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The marriage that broke

Sheela Reddy takes a closer look at Jinnah’s private life which had previously escaped scrutiny

The marriage that broke

Perhaps one has to disagree, at the very outset, with the basic premise of the book Mr and Mrs Jinnah which states that Jinnah destroyed what he loved. Two instances have been quoted as examples to prove this premise: One of his marriage and the other of India. His marriage collapsed despite intense love and his politics too failed because as ambassador of Hindu- Muslim unity he could not keep the country together.

This is a pitfall that historians and political analysts fall into as they try to build connections between the private lives of individuals and their public acts. Usually a direct link is established between what happens in the bedroom and what happens in the larger public arena, but the assumption is more about how an artist, a dramatist or a creative person might seek the alibi of poetic license.

A historian and a journalist, especially one as respectable as Sheela Reddy, should avoid this route. A journalist is the chronicler of the present, and in most cases the material unearthed from newspapers is considered good enough to be weaved into an analysis for the purposes of understanding a certain age in later times.

After some letters of Ruttie Jinnah (born Rattanbai Petit) were discovered, Reddy was motivated to take a closer look at Jinnah’s private life which had escaped scrutiny the way the private lives of others were pried upon. So far so good.

However, being unable to keep India together was as much a failure of the political leadership of the subcontinent as that of one man. Jinnah tried desperately to do so but even his last minute effort — with the acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan — was thwarted. He always wanted to maintain a singular political entity of India but that did not mean a homogeneity spilling over into a negative uniformity. The diversity of the subcontinent had to be realised into political institutions but, unfortunately, that did not happen and to blame one rather than the others is being discriminatory, or just betraying a bias.

As far as the private lives of other top leadership are concerned, both Gandhi and Nehru wrote about the difficulties of matching domestic responsibilities with their political and public lives. The fact that both these leaders perpetuated their unhappy marriages and did not break with their spouses, does not qualify as success; so should the marriage that broke be considered a failure?

It is a blow-by-blow account of the marriage of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Ruttie Dinshaw Petit and rightly so it shook India. It has been weaved with the political developments that were taking place then and the various positions that leaders and parties were taking.

But the contradictions involved in the urges of modernity and the pull of tradition were obvious in the marriages taking place in other households as well as in Nehru’s; and how the flowering of passions was sacrificed to political necessities. Jinnah and the Nehru shared love for a Western lifestyle and the conflict with the traditional was forgotten. That Jinnah went forth and faced the consequences head on should have placed him on a higher pedestal than ones who squirmed and backed down fearing social reprisal or political backlash.

From the very beginning, Jinnah’s marriage was set to challenge all the givens – the age divide, the class divide, the religious divide and the social divide.


This was also happening at a time when all these differences, especially of religion were being tackled politically. As the marriage collapsed so did the desire or the dream of a united India, for in the late 1920s it was becoming clear that the divide had turned into a chasm that could not be bridged. Most of the problems that Jinnah’s marriage faced were what all marriages face; only that it was compounded by a great deal of differences particularly in the face of the religious divide and the route of total non-cooperation that the Petit family opted to take.

Actually, Jinnah should have been facilitated for having taken the plunge while most, even the most enlightened leadership and upper crust of society, prevaricated in exercising such a choice. At least Jinnah was more forthright in putting in practice what others only preached, may have believed in, but never had the guts to act on.

The private and the public should have been kept separate in the book and most of the time it is done so, but the conclusion it arrives at jumps the gun without any sustained logical build up. It is a blow-by-blow account of the marriage of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Ruttie Dinshaw Petit and rightly so it shook India. It has been weaved with the political developments that were taking place then and the various positions that leaders and parties were taking. Though it reads well and appears to be a good account; yet the conclusions drawn are quite misplaced.

It is also clear that Jinnah’s friends and acquaintances were also across religious divide and he had very few Muslim friends then from the part of India that was to become West Pakistan. It appears that after he returned to politics in the 1930s, he began paying more attention to the Muslim majority areas rather than the Muslim community in India on the whole. It was also clear that there was a leadership struggle at the top and these politicians were vying for undisputed leadership of the Indian community. These multiple cards of the struggle, personal at one level, religious or communal as known then, at another, were played by all the leaders to varying degree of success.

The book also gives a fair indication of the social reality of the time and how Muslim women who wanted to break taboos and barriers, which had been sold to them in the name of religion and respectability, were perceived. The mere fact that Fatima Jinnah went to a non-Muslim school raised eyebrows and everything about Jinnah — his religion, morals, and integrity — was questioned. Till the very last, he remained above all this morally instigated politics. No wonder he took all important decisions without stooping low to social narrow-mindedness.

Mr and Mrs Jinnah
The marriage that shook India
Author: Sheela Reddy
Year: 2017
Publisher: Penguin Viking India
Pages: 420
Price: INR 699

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore


  • R S Chakravarti

    “Actually, Jinnah should have been facilitated …”? I presume you meant felicitated.

  • The book, nor the reviewer, present any evidence that the book ‘shook India.’ The shaking took place in the mind of the author’s publishers, or whoever suggested the title. The reviewer might have mentioned the ages of the two protagonists when the marriage took place, and relationship between the father and his only daughter—how enlightened that was.

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