"Try and remember me beloved as the flower you plucked and not the flower you tread on." Thus went one of Ruttie Petit's last messages to her husband, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, quoted by Sheela Reddy towards the end of her magnificent biography of their marriage. In that brief sentence the trajectory of their troubled union — which, as the subtitle of Mr and Mrs Jinnah says, "shook India" — is vividly captured.
From their difference in age (he was 42 and she was 18, when they got married) to their stations in life (he was a successful lawyer, she a spoilt heiress of a noted Parsi family) to temperament (Sarojini Naidu noted Jinnah's "inhuman composure", while her daughter Padmaja coined the term "plutanthropic", plutocratic+ philanthropic, to describe Ruttie), the differences between them were obvious to everyone — most of all, to two sharply intelligent minds as theirs.
Perhaps it was because of the irrationality of their mutual affection, or the inescapable force of it, that a flamboyant, gregarious and frivolous girl like Ruttie did not hesitate to practically elope with a man close to her father's age, parsimonious by nature and known for his cheerless reserve, relinquishing her immense privilege and risking excommunication from her kind. By courting bad press and controversy, Jinnah too put his political career in grave trouble, endangering the ambitions he had carefully nurtured through decades of tireless work.
What made them take such a plunge? Reddy's interest in the question was first sparked by Jaswant Singh's book on MA Jinnah, published in 2009. "At the time, I was the Books Editor at Outlook," she told HuffPost India, "I started looking for material that would help me understand Jinnah's personality through his marriage."
Her search for balanced literature, which didn't demonise the founder of Pakistan or turned him into a cardboard figure, led her into the Nehru Memorial Archive, where she discovered Ruttie Jinnah's letters, though they yielded nothing of psychological significance, just mundane chit-chat. It was only when she chanced upon Sarojini Naidu's letters, lovingly preserved by Padmaja, that Reddy came upon a goldmine.
Richly documented, full of prickly insights and humour, Naidu's correspondence provides the most complete portrait of one of the most-talked-about marriages of her time.
Richly documented, full of prickly insights and humour, Naidu's correspondence provides the most complete portrait of one of the most-talked-about marriages of her time. Her estimation of Jinnah's character was spot on: "Tall and stately, but thin to the point of emaciation, languid and luxurious of habit, [his] attenuated form is the deceptive sheath of a spirit of exceptional vitality and endurance." Ruttie, who worshipped Naidu like many young people did, was, in contrast, always the "poor child" to her, standing out with her ethereal beauty and exquisite, if outrageous, sartorial sense.
Fed on romantic literature (she especially loved Rabindranath Tagore's play Chitra), and an unwavering dose of liberalism since birth, Ruttie didn't probably anticipate the brouhaha over her choice of husband. While her father Sir Dinshaw Petit, servilely devoted to the British and a beneficiary of their largesse, had been in awe of Jinnah's success, desperate to cultivate his society, his good manners dropped the moment his daughter fell from grace. He filed a stay order in court against Jinnah to keep him away from his beloved first-born.
For apart from the staggering difference of age, there was a religious divide no amount of Anglophilia or Westernised thought could bridge. One of Reddy's finest achievements is to read Sir Petit's resistance to Ruttie's marriage within the social and historical context of his time. As the Parsis and Khoja Ismailis rose up in arms against the unlikely match, sons and daughters of other "secular" leaders were also chastised for daring to fall in love outside of their religion.
For apart from the staggering difference of age, there was a religious divide no amount of Anglophilia or Westernised thought could bridge.
Motilal Nehru's daughter Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and her lover Syud Hossain were packed off to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, to be given a severe talking-to about the proprieties of inter-communal relationships. Sarojini Naidu's marriage, outside her Bengali Kulin Brahmin caste, created no less consternation several years ago. Neither Ruttie nor Jinnah must have expected to get away with such boldness, but the "witch-hunt" that commenced in the aftermath of their clandestine wedding among the Bombay aristocracy was exceptional by the standards of the day.
Motilal Nehru's daughter Nan and her lover Syud Hossain were packed off to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, to be given a talking-to about the proprieties of desire.
Even as both of them battled external adversities, cracks began to show in their private lives. Always eager to have a good time, Ruttie found herself saddled with a husband who had no inclination for anything but his work. When a year later their daughter was born, Jinnah showed no interest in his offspring. Nor, for that matter, did Ruttie, who consigned the child, left unnamed for years, to the care of ayahs, as had been her own lot as the child of a mother whose socialite obligations outweighed her sense of parental duty.
As the years go by, we see the gradual disintegration of the marriage under the strain of two incompatible wills — Jinnah's refusal to acknowledge the hurt he felt at his wife's carefree indulgence and Ruttie's misery for being reprimanded for living life in her own terms. A self-made man, Jinnah had rescued his bankrupt family through sheer industry, while Ruttie, who had grown up in an ambience of thoughtless profligacy, didn't think twice before making the most expensive, and most often unnecessary, purchases.
Reddy's account of Jinnah's years in England, first as a clerk, before he quickly transformed himself into a model law student, makes for a subtle but riveting psycho-biography. If she doesn't foist her own analysis on the reader, her telling leaves enough clues to piece together the essence of the steely-jawed young man, who could be touchingly vulnerable as well. On his first night in Britain, for instance, never having lived away from India, he was startled by the hot-water bottle as he got into bed in the dark. Throwing it away in alarm, he thought he'd killed whatever creature was nestling in there.
Reddy's account of his years in England, first as a clerk, before he quickly transformed himself into a model student, makes for a subtle but riveting psycho-biography.
Jinnah's political career, too, unfolding along the edges of the story, reaches us with all its complexities. From being an argumentative lawyer to becoming the leader of the Muslim people, his journey is not the subject of this book, but its arc is discernible from the time of his marriage to its end — leading to his separation from Ruttie and her death within months. Jinnah's struggle with Gandhi (whose late entry into the scene, compared to his decades-long work to build up his image, upset his plans) and his mounting unpopularity with the British as well as Indian freedom fighters begin to make clearer sense when read in conjunction with the dismantling of his marital life.
The story of Ruttie's destruction over the years, from a fun-loving girl to a depressed morphine-addict, is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The story of Ruttie's destruction over the years, from a fun-loving girl to a depressed morphine-addict, is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. The forces that drove her to excesses, especially her dietary habits and reckless spendthrift behaviour (she once bought a horse in Hyderabad and brought it back to Bombay simply because she took a fancy to it), point to her inevitable end. Though heartbroken by her death at the age of 29, Naidu, who loved Ruttie like a daughter, came to terms with it quickly enough, admitting there was no other way for her to find peace anywhere on earth.
In spite of the predictable conclusion to their story, Mr and Mrs Jinnah remained, in their singular ways, steadfastly attached to each other, even after their conjugal life had ended and they had parted ways. Like a gifted biographer, Reddy takes us to the threshold of the secret knowledge of what bound the two together, but leaves us alone with our thoughts in the end.
(Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India by Sheela Reddyis published by Penguin/Viking, Hardback, ₹699)
Also on HuffPost