Whenever something is written about (Mohammad Ali) Jinnah, it is not as if the Jinnahs are on trial in the court of history, but, rather, history is on trial in the court of the Jinnahs,” writes Saad S. Khan in his new biography of Ruttie Jinnah, wife of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the architect of Pakistan. In Ruttie Jinnah: The Woman Who Stood Defiant, the Karachi-based historian and political scientist, along with his co-author and wife Sara S. Khan, brings history into the trial court of Rattanbai Maryam Jinnah, formerly Rattanbai Petit, to shed new light on the life, politics and legacy of an enigmatic figure who influenced the creation of Pakistan—directly and through Jinnah—and shaped the political landscape of contemporary South Asia.
History, argues Khan, has not only been guilty of benign neglect and amnesia around Ruttie’s life, but also of furthering misconceptions about her personality. The source of these misconceptions was (an army of) Jinnah’s detractors, both in the Congress and the Muslim League, who used his wife as the “whipping rod” against him. “The very fact that in marrying Jinnah, Ruttie left behind her faith (she was Parsi), her home, her parents, her wealth and her community was mostly lost to history,” he writes in the Preface. The new political biography, which delves into the deliberate obliteration and distortion of Ruttie’s personality and ideas, is an attempt to portray her for what she was, not what people wanted her to be, says Khan in a phone interview. “It seeks to build an intellectual bridge between three nations of South Asia—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”
The conjugal knot between Jinnah, “a cold and calculating constitutionalist”, and Ruttie, a “hot-headed revolutionary”, that lasted for 11 years, ending with her death at the age of 29, may constitute only a minute part of Ruttie’s claim to being a subject of history, but the social and political impact of that marriage continues to resonate even today.
While earlier biographies, from Kanji Dwarkadas’ Ruttie Jinnah: The Story Of A Great Friendship (1963) to Sheela Reddy’s notable Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India (2017), focused on Ruttie’s personal life and role as Jinnah’s wife, certain aspects—like her influence on his thoughts, her politics, persona and legacy—have remained largely unexplored. These are the voids Khan seeks to fill. The only two works dedicated to her in the interim had been Shagufta Yasmeen’s Ruttie Jinnah: Life And Love (1997) and Khawaja Razi Haider’s Ruttie Jinnah: The Story, Told And Untold (2004), but they, too, dwelt on her personal life. Although the sisters of Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Hutheesing and Vijaya Lakshmi, mention Ruttie in their autobiographies—With No Regrets: An Autobiography (1943) and The Scope Of Happiness: A Personal Memoir (1979), respectively—their accounts are, predictably, unfavourable, owing to the Nehru family’s “pathological dislike” of the Jinnahs.
It was Reddy’s book, with its insights into Ruttie’s thoughts based on her letters to her closest friend Padmaja Naidu, daughter of Sarojini Naidu—accessed from the archives of Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library—that helped Khan bring his biography to light, 12 long years after he first embarked on a journey to find out more about Ruttie and the reasons for her being “shrouded” by history.
An international conference on the “Leaders of Pakistan Movement” organised by the Islamabad-based National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research in 2008 during the 60th anniversary celebrations of Pakistan—where Khan read a 5,000-word paper about Ruttie—led him to intriguing questions about the intertwined political lives of the Jinnahs. These included the ways in which Ruttie shaped Jinnah’s personality, and how this, in turn, affected the nature and direction of the freedom struggle, leading to the creation of Pakistan, and how she continued to loom large upon Jinnah and his ideas long after her death.
The new biography provides answers to all these intriguing questions, besides putting to rest many of the untruths that have been injected into accounts of the Jinnah family. Many of the latter mention that Jinnah had been married before. Khan would have us believe that Ruttie was his first and only wife. He also rubbishes the popular theory that the couple had divorced and underlines that Jinnah, contrary to some accounts, never remarried. “The divorce never happened. There were differences. At some points in their marriage, she had walked out of the house, but she had always come back,” says Khan.
Author Kiran Doshi has described Ruttie as one who “truly looked like the Indian version of the Joan of Arc: beautiful, fiery and defiant”. Khan concurs. Nearly 18 historical accounts paint her as someone with some sort of “heavenly charm and beauty”. With her defiant spirit, physical beauty, love of freedom, hatred of the British and death at a young age, Ruttie fits seamlessly into the ilk of Joan of Arc and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. “She stood up to the viceroy like nobody would have dared to in those times,” says Khan, who describes Ruttie as “a force of nature”— well-read and mature beyond her years. She is consistently spoken of by contemporaries as polite, affable, witty, full of life and laughter. And as someone who was fond of parties, taking part in all the games and making the gatherings “come alive”.
Like the story of her life, the circumstances of Ruttie’s death, too, have been mired in misconceptions, with several accounts terming her death a suicide. “We are very fond of conspiracy theories. Every death is either suicide or murder,” says Khan, adding that Ruttie’s death could have been due to what is now known as stomach ulcer.
Ruttie died young but she left an indelible impact on Jinnah, changing his personality and politics. This resulted in his transition from a staunch all-India nationalist to a believer in the two-nation theory. Khan says the word “agitation” entered Jinnah’s political armoury because of her.
Before his marriage to Ruttie, Khan explains, agitation, demonstrations and strikes were not part of Jinnah’s political gamebook. Within months of their wedding, however, his young bride led him, and thousands of others, in protests against Lord Willingdon, the governor (1913-18) of the Presidency of Bombay. The latter had fallen out with the Jinnahs after his public row with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who led a faction of the Home Rule League. The Jinnahs retaliated by moving to scuttle efforts to build a memorial for Lord Willingdon in Bombay. In one protest at the Town Hall, Jinnah was mildly injured and, on another occasion, Ruttie faced police water cannons and batons.
“This was very Gandhi-like and quite unlike Jinnah to resort to street politics, clearly under his wife’s influence. Jinnah would use these tactics in Kolkata, Punjab and in North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in 1946-47, long after his wife’s death,” adds Khan. As he and his co-author note in the book, Ruttie, in terms of courage of conviction and strength of character, was a role model for “every man and woman who cherishes freedom”.
Ruttie was a feminist, an anti-imperialist, someone with a great sense of humour and wit. “I see her as an icon of what a woman should aspire to become in the modern age. That’s the sense I bring out in the book,” says Khan, adding that his quest has been to portray the couple as they were and expound how they would have impacted the political horizon of South Asia in the light of facts—for “facts speak louder than words”.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based culture journalist.