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When Mrs Jinnah refused to be a slave

NEW DELHI: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an advocate of women’s rights, appears to have been uncomfortable when his wife Ruttie made an impromptu speech at Bombay’s Town Hall against British governor Lord Willingdon in 1918, a new book claims.

Author-journalist Sheela Reddy says in Mr and Mrs Jinnah, The Marriage That Shook India (Penguin Random House India) that Jinnah, then a towering leader of the Home Rule League, had run a campaign against the outgoing governor’s move to have a memorial built to himself. The book is to be launched on March 1.

A voice vote was taken at the Town Hall, where an uproar broke out. Jinnah had left Ruttie, five weeks pregnant, at home but she found her way to the balcony above the Town Hall library.

From there, she made her maiden speech, in English, telling the audience: “We are not slaves….”

The 18-year-old Parsi girl, who had converted to Islam to marry Jinnah, had confronted the then Bombay police commissioner and said: “Mr Vincent, first of all you have no right to stop me from lecturing because I have a right to speak as a citizen of Bombay.”

She added, the book says quoting from a Bombay Chronicle news report: “Secondly, whatever you may do, I am not going to move from here.”

The all-male crowd was spellbound and remained rooted to the spot even when Vincent ordered water hoses to be used on Jinnah, Ruttie and the rest of the assembly.

But Ruttie went on till the gathering broke up. According to Kanji Dwarkadas, a friend of Jinnah, he found Ruttie sitting on the steps of the Town Hall smoking a cigarette by the time he had emerged from the meeting.

Journalists asked Jinnah: “Could you not have persuaded Mrs Jinnah to stay at home?”

Reddy says the implication that he should have somehow controlled his wife did not escape Jinnah.

“Giving full weight of his gravity, Jinnah told us she was present at the meeting the evening before. So she was at the Town Hall,” the Bombay Chronicle report said.

According to Reddy, the question may have stirred Jinnah’s pride and instinct of solidarity with his wife but “he did not really want her to be making speeches; that was his territory”.

She says that Jinnah’s muted response to Ruttie’s only foray into public life appeared at odds with his strong advocacy of women’s rights: as a young student in England, he had vocally supported the suffragists.

When a public reception was held at Ghatkopar, where the residents presented Jinnah with a gold medal and lauded Ruttie’s heroism, she was not present to hear an old resident say: “… She deserved all praise and gratitude for vindicating the right of Indian womanhood to a high place of honour.”

Jinnah rose to thank them “for the honour they had done him and his wife” and added that he would always do his duty.

A Jinnah Hall came into existence in his honour. A wall plaque with “the historic triumph” blazoned on it refers to the victory of Bombay’s citizens “under the brave and brilliant leadership of M.A. Jinnah”. The Shiv Sena forcibly took the plaque down a few years ago.

Jinnah Hall was located inside the compound of the Congress House, the office of the party’s city unit.

Reddy claims that after her Town Hall speech, Ruttie took care to never make herself conspicuous in the political sphere.

“Her job, she decided, was to be a prop for him during his public appearances, sitting mutely by his side on the dais. And with the docility that would have shocked her father, she easily fell into her role, taking care to curb her natural instincts,” she writes.

Ruttie, who died aged 29 in 1929, was 24 years younger than Jinnah, whom she had married in April 1918. There’s speculation she may have died from an overdose of a drug she had been taking to combat a painful intestinal ailment.

Jinnah was married to a cousin, Emibai, when he was 16 and she was 14. She died early when Jinnah was in England. Ruttie was the only daughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit, a wealthy friend of Jinnah.

Sir Dinshaw had in 1916 invited Jinnah to Darjeeling, where he and Ruttie fell in love and decided to marry. Jinnah’s proposal to marry his daughter destroyed Sir Dinshaw’s peace of mind and friendship with Jinnah forever.

Ruttie was barely 16, an age at which the progressive Parsi parents of the day did not expect their daughters to rush into marriage.

Reddy says it was not her youth that was the most preposterous part of Jinnah’s proposal in Sir Dinshaw’s eyes, or indeed the world’s.

“According to the norms of even liberal Indian society, while it was all right to aspire to be English in all ways, whether it was dress or food or manners or speech, one simply did not cross the line by marrying out of one’s community. It was the unspoken rule that the older generation understood very well.”

Jinnah approached Sir Dinshaw with a seemingly abstract question about his views on inter-community marriages. When Sir Dinshaw averred such marriages would be the ideal solution to inter-community antagonism, Jinnah asked for Ruttie’s hand in marriage.

Jurist M.C. Chagla, who was at the time assisting Jinnah at his chambers and later went on to become a Union minister, has been quoted as saying: “Sir Dinshaw was taken aback. He had not realised that his remarks might have serious personal repercussions. He was most indignant, and refused to countenance any such idea which appeared to him absurd and fantastic.”

The irony caught up with Jinnah when his daughter Dina married Neville Wadia, born into a Parsi family that had converted to Christianity. Reddy writes that for Jinnah to have his only child marry a Parsi Christian was a serious political embarrassment.

“He tried to dissuade her but finding her adamant, Jinnah threatened to disown her. Instead of relenting, she moved into her grandmother’s home, determined to go ahead with the marriage,” Reddy writes.

She quotes Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto to show that Jinnah took Dina’s defiance badly.

“For two weeks, he would not receive visitors. He would just go on smoking his cigars and pacing up and down in his room. He must have walked hundreds of miles in those two weeks,” Manto wrote.

Jinnah’s marriage turned sour as Ruttie was unhappy that her husband’s devotion to work left him little time for her. By mid-1922, Jinnah was becoming involved in Indian politics, which made him even busier.

Ruttie tried hard to make her marriage a success and determined to make Jinnah’s life “in all its aspects, pleasant, carefree and well worth living”. But it was a struggle.

She planned his meals but Jinnah found little or no joy in food, eating sparingly. “It was the least important thing in his life. Dinner or lunch would be announced but if he was busy in a discussion or dictating a letter, he took no notice,” Reddy writes.

“If he was reminded that food was getting cold, he would politely reply, ‘Just a few more minutes’ or ‘Go and start and I will join you in a little while’…. It was impossible for Ruttie to tempt him into eating more than the quota he had fixed for himself.”

Ruttie liked to wear a short, sleeveless choli under a transparent sari. Reddy quotes from a letter by Lady Reading, whose husband was Viceroy of India from 1921 to 1926, to a friend that says: “Jinnah was… an object of interest because of his startlingly beautiful wife…. He came to lunch with his wife. Very pretty, a complete minx…. She is a Parsi and he a Mohammedan. She had less on in the daytime than anyone I have ever seen. A tight brocade cut to waist back and forth, no sleeves, and over it and her head flowered chiffon as sari.”While Ruttie loved dancing, music, club life and garden parties, Jinnah cut out all socialising as a way of disciplining himself for his political destiny.

“He stoutly refused to either entertain or be entertained, not caring if he was called a miser by almost all he knew,” Reddy writes.

Crisply written and well researched on both sides of the border, the book relies heavily on Ruttie’s letters that lay rather unnoticed at New Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Library.

“I think I was the second person who asked to look at it. It was an exciting moment,” Reddy told The Telegraph.

“There was a whole sheaf of letters from Ruttie, around a hundred pages in all. I have Padmaja Naidu (Sarojini Naidu’s daughter who was behind the preservation of the letters) to thank for this treasure trove.”

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