FPJ Editorial: The Brief Incandescence Of Ruttie Jinnah

FPJ Editorial: The Brief Incandescence Of Ruttie Jinnah

Kanji Dwarkadas believed that if the marriage had not fallen apart, Ruttie could have persuaded her husband to give up his plan for dividing India.

Deepa GhalotUpdated: Friday, August 11, 2023, 10:21 PM IST
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Muhammad Ali Jinnah with Rutie | Representative Image

As Independence Day nears there is always, mingled with the celebration, a twinge of “what if Partition had never happened”. If Muhammad Ali Jinnah is revered in the Pakistan he helped carve out of India, he is equally hated on this side of the border. What must it have been like for Rattanbai “Ruttie” Petit, the patriotic Parsi wife of the man who first cradle-snatched her and then left her to a life of loneliness and despair? There have been several books written about her, and there is an adequate record of her life if someone wanted to search for it; Geeta Manek has done the research and written a play called Bombay Flower, which Manoj Shah has directed, with Bhamini Oza Gandhi playing Mrs Jinnah.

Since there is no top-of-mind recall about Ruttie, like there is about Kasturba Gandhi, the opening of the play comes as a jolt — a young Jinnah has come to visit his friend, Dinshaw Petit, who is cooing to his newborn daughter. This infant would grow up to marry a man her father’s age!

Ruttie wooed Muhammad Ali jinnah

Rattanbai, who preferred to be called Ruttie, was a privileged Parsi princess — her wealthy father doting on her, throwing lavish birthday parties, travelling abroad, getting her the latest fashion and jewellery, having European nannies look after the child and a retinue of staff waiting on her. As a part of the social whirl of the city’s aristocracy, there was a line of eligible Parsi bachelors waiting to win her hand in marriage, but the wilful 16-year-old beauty, her mind full of romantic poetry, fell in love with the 40-year-old Jinnah. Her parents were understandably furious; it felt like a betrayal by a man they considered a close friend.

For Jinnah, a widower who did not belong to a wealthy family, it must have been ego-boosting to have a beautiful young woman hero-worship him. On her 18th birthday, when her parents had thrown a grand party at the Taj Mahal Ballroom, Ruttie calmly announced her intention to marry Jinnah. As could have been expected, her words were received with stunned silence.

Jinnah's marriage controversy

Jinnah, who was not a devout Muslim, took his political position as a leader of the community seriously and made Ruttie convert to Islam before the wedding, giving her the name Maryam. There was an uproar in both communities. The press went totally ballistic.

A fallout of this high-profile interfaith marriage was that the Parsi Panchayat decided upon excommunication of any Zoroastrian who married outside their faith. Not just that, they would also ostracise her family if they had any contact with her and excommunicate the priest who participated in any ceremony that involved her.

Her father went to court alleging that Jinnah had abducted his daughter, to which Ruttie is reported to have said, “He did not kidnap me, I kidnapped him.” Her father, in his rage and anguish, declared her dead and performed her last rites. Later, when the fire of the scandal had been doused, the Petit family did reconcile with their headstrong daughter, and were not excommunicated.

Geeta Manek and Manoj Shah’s play portrays Ruttie not as a giddy teen flattered by the attentions of a stylish, sophisticated man and rising political star, but a well-read young woman, who wanted to be a part of the freedom struggle and stand by her husband in his fight for Independence. She told him that if he accepted the British-endowed title of ‘Sir’ she would disown him. Jinnah resented her outspokenness and her public appearances; he was embarrassed that his wife was the only woman present in his chambers during meetings. His orders for her to stay home had no effect.

She did not approve of Jinnah playing the communal card. “Our movement is for freedom, not for community,” she says in Bombay Flower. She resisted bullying by Jinnah’s sister Fatima, who wanted her to be a good Muslim wife, telling her that religion is a very personal thing and should be practised in private, like sex, shocking the woman into silence. She worked with several social causes, including helping the women of Kamathipura when no respectable woman would step into the red light area. Fatima allegedly destroyed photographs and letters by Ruttie after Jinnah’s death, in a failed attempt to wipe out her existence.

The marriage quickly deteriorated. Jinnah was too busy to pay attention to his child bride, which left her baffled and heartbroken, her Romeo and Juliet romanticism shattered, because she had left everyone she loved and everything she cared for to be with her ‘J’. In the play, she says sadly, “Shakespeare was right. Men are April when they woo and December when they wed.” She picked the most easily available crutch, drink and drugs. There is a tragic scene in the play when, in a drunken state, she dials the telephone and tries to get her husband to speak to her. In desperation she invites the unseen operator to her birthday party. She eventually moved out of the house, into the Taj Hotel.

Ruttie was influenced by Annie Besant

She was influenced by Annie Besant’s Theosophy Movement, and formed a close friendship with Kanji Dwarkadas, who wrote a book titled Ruttie Jinnah: Story of a Great Friendship. Cut off from her circle, she looked upon Sarojini Naidu as a mother figure, and carried out a copious correspondence with her and her daughters. It was Naidu who gave her the title of The Flower of Bombay. Ruttie died tragically young at the age of 29, estranged from her husband and young daughter, Dina, who went on to marry the Parsi Neville Wadia, defying her father like her mother had done in the past.

Ratanbai's last letter to Jinnah

Shortly before her death, Ruttie wrote a poignant letter to Jinnah. “Darling — thank you for all you have done. If ever in my bearing — your once lined sense found any in ability or kindness — be assured that in my heart there was place only for a great tenderness and a greater pain — a pain my love without hurt. When one has been as close to the reality of life — (which after all is death) as I have been, dearest — one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments — and all the rest becomes a half-veiled mist of unrealities. Try and remember me beloved as the flower you plucked and not the flower you tread upon. I have suffered much sweetheart because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to the measure of my love… I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved. I only beseech you that our tragedy, which commenced with love, should also end with it. Darling good night, and good-bye. Ruttie.”

Could Ratanbai Petit have pursuaded Jinnah to give up Pakistan plan?

Kanji Dwarkadas believed that if the marriage had not fallen apart, Ruttie could have persuaded her husband to give up his plan for dividing India. Sarojini Naidu wrote an epitaph, “What a tragedy of unfulfilment Ruttie's life has been — she was so young and so lovely and she loved life with such passionate eagerness, and always life passed her by leaving her with empty hands and heart.”

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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