On A Journey To Humanize Jinnah: Sheela Reddy On The Challenge of Understanding Jinnah Through His Disastrous Marriage

What is important in life? The sages and wise women will tell you that the journey is important, not the destination. But ask veteran journalist and author Sheela Reddy and she will say both are important, the journey as much as the destination. She knows better, I guess, having both journeyed and having reached her destination of having published her book “Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India” to much acclaim from the historian, the critic and the reader.

Sheela, the Delhi-based journalist who was associated with leading English language daily newspapers and news magazines for four decades, was in recently in Hyderabad the city where she was born and brought up and learnt to flap her journalistic wings in the country’s one of the oldest journalism schools, in Osmania University. Akhileshwari Ramagoud caught up with her to find out more about her journey with the controversial leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his wife, Ruttie (short for Rattanbai), the young, impetuous daughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit, one of the richest Parsi businessmen of Bombay.

jinnah-bookThe marriage that shook India, one that brought together a 42 year-old famous Muslim lawyer and an established leader of the freedom movement that was raging in the country, and an 18 year-old Parsi youngster smitten by the remote man, ended in a tragedy with the alienation between the two and ultimately in the death of Ruttie at 29, leaving Jinnah with a daughter. Perhaps this tragedy of this marriage led to the tragedy that struck India as it was cleaved into two halves, as it turned a remote Jinnah into a reclusive and embittered him further, making him almost unreasonable all of which reflected in the political negotiations over Partition. This chapter in Jinnah’s life is perhaps the least written about or understood and yet it perhaps it provides the key to some of the tumultuous events of those days. The book “Mr and Mrs Jinnah..” could well be a milestone in understanding the much-misunderstood and maligned Jinnah, especially in India.

Sheela Reddy undertook a journey not knowing it would be long and frustrating.  However, her perseverance paid off. She chanced on letters in the Nehru Memorial and Museum Library Delhi and went on a chase in Hyderabad to discover precious correspondence between Ruttie and her adoptive family of Sarojini Naidu in a cloth-held bundle in a forgotten almirah in a dingy government office. The treasure trove of letters established yielded many a link and threw light on the puzzle that J, as Ruttie called him, was. Sheela Reddy spoke of the journey and some aspects of the destination:

Whom did you choose to write on for your long-dreamed of project of writing a book? Mr J or Mrs J?

SR: I think I chose J and Mrs J was a way of approaching him. I like projects that challenge me. It is a shame that we are taught polarized accounts of history. There was no clear version of how or why Partition happened. We merely are told that Nehru was ambitious and that Jinnah was stubborn and inhuman. So I wanted to understand a subject that I knew nothing about. I am not a historian but wanted to find the answer to the riddle that Jinnah was.

As soon as I began to read up on Jinnah, I realized that his personal took a backseat; only his political persona was public. Even where his personal was mentioned, it was vague. I was intrigued as he had an interesting marriage but beyond vague references to his married life and separation, there was nothing available. That’s how my interest began and it struck me that perhaps I could try and understand Jinnah through his marriage. But there was absolutely no material available. I knew that Nehru and Padmaja Naidu (daughter of Sarojini Naidu) were close friends and so I began my search in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Her correspondence was voluminous with dozens of files. Had to choose some point and begin. When I called for the file that was simply labeled “R Jinnah” I found that I was only the second person who accessed it. There were a solid 100 sheets of letters, some didn’t have a beginning, some had no end, some had no date but they covered the entire lifetime of Ruttie, from 15 years to her death at 29 years of age, a period that I was interested in. It took me another 4.5 years of research to connect the dots in the letters.

The entire Naidu family, Sarojini and her four children, were huge letter-writers, since Sarojini was involved in the freedom movement and the children were in Hyderabad and they kept in touch and shared through letters. While Padmaja’s letters to Sarojini are lost, Sarojini’s letters to Padmaja could be accessed. These show the problems in the marriage of J and R. Sarojini tried to be a bridge between Ruttie and Jinnah but despite she being a close friend, Jinnah shut her out. He built high walls around him and did not allow anyone to reach him. Ruttie died trying to bring down those walls.

Where else you looked for information on Jinnah and Ruttie?

(Laughs) Do you know Jinnah was one of the first 100 car-owners in Bombay and back then, a register used to be maintained about the car owners with their details such as address, etc. The advantage of looking for information of Ruttie and those times was that the Parsi community kept a record of their lives, family memoirs were maintained and hence I could get colour and flavor of those days of her grandfather and great-grandfather. The mirroring of those times in these records was fascinating.  As for Jinnah, a Pakistani scholar compiled all the newspaper clippings of Jinnah’s activities. There’s almost a daily entry considering Jinnah was a public figure. It gave an idea of his career-wise preoccupation: it was either legal cases or speeches in the Legislative Assembly or public addresses. These provided a shadow of who Jinnah was.

I also discovered some nuggets: that Jinnah was the only second Muslim to own a house on Malabar Hills which was the most posh locality in Bombay. Another gem I discovered was that he did not move into his bungalow on Mount Pleasant Road till he married…these efforts helped to fill up a few blanks and uncover a few aspects of Jinnah that were not in public.

How does Jinnah come across to you after having done so much reading on him?

I think he was a complex person. He had integrity, there’s no doubt about it. He was a good man in parts, like so many of us. There are no saints or villains in history, only human beings.He was not a people’s person, he was a man of ideas; for him ideas, not people, came first. Justice for Muslims was an idea he took up. He took it up like a legal case. It was like believing in justice without mercy and failing to see the consequences of such ‘justice’. He was too harshly just. He did not allow his human side to assert itself. Interestingly, he hated being touched or touching others, despite being in public life that involved close interaction with people. He hated even shaking hands with people.

How do you see Ruttie and marriage? Was it her undoing? Was she too ahead for her times?

I began writing about Jinnah but soon it was her story, about women who get into disastrous marriages, who cannot leave because they are needed too much, women who succumb to the partner’s needs even if it destroys them and destroys the partner too because they didn’t withdraw when they should have. They were so deeply enmeshed with each other. It was so deep that she ultimately killed herself. It was a tragedy at so many levels.

She was such a modern woman, she was so much like us! It was easy to step into her skin (Jinnah wasn’t easy at all). There’s no denying that there was genuine love between the two. The tragedy of Ruttie is that she has been written out of history, both in India and in Pakistan.

Who’s your favourite? Jinnah or Ruttie?

(Thinks) It’s so difficult to say..it’s impossible to decide! Both were flawed but very human. They were shaped by circumstances and personal histories. Both were true to themselves. Both died heart-broken and lonely.

It is said that it was Jinnah’s greed to leave his imprint on history that he went ahead with the idea of homeland for Muslims and in the process, created havoc and a bloodied chapter in the histories of two people in the sub-continent?

I don’t buy that. He wasn’t a person who could be bought by anybody, not the British, not the Congress, not Muslim conservatives, not even by history. He couldn’t surrender to failure. He couldn’t admit failure. That was the tragedy of his marriage. That was the tragedy of what he did to the country that he loved. He did not know how it happened but he knew that he had destroyed in the end.

What do you hope to achieve through your book?

I hope the book is one step towards humanizing Jinnah. Like a Pakistani scholar said, it is easy to valourize or demonize Jinnah. The challenge is to humanize him. My dream is that more people will read the book and bridge the polarities. We have to recognize that Partition was not one man’s mistake.Ends


Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India

By Sheela Reddy, Penguin/Viking


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Akhileshwari Ramagoud is a  Journalist and Academic

[email protected]



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