By Khaled Ahmed
April 29, 2017
A great book, Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, by Sheela Reddy sheds new light on an aspect of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s life that would interest Pakistanis more than Indians. That he married a beautiful Parsi girl, Ruttie, is well-known; that he, a rich lawyer who defended the Muslim cause, had to endure Ruttie’s death, is also known. What is not known is the suffering of this wonderfully gifted teenager, who walked into a mismatch and would not admit it.
No one in Pakistan would accept that Ruttie committed suicide, rather than live in a defunct marriage with a man deep in the inferno of communal politics. But this book dwells on her illness and, thanks to sources Reddy digs out, reveals how Ruttie died, aged only 29. Reddy tells us about her sources: “Ruttie wrote letters to both Sarojini [Naidu] and [her daughter] Padmaja, but her letters to Sarojini are now lost because Sarojini, with her itinerant life, never bothered to keep the letters she received from her numerous friends and acquaintances… It was thanks to Padmaja Naidu, who kept every letter she received from both her mother and Ruttie, that I was able to piece the narrative of Jinnah’s marriage together.”
The Ruttie-Naidu nexus came from the fact that Sarojini Naidu too had fallen in love at 14 with a young doctor in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s service. Ruttie herself was easily the most beautiful girl of Bombay, worshipped by Jinnah’s theosophist friend, Kanji Dwarkadas, who was also at Ruttie’s deathbed later. Jinnah, on the other hand, was worshipped by Ruttie, and it is difficult today to decide who was responsible for their falling-out. That she chose to die after leaving Jinnah tells us how deep the broken relationship was. But did she commit suicide?
Another lawyer friend, Chaman Lal, saw a seriously ill, fainting Ruttie in Paris; if he thought she had overdosed herself, he didn’t say so. Dwarkadas too abstained from saying so in his book, but near his death, he was able to make the revelation. Reddy notes: “There is no medical record stating the official cause of her death, but nearly half a century later, Kanji did come out with the truth. In an interview he gave to an Urdu author close to the end of his life, Kanji unequivocally declared that Ruttie had killed herself by taking sleeping pills that were always by her bedside. ‘She chose to die on her birthday,’ Kanji told the Pakistani writer, Syed Shahabuddin Dosnani, who met the ageing but very alert Kanji in his apartment in Bombay on 16 February 1968.”
The other clue is in the panicking letters Sarojini Naidu wrote to Padmaja about what Ruttie was going through: “I know that there was no other solution to her problem. Death was the sole, the supreme compassion for that broken life that had become the victim of every poison that could destroy the fineness, the nobility, the lucidity, the loveliness of the once radiant spirit.”
Sarojini had been informed by an eyewitness that “poor little Ruttie had died of an over-draught of Veronal”. As noted by Reddy, Jinnah himself was strikingly handsome, a fact which stood him in good stead when he landed in England in 1891, aged 15. His transformation, from an indifferent student to a driven law candidate, shaped his character. But hard work took him away from normal emotional development. This rubbed off on his marriage with a passionate Ruttie, who couldn’t spend time away from him. He loved her too, but in his own way, financing her extravagant visits to Paris without demur — a single trip cost Rs 50,000 while his grand residence in Bombay, South Court, cost him two Lakh rupees. Eventually, Ruttie separated from him, saying she was leaving because she loved him too much. And Jinnah cried “like a child” while burying Ruttie in a Shia graveyard later.
Jinnah’s father was Jinabhai Poonja, his own full name Muhammad Ali Jinabhai Poonja. He dropped Poonja, spelling “Jina” as “Jinnah”; he’d resist changing it to “Janah” to Islamise it. The Shaping of Modern Gujarat: Plurality, Hindutva, and Beyond by Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth notes Jina was a common name among Muslims settling in Gujarat in the 12th century. In Maneka Gandhi’s The Penguin Book of Hindu Names, a dozen names starting with Jina are identified as of Jain origin. Many Gujarati Muslims in Pakistan (like the Bohras, Khojas and Memons) claim to be from the Lohana Rajput tribe. And being a Lohana — the children of Loh, Ram’s son, after whom Lahore is named — accounted for Jinnah’s good looks.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’