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August 14, 2017

Author Sheela Reddy Talks About Her Book On A Marriage That Shook India

Text by Huzan Tata

“History doesn’t involve just dry, boring facts but people like ourselves living out their destinies or fighting it.”

It unarguably takes a lot of nerve for an Indian to write a book on a subject most people from the country view negatively. But for veteran journalist Sheela Reddy, it was the eagerness to know the real story, the real personality of Mohammed Ali Jinnah that led her on a journey that involved several years of extensive research and writing for her opus, Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India. Reddy’s historical delves into the lesser known facts about Jinnah and his Parsi wife Rattanbai’s (Ruttie) relationship – one that affected the wider world around them, soon to be divided by borders – and makes for an undeniably fascinating read, whether you’re a fan of history or not.

What was the catalyst behind your decision to pen a book on the Jinnahs’ relationship?
“Curiosity to know more about this enigmatic man who dared to rise out of obscurity and shape the history of our sub-continent, and yet whose personal life and relations eluded all his biographers.”

Were there any revelations for you during your research?
“Almost everything I found was in the nature of a revelation to me because, to begin with, there was almost nothing to go by. Then I discovered Ruttie’s letters to Padmaja Naidu (Sarojini Naidu’s daughter), dating from when the two girls were 15 years old. They started corresponding with each other as pen friends and their friendship grew through Ruttie’s lifetime. But closer examination of these letters, some 100 pages of them, full of girlish confidences and ardour but really as un-self-revelatory as Jinnah’s correspondence, showed many gaps to fill. Each painstaking filling of the gap became an exciting moment of discovery, taking me into all sorts of fascinating digressions, like the voluminous correspondence of Sarojini Naidu with her four children, or the occasional  and very dry letters that Jinnah infrequently wrote to his associates, or in contrast, Gandhi’s prolific correspondence on everything under the sun, including his sex life and others, and of course the memoirs of forgotten people of that time who left their own record for posterity and had all the freshness of seeing events as they happened. The other big discovery was Jinnah and Ruttie’s private collection of books lying in the basement of the Karachi University library which, to my great joy, had many margin notes and markings made by them that no one had bothered to look closely at before. These told their own story.”

Did you have any apprehensions writing a book on a man a lot of Indians see in a negative light, owing to our tumultuous history?
“I was a little intimidated by the fact that I was not a trained historian or academician and was treading into territory I knew nothing about. My knowledge of the history of our freedom struggle was limited to what we were taught in school or from books on the subject, and I had not hitherto ventured to find out more. So I approached my project with some timidity, but it soon began dawning on me that there was more grey area in this field and about this man than anyone had told me about before. In retrospect, I was glad to have been a complete ignoramus so I could venture into the subject with a blank mind, free of any baggage, political or historical.”

Did you face any roadblocks or challenges while writing?
“The greatest challenge was discovering Jinnah himself, who throughout his life hid behind an icy fortress of reserve, refusing to share his private thoughts and moments with anyone – not even his wife, let alone his biographers or associates. He left nothing personal—the few unofficial letters he wrote are invariably impersonal– and there are no diaries or memorablia except two letters from Ruttie (of which only one is accessible to the public). And although Jinnah had spent his entire adult life excepting his last year in Bombay, there is very little information available anywhere. As a result, uncovering the real man behind the gossip and the myths and the prejudices meant chasing after any clue I could find, including his speeches in the legislative council, newspaper reports and directories listing motor car owners of Bombay (in order to trace his changing address).  There were roadblocks all through the way—starting with the lack of sufficient information. But my persistence and investigative skills as a seasoned journalist came in handy, first while digging out the material from unexpected sources like the Padmaja Naidu papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which no one had bothered with because it was too large and considered too insignificant for real historians. And there were bureaucratic obstacles that kept me from accessing papers from Pakistan’s National Archives. I had to do some Indian jugaad with my Pakistani friends to circumvent the rules.”

Did your years of writing and research change your own opinions about Jinnah? What was the inspiration for the subtitle – The Marriage That Shook India?
“I started with no fixed opinions except wanting to go beyond the cardboard cutout figure he had become on either side of the border – a lifeless hero to Pakistanis and an inhuman villain for Indians. I could see by the end of my research that he was much more than that – truthful to the point of rudeness, proud, persevering, hyper-sensitive, cold but extremely loyal to his friends, reserved but loved a good gossip, had great integrity in his professional life, rarely lost his temper, a stickler for forms and conventions and yet had tolerance and sense of humour for eccentrics like his wife.  The sub-title, The Marriage That Shook India, is a quote from Aziz Beg’s monumental biography, Jinnah And His Times. Beg uses the phrase in the context of the huge storm that the marriage created across India, “convulsing the two communities” of Parsis and Muslims, as one vicereine wrote, because Ruttie, a Parsi, had not only eloped with a Muslim man 24 years older than her, but converted to Islam in order to marry him. The Jinnahs’ marriage not only shocked, but truly shook the very foundations of India when it collapsed. This was why this marriage was so important – it was shaped by political circumstances which eventually destroyed the marriage of this ill-matched couple who nevertheless loved each other passionately; and when it ended, it, in turn, cast a shadow on future political events. I can’t think of any other union where the personal and political was so closely intertwined.”

If there was one reason you wished readers would pick up the book for, what would that be?
“To find out for themselves that history doesn’t involve just dry, boring facts but people like ourselves living out their destinies or fighting it.”

Next: A Walk Down The Enchanting Stepwells Of India

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