Review: When two Gujaratis failed to get along and work together

The book ‘Mr & Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India’ is much more than a remarkable love story and reignites interest in men who shaped history but are understood little


Uttam Sengupta

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was also from Gujarat! This reviewer must confess that the connection with Gujarat was almost the very first thing that flashed in mind while beginning to read the book. Both the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi and the founder of Pakistan Mr Jinnah, who was seven years younger than Gandhi, were from this state which has now given us Narendra Modi, I thought to myself with some amusement as I began to read.

I was resigned to reading a love story and wondered if I would reach the end. Like many or most Indians with little or no sense of history (thanks to our general contempt for the subject), I had little patience with either Mr or Mrs Jinnah. Wasn’t he responsible for the partition of the country as our history textbooks told us?

But with the help of hitherto unpublished letters and painstaking research, Sheela Reddy manages to surprise the reader with the remarkable love story and marriage of a man in his forties, a friend of the bride’s father, and a teenaged girl. Jinnah was taken to court on the charge of abducting her and a spirited Ruttie, not yet 19, sprang to his defence and told the magistrate that it was actually she who had abducted him.

Jinnah by himself also cuts a fascinating figure. Arriving penniless in Bombay at the age of 20 at the turn of the century, Jinnah worked himself to be one of the wealthiest lawyers, a lion of the court, known for his ‘luxury cars and fashionable clothes’. Fond of riding and chess and with an obsessive interest in reading newspapers and in politics, he was a self-made man. A high school dropout sent to London at the age of 16 to be an apprentice in a trading firm, he saves money and studies Latin to get admission in one of the Inns, graduating in Law at the age of 18-and-a-half, we are told, the youngest one ever to do so.

The two Gujaratis, however, did not get along well. And that is again a story by itself. Jinnah was already the ‘tallest national leader’ when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915. It was Jinnah who presided over the meeting of the Gurjar Sabha (Gujarati Society) to felicitate Gandhi. But Jinnah, who liked to be known as an Indian, was put off by Gandhi’s patronising comment that he was happy to see a ‘Mahomedan’ a member of the Gurjar Sabha and chair the meeting. From then on the relationship swiftly went downhill.

While Jinnah made no secret of his opposition to India assisting Britain in the first world war, Gandhi supported the war effort, even suggesting that the Home League built up by Jinnah be turned into a recruitment centre for soldiers. Gandhi also took no part in the public rallies that Jinnah organised against Lord Willingdon in Bombay, on the specious plea that he was not a citizen of Bombay.

At the Gujarat Congress session at Godhra, Gandhi asked Jinnah to speak in Gujarati. Jinnah started his speech in Gujarati as ‘ordered by Gandhi Ji’ but having obliged the chair, sought the indulgence of those present to switch to English. His announcement was greeted with laughter. But while it was in all probability a good natured response to the tussle between the two men on the dias, Gandhi was certain that the laughter was one of derision and that Jinnah took it as a personal humiliation and never forgave him!

Gandhi’s insistence that Jinnah should speak in Gujarati and Hindi irritated Jinnah no end. And the stubborn man in him resisted. A ‘secular’ politician, Jinnah was apparently left aghast at Gandhi’s politics of symbolism and at his attempts to link political issues to prayers, fasting, holy dips and marches to temples.

For Jinnah the final straw was Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement. While Indian Muslims were concerned at the defeat of Turkey in the first world war and the possibility of the control of their holy places passing from the Ottoman empire and the Caliphate to non-Muslims, Jinnah was loath to embrace the cause. He probably felt it had nothing to do with the Indians’ demand for self-rule.

Gandhi, however, embraced the radical Muslim leaders, extended his support to the Khilafat movement and at a conference at Simla, rallied Muslims to his cause. Though invited, Jinnah gave the Simla conference a miss. Gandhi’s popularity among Muslims soared and at the Amritsar session of the Congress, the Mahatma won over the Muslims with a speech in Urdu, a language he had diligently learned.

What if the two Gujaratis had worked together and in tandem, as two others are doing in India at this very moment?

Mr & Mrs Jinnah

The Marriage That Shook India

Sheela Reddy

Penguin Random House

Rs 699, pp 421

This article was updated at 1.48 pm on April 2, 2017 to update ‘a friend of the bride to ‘a friend of the bride’s father’ in the third paragraph.

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Published: 02 Apr 2017, 1:34 PM