It is because of Reddy’s ability to pore through all the material and connect the dots that she brings these two hazy figures to life.
Author Sheela Reddy is able to pull off three difficult tasks in this work. First, she is able to engage with a character, a man, who has been thoroughly demonised in India. For most Indians it has become impossible to view Jinnah neutrally. Reddy has done this, seemingly effortlessly, in a way that is admirable. She is also able to put flesh on and spirit into another character, a woman, who died before she was 30. Almost nothing is known to most of us about Ruttie except to those who have visited the disparate sources which document her. Reddy unveils the enigma comprehensively.
Second, Reddy is able to produce a rich and rewarding text from not enough material. Jinnah himself wrote (or read) little. The 17 or so volumes of the Jinnah Papers, which were published a little over a decade ago, is one of the most disappointing primary sources one can imagine. The editor has seen it fit to include motor car repair bills and correspondence to Jinnah (often by rank lunatics) to pad up the material. The fact is that any author attempting to stitch together a story on the subject of the relationship of Mr and Mrs Jinnah must do so by treading new ground.
The third thing Reddy pulls off is a narrative that gets around this paucity of primary source material by adding side stories that link to her centerpiece: The dozen or so years in which Jinnah and Ruttie had their courtship, wedding, a daughter and ended with Ruttie’s death in February 1929. She does this by wheeling various characters and subplots that keep the narrative moving along.
For example, there is a delightful segue into an affair Motilal Nehru’s daughter Vijaya Lakshmi had in Allahabad with Syed Hussain, who was editing a paper owned by the Nehrus. The anti-Muslim prejudices of Motilal and the “love jihad” allegation made by Gandhi (who comes off quite poorly) are made clear by the text.
The core of the book covers what can be called Jinnah’s middle period, the ones sitting between his spectacular rise as Bombay’s first Muslim barrister in his 20s and his later years as the leader who successfully campaigned to divide India.
In 1915, Gandhi returned to India (greeting Jinnah disparagingly on arrival as a “leader of Muslims”). A couple of years later, Jinnah fell in love with the daughter of a friend. He had had a child marriage, probably unconsummated, and his wife had died a couple of years later while he was still studying. And so this, many years later, was Jinnah’s first and only real love affair.
The friend was a wealthy Parsi nobleman, Petit. The daughter, only 16, was Ruttie (whose name her father also spells as Rati, Reddy informs us). She was 24 years younger than Jinnah, who at 40 was youthful-looking but quite grave and hardly romantic. But she melted his heart. He indulged her happily, doing things like shaving off his moustache at her insistence.
The couple had a brief courtship and waited till Ruttie turned 18. The laws of the time did not offer too many options for interfaith couples and Ruttie converted before her marriage. The Parsi community, till then supportive of Jinnah in his political activity, turned hostile. His father-in-law took him to court alleging that he was a gold digger, an allegation, Reddy tells us, that hurt the self-made and proud Jinnah deeply.
Inevitably, the marriage between a high society girl of 18 and a famous, busy politician-lawyer of 42 gets into trouble. A child conceived almost immediately after marriage delays in some ways the emptiness which Ruttie would have felt. She experiments with theosophy and drugs, apparently morphine. The correspondence of Sarojini Naidu’s children provides Reddy with a lot of background that informs the state of the Jinnah marriage.
It is because of Reddy’s ability to pore through all the material and connect the dots that she brings these two hazy figures to life. She breathes humanity into Jinnah, who is either vilified or deified, depending on which side of the border one is in South Asia.
Jinnah was famously liberal when it came to his wife, who wore what she wanted and arrived at his workplace and his meetings without meeting his disapproval or irritation. Reddy tells us things about the marriage that one might not get from biographies. Sample this:
But the real J kept eluding her, hidden behind his cool and rational mind, never giving himself up to even a single display of deep emotion. Worse, sex with him was not thrilling, even before the initial novelty wore off.
In her experience, it had not occurred to her to make anything of J’s long years of celibacy or even his lack of physical demonstrativeness while they were courting. If it had, she would have probably put it down to yet further evidence of his admirable willpower. It was not as if sex was something that could be discussed openly, not even in the girlish confidences she exchanged with Padmaja. The closest she ever got to raising the topic that was uppermost in her mind during her courtship was when she tentatively asked Padmaja if her current admirer was ‘better in...’ than a previous suitor. Even that had filled her with so much embarrassment that she had dropped the question midway.
The marriage falls apart as the few things holding the couple together, the initial attraction above all, wane as the man exits middle age and the woman enters maturity. On her 29th birthday, Ruttie dies, apparently of a deliberate overdose of pills. By then the marriage was effectively over but even so the event shattered Jinnah.
His disengagement with the personal (very obvious in all of his correspondence) becomes more pronounced as he lives purely for his public cause: that of securing political justice for India’s Muslims. This keeps appearing in the background of the years of his marriage, but from the time that he becomes a widower for the second and last time, it consumes him entirely and it shakes India.
This is a remarkable book that will have a long life. Given that, future editions will benefit from having an index, given the number of characters, and a bibliography.
Disclaimer: I have known Reddy for over 20 years having worked in the same newspaper (in fact this one) with her for a brief period though in different cities.
Aakar Patel is a writer, columnist and executive director of Amnesty International (India)