Interview: Sheela Reddy “History has not been kind to Mr Jinnah”

“It’s time for Indians to grow up and stop seeing men and women who shaped our recent history as either saints or villains,” says Sheela Reddy, author of “Mr & Mrs Jinnah”

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/

NH Political Bureau

Journalist-author Sheela Reddy’s book ‘Mr & Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India’ (Penguin Random House India) has been hailed as a tour de force and ‘the book of the year’, although the year is barely three months old. While the book, as the title suggests, does tell the story of a tempestuous marriage, it goes far beyond a love story. Her meticulous research also brings to life the extraordinary story of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, blamed by many for the Partition.

Reddy, who hopes to visit Pakistan later this year to promote the book, in an e-mail interview said she discovered a ‘sensitive man, fiercely honest and independent’.

You mention that Gandhi frowned on Hindu-Musalman alliances. Did Jinnah’s marriage with Ruttie come in the way of closer cooperation or understanding between Jinnah and Gandhi?

It is true that Gandhi was an emphatic opponent of Hindu-Muslim marriages just as Jinnah was its avowed champion, but I don’t think Jinnah marrying Ruttie against her parents’ wishes came in the way of their understanding or cooperating with each other.

In the beginning both tried in their individual ways to make the relationship work—Gandhi by trying to interest Jinnah in his personal reforms, to learn Gujarati and give up his English ways, and trying to get closer to him through his friendship with Ruttie, while Jinnah, even as he backed off from what he considered Gandhi’s absurd social reforms, did make a valiant attempt to cooperate with Gandhi on the political front, not understanding that with Gandhi there could be no division between the political and personal.

I think the utter failure of these two crucial leaders to understand each other lay in their intrinsic temperament—with Jinnah being unable to fully trust any person other than himself, and Gandhi unable to work with anyone who did not trust him unconditionally.

Would you say that Ruttie’s adoration for a man 24 years older to her was just infatuation?

It may have begun as infatuation and calf love, for Ruttie was less than 15 when she first fell in love with Jinnah, who was approaching 40 then. But she was forced to grow up once she married him, and as their dear friend, Kanji Dwarkadas, writes in his memoir of her, although she was so much younger than Jinnah, it was Ruttie who looked after him and made his life pleasant in all ways, so that he became entirely dependent on her for all his comfort and happiness without even realising it. It was because she loved him too much to be able to leave him that eventually destroyed her and him as well in the process.

Did their unlikely wedding help or hinder Jinnah’s political career?

It certainly enhanced his image as a progressive Muslim leader and the younger generation of Muslims, especially the ones who had received a progressive education and whose hearts were fired with nationalism but kept away from politics because of the ultra-conservative and orthodox Muslim clergy who dominated it, began to seek him out even more after his marriage, regarding him as their role model and his romantic marriage to Ruttie, if not an inspiration was certainly seen as one of his most admirable qualities.

I think the utter failure of these two crucial leaders to understand each other lay in their intrinsic temperament—with Jinnah being unable to fully trust any person other than himself, and Gandhi unable to work with anyone who did not trust him unconditionally.

The letters of Ruttie Jinnah to Sarojini and Padmaja Naidu—did they contain any comment on politics or Jinnah’s rivals?

Ruttie wrote letters to both Sarojini and Padmaja Naidu, 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 and even her own children and husband. 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.

Curiously enough when politics was so much the breath of their lives, it hardly ever entered into Ruttie’s letters, especially after her marriage to Jinnah. The few passing references she makes in her letters to Padmaja are only about Jinnah’s schedule and when they would have to leave for Delhi or Simla for the summer or monsoon sessions of the legislature. This could be either because of her own growing alienation from his politics but more likely, Jinnah’s resistance to discussing his political concerns with his wife when they were alone and not in company.

Jinnah does not seem to have been a good husband or a good father. Was it because he was obsessed with being a ‘good leader’?

On the contrary, by the standards of that time, Jinnah would have been considered a very good husband, even his enemies said that of him—that he met all the expenses that Ruttie ran up so extravagantly and that he let her dress and behave as she liked, and gave her all the freedom to run her life exactly as she pleased.

What he didn’t give her was something she yearned for but which he was incapable of giving because of his temperament—understanding and joy and time alone with her. This lack of closeness and intimacy is what eventually destroyed their marriage. Of course other spouses were equally negligent of their husbandly and wifely duties and their marriages suffered as well, but it didn’t destroy them as it did the Jinnahs and I think this had something to do with Gandhi’s movement which gave a sense of purpose and meaning to everyone’s life and compensated for the personal sacrifices.

As for being a good father, in those times, almost nothing was expected from fathers except to be good providers and that Jinnah was, much more than most fathers. He neglected his child of course but I think this came from the traditional ideas of his time, that raising children was a woman’s job and had to be left entirely to the mother, with him playing only the provider’s role and staying out of the way as far as possible. It was only after Ruttie’s death that he was forced to pay more attention to the raising of their child, and even then he was glad to hand over the responsibility to either his sister or a boarding school or her grandmother, being distantly kind to his daughter as he was with everyone, even those closest to him.

I began to find another more complex, sensitive, fiercely honest and independent man, entirely self-made and not as penny-pinching as he was made out to be, capable of great fairness and loyalty.

Did your impression of Jinnah change before starting on the project and after finishing it?

So little is known of the personal side of Jinnah that I had only a vague impression of him to start with and really began to discover him as I went along. Behind the cold, reserved person he was usually portrayed as, I began to find another more complex, sensitive, fiercely honest and independent man, entirely self-made and not as penny-pinching as he was made out to be, capable of great fairness and loyalty.

Your book hints that Jinnah was almost forced to become a leader of Muslims…

My research was limited to the early part of the freedom struggle since the Jinnahs’ marriage which was my subject ended in early 1929, when Ruttie died. Of course it was no coincidence that her death marked the end of the first half of Jinnah’s career as a nationalist politician, after which he went into political retirement, re-emerging in a new avatar as a solely Muslim leader.

What exactly happened to change Jinnah from a fierce nationalist who always put his identity as an Indian foremost, avowing that his identity as a Muslim came a poor second, is a mystery that I think it’s time we took a closer look at.

But it’s clear even during his nationalist days, he was being squeezed between the communalist Hindus on one hand and communalist Muslims on the other, with the former claiming he had no Muslim followers and the conservative Muslims charging him with being too pro-Hindu.

The Congress instead of supporting him as the liberal voice of the Muslims, played into communal hands by refusing to support his efforts to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity. So who was to blame for what happened afterwards?

In the book at least he seemed to have very few Muslim friends…

He was never entirely comfortable with his Muslim identity, openly defying the community’s rules and traditions and in the early years of his career as a politician he faced much flak from Muslim politicians and clergy who attacked him for not being Muslim enough and too pro-Hindu to belong in their community. But this was a deliberate strategy, to situate himself as a progressive Muslim and that a Muslim leader need not sport a spade beard and cap in order to be taken seriously as a leader, but in the end he felt pushed into the corner by Gandhi’s mass movement which forced him to appear more Muslim than he felt in order to stay in the fight.

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