relationships, especially in a marriage, are shaped by so many complex factors, beginning with one’s childhood ties. Just reading books and embracing ideas from them is not enough; it’s daily experience and hard grind to become truly liberated.
Images: There were friends of Jinnah and Ruttie's at her funeral. But there is not much social interaction with these friends. Where were these friends when Ruttie craved social interaction?
Sheela Reddy: Many things stood in the way—Jinnah’s antipathy to parties which he believed were a waste of time; Ruttie’s unorthodox ways which frightened off potential women friends who were not prepared like her to risk social disapproval; her own disinclination to carve a place for herself as a society hostess as many rich and idle women were then doing for the lack of more productive outlets for their energy and talents; her pride, which prevented her from reaching out, and most of all, her being forced, out of loyalty to her husband, to keep away from the mainstream political work that Gandhi was involving women in, much to their joy and fulfilment.
Images: You write about both with such tenderness and point out their faults so gently. What did you feel for both of them?
Sheela Reddy: Both of them had been so mythologised in different ways that at first it was hard to get under their skin.
But finding Ruttie’s letters to her friend, Padmaja Naidu, was a breakthrough, providing a glimpse into the real person and more important, how she felt about Jinnah. But that was only the first step, because Ruttie’s letters, despite their vivacity and detail, tell us as little about her real emotional life as Jinnah’s letters. It had to be carefully pieced together, from many different sources and in the process, I began to understand them better.
Images: You refer to Jinnah as his father’s son. Surely that could not have been as big a factor in determining his dismay with Ruttie going to Hyderabad for a holiday without him than an inconvenient disruption in his routine given how she literally looked after him like a mother? Ruttie was different from any female in Jinnah’s family before that particular incident so why expect her to behave like his mother or sister?
Sheela Reddy: If Ruttie was conflicted about different parts of her personality, Jinnah was a bundle of contradictions too. He believed he was this rational, fair, liberal guy, thoroughly in the British mode. But inside him also dwelt his mother and father, very much alive despite his never acknowledging it even to himself, let alone others. And these undigested parts of him popped up at unexpected moments, to others’ dismay and no doubt to his own embarrassment, although he would have died rather than admit it.
Images: Jinnah was a father figure of sorts to Fatima. Then why the lack of interest in his own child? Ruttie too who was such a loved and pampered daughter couldn’t muster interest in her own child. Could she have been suffering from post partum depression?
Sheela Reddy: It’s something I leave the reader to speculate about.
One wonders of course but there is no real information on what might have happened and what she must have felt or not felt. The only person who might have been able to shed some light on it—her daughter, Dina—has never said anything on the subject, which is understandable. She had been very young, moreover, when her mother died.
As for Jinnah, I think he had very rigid ideas of duties even within his marriage—raising their child would have been, according to him, entirely Ruttie’s business, and he was the sort who did not like to interfere in the way others did their job.
Images: We see Ruttie go through different phases in her life and her destructive descent into drugs is harrowing. Throughout Jinnah remains the same person. Was he trying to retain some form of identity that initially attracted Ruttie to him? Or trying to control an extremely unhappy marriage for fear of it failing (which it did)?
Sheela Reddy: These were two lonely persons who could never become one. Being trapped in such a marriage destroyed her first, perhaps because she was the weaker of the two, but it eventually destroyed him as well. Except in his case, it took a little longer, because he had the distractions of political work and profession to take his mind off his personal problems—until they exploded under him.
Images: After Ruttie’s death there is an immense change in Jinnah. He begins to emerge as a contradictory figure. For example keen on establishing a more ‘Muslim’ identity he goes on to acquire three dogs (a far cry from how he treated Ruttie’s dogs with a cane). How do you explain that?
Sheela Reddy: Grief does strange things to people. To some, it brings them face to face with themselves and helps them grow into better persons perhaps. In others, it turns into bitterness, a poison in their system that turns everything toxic.
Images: Would you say Jinnah was emotionally stunted? He rarely seems to show any love or affection towards anyone. Was his inability to express any form of intimacy a product of his need to remain in control and composed? What over tuned emotions does Ruttie refer to then?
Sheela Reddy: Jinnah was a complex person, of many parts. To a very few, he could be a warm and loyal friend, fiercely independent, generous with his money and time, with a dry sense of humour.
But to most people, especially after Ruttie’s death, he came through as a cold, humourless and mean person—which was not the case, at least while Ruttie was alive. I think of all people in the world, it was Ruttie who came closest to knowing the real Jinnah, but she was destroyed in the process of drawing close to him—that was their tragedy.