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Book review: Mr And Mrs Jinnah

There is no shortage of drama to the story of this politician and his progressive, and ultimately tragic, union with a Parsi woman

Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Photo: Getty Images.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Photo: Getty Images.

Several years ago, under contract to write a book on Karachi, I scoured the city for a trace of its most famous son. I searched for Mohammad Ali Jinnah everywhere and found him nowhere. He was a ghostly promise, beyond reach even as his shadow cast itself on every monument and landmark. Jinnah spent just about a year in the country he founded before he died; it was so hard to find traces of him in Pakistan because he had been a son of India too, living in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the years before Partition.

In today’s world of social media bombardment, Facebook pages devoted to cataloguing the minutiae of every personal experience and a culture of suffocating oversharing, it’s easy to prefer that the private lives of our leaders stay private. In fact, to deviate from policies and political agendas with the personal lives of those tasked with leading nations seems irrelevant and—usually—uninteresting. This ought to be broken only in the case of historical value and Jinnah’s 1918 marriage to Ruttie Petit is, perhaps counter-intuitively, one such fine exception. Given the communalism that was then creeping into the fabric of Indian politics and society—and its dangerous resuscitation in India today—the story of a leading Muslim barrister and politician’s marriage to a beautiful, young Parsi woman is worth at least a book or two. Modern, educated Indians “cannot simply sit quiet", Jinnah declared in the Mumbai legislative council after the news of his Muslim-Parsi marriage shocked India, while a community “outcasts him or her for marrying outside their caste".

Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India: By Sheela Reddy, Penguin Viking, 421 pages, 699.

Sheela Reddy’s Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India is the first contemporary attempt that I am aware of to delve deeper into the story of this progressive and ultimately tragic union. Jinnah was 42 years old and Petit 18 when they married after their romance was forbidden by her father, a wealthy baronet. Gossips claimed Petit, a bohemian, liberated woman, was the one to propose to Jinnah (“It sounds like a good proposition," Jinnah was claimed to have replied). Petit left home armed with an umbrella and her little dog, her fiancé forgot to bring a ring to the wedding ceremony, her father fainted when he read the wedding announcement in the paper—there is no shortage of drama to the story. Sir Dinshaw Petit, finally resuscitated, slapped a charge on Jinnah for kidnapping his daughter—he had filed an injunction to keep the barrister away from his daughter earlier—prompting his teenage daughter to stand up in court and tell the judge that “Mr. Jinnah has not abducted me: in fact I have abducted him".

For her valiant defence, Ruttie Petit was excommunicated by a Parsi panchayat and disowned and disinherited by her father. Reddy’s book is not footnoted and her endnotes are not numbered so it is a struggle to check some of her claims, such as when she declares that “no Parsi, man or woman, had ever dared to marry a Muslim" before 1918. It is unclear whether Reddy means in Mumbai or in the entirety of united India.

Ruttie Petit as a teenage wife.

Petit was a prolific letter writer and it is largely through her missives to Sarojini Naidu and the latter’s two daughters that the story of this marriage is told. When Petit is not writing to her friends about her husband’s sister, the “deadly serious" Fatima Jinnah, or her fervent desire to see India’s daughters as well as sons fight to liberate their country—“We must fight for our liberty and not barter for it, not by pen and parchment but sword and dagger"—then the Naidus talk about the Jinnahs amongst themselves.

It is in some senses, a triangle—there is little information not gleaned from the Naidus about Mr and Mrs Jinnah—but Reddy has worked tirelessly to construct as encompassing and as fair a frame as possible. With admirable restraint, Reddy keeps her eyes focused on the 11-year period of the Jinnahs’ marriage, not fast-forwarding ahead. She is able to write of Jinnah the man, rather than Jinnah as coloured by the eventual declaration of Pakistan, still in the future.

I did keep a count of how many times the author labelled or quoted someone calling Jinnah “cold" (I gave up at eight) and circled the grimmer descriptions of his character (“austere loner" was my favourite), but, in all fairness, Reddy sheds fascinating light on a little-known figure of our shared history and it was with great interest that I read of Jinnah’s far-sighted feminism. He was a vocal supporter of the suffragettes during his student years in England and insisted on sending his sister to a missionary school, where she was the first Muslim girl to be admitted. I particularly enjoyed reading of his fiery support of his wife. Petit, who was known for her sartorial elegance, was at a dinner held at the Mumbai governor’s residence when their host, Lady Willingdon, asked an ADC to bring Ruttie Jinnah a shawl “in case she felt cold". A slim excuse to cover a blouse the governor’s prim wife felt was too low cut. At that Jinnah rose from his seat and told the governor’s wife that “When Mrs Jinnah feels cold, she will say so, and ask for a wrap herself." At that he led his wife out of the dinner and henceforth refused all other invitations to Government House.

Also read: Excerpt: Mr and Mrs Jinnah

The true pull of this book is Ruttie Petit. It is impossible not to adore a woman who refused to stand to greet the viceroy during summer assembly sessions in Shimla though her parents were loyal subjects of the British. She refused to curtsy to another viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, instead greeting him with a namaste. The viceroy snapped at Petit that if she didn’t want to “spoil" her husband’s political future, she should do as the Romans do in Rome. “That’s exactly what I did," Petit replied. “In India I greeted you in the Indian way." She was not invited back to meet Lord Chelmsford a second time, though one imagines this hardly upset Petit.

She donated to Mahatma Gandhi’s fund for a memorial to commemorate the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, spent her evenings scandalously in Shimla, driving to Mall Road in order to eat chaat by the roadside (she bought her dog chocolates, meanwhile, from Hussain Baksh General Merchants), and famously took no prisoners. When Lord Reading, presumably the same viceroy Petit didn’t stand up to greet, mentioned to her that he longed to visit Germany but couldn’t as “the Germans do not like us, the British", Petit softly asked him, “How then did you come to India?"

Readers might feel that Mr And Mrs Jinnah could have been shorter, a more tightly edited book, but no one will walk away without a swell of admiration for the young Mrs Jinnah who—with great moxie—yearned and fought the entirety of her short, troubled life, for freedom.

Fatima Bhutto is a Pakistani poet and author, most recently of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

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