How Far They Travelled

The story of the unlikely romance between Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the young Parsi heiress, Ruttie Petit

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Published:March 25, 2017 2:55 am

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Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India
Sheela Reddy
Penguin Random House
464 pages
` 699

It was a romance which scandalised Bombay society in the early 20th century. The lovers could hardly have come from more disparate backgrounds. Ruttie Jinnah was 16, the pert, pampered, impulsive and highly emotional daughter of an aristocratic Parsi baronet, Sir Dinshah Petit. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was 42. He was just three years younger than her father, a leading lawyer and a rising figure of the national movement. Jinnah was dour, proud, brilliant and from a conservative Khoja Muslim family. He was a widower whose child wife had died shortly after the arranged marriage, when he left for England to sit for the Bar exam. The founder of Pakistan was not a believer in the orthodox sense. It was only after Ruttie’s death that he turned increasingly communal and anti-Hindu, encouraged by his sister Fatima.

Ruttie, a beauty with brains and courted by many admirers, was an ardent reader of English novels. From the time she was 12, she had a crush on her father’s friend with his aquiline features and distinguished bearing. Sir Dinshah fancied himself as a progressive who, in theory, supported inter-community marriages. But, when it came to his own family, it was different. Petit was shocked beyond belief that his friend could be presumptuous enough to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Without consulting his wife, he rushed to court to seek an injunction, charging Jinnah with trying to abduct his minor daughter with an eye on her fortune. It was a disastrous move. After such an open insult, Jinnah refused to yield.

Two months after she turned 18, Ruttie slipped out of Petit Hall, an opulent marble mansion by the sea at the foot of Malabar Hill in south Bombay. In a secret ceremony, she converted to Islam and got married to Jinnah. Her shattered father read the notice in the newspaper the next day and only then discovered that his daughter was missing. The Parsi community, priests and the panchayat were all up in arms. It was made clear to the Petits that they must disown their daughter if they did not also want to be excommunicated. Ruttie, meanwhile, cheerfully claimed in court, “Mr Jinnah has not abducted me, it is I who have abducted him.’’

Details of the fascinating love affair have been provided in the past by some of Jinnahs’ contemporaries, including Justice MC Chagla, once Jinnah’s junior, and Kanji Dwarkadas, a devoted friend. But author Sheela Reddy, a senior journalist, has done a magnificent job in providing fresh insight into the slow unravelling of the disastrous marriage. A dogged researcher, she has drawn from hitherto unexplored material, most notably Ruttie’s correspondence with Sarojini Naidu and her daughters Padmaja and Leilamani, which is in the Nehru Library. Ruttie was extremely close to the Naidu family and she looked upon the poetess as her mentor.

Jinnah generally refrained from chiding his wife even when she must have embarrassed him with her sheer chiffon saris, backless, sleeveless blouses and provocative behaviour. But, when she once thoughtlessly sent him a packed lunch of ham sandwiches when he was contesting from a Muslim constituency, even he could not remain silent. Vicereine Lady Reading once commented of Ruttie, “She has less on in the daytime than anyone I have ever seen.’’

But Ruttie championed her husband’s causes enthusiastically, accompanied him to his political meetings and even got fully drenched by the police in a sheer sari while making a speech to an entranced all-male gathering. She shocked the governor, Lord Chelmsford, by greeting him with the traditional Indian namaskar and her witty repartee. She tried to change Jinnah’s reclusive habits, but with little success.

Illustration: Subrata Dhar

A strange flaw in Ruttie’s warm and affectionate personality, so tender-hearted and caring towards her dogs and cats, was that she paid little attention to her only daughter, leaving her at home with nannies and maids. Even Padmaja commented to her sister: “Whenever I remember the little dazed, scared child. I come very near to hating Ruttie, in spite of my great affection for her.’’ In fact, the daughter, Dina, was so ignored that she was not given a proper name till she was 10. By then, her mother had passed away. As Jinnah became more and more involved in politics and his work, he became increasingly withdrawn and preoccupied. A hurt Ruttie, already isolated from her friends and family, suffered from depression and searched desperately for diversions: dancing at clubs with male companions, trips to Europe, bohemianism, barbiturates and dabbling in the occult. The girl who was once Bombay’s most dazzling beauty became a shadow of her former self . When she finally told Jinnah she was leaving, he seemed relieved. “I have been unhappy for 10 years, if she wants to go, let her go,” he informed Sarojini Naidu.

In her poignant farewell, Ruttie explained she loved him too much to stay on. “Think of me as the flower you plucked, not the flower you tread on.” Soon after, she was dead, reportedly of an overdoze of sleeping pills. She passed away on her 29th birthday. It was probably not the first time she had overdosed. (Jinnah once flew to Paris to be by her bedside for a month even though he was urgently needed to work out a political settlement between Hindus and Muslims back home.) Jinnah maintained a stoic face and calm demeanor throughout the funeral, but when he threw the earth on the grave he broke down and started sobbing like a child.

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