'Youth is going and I must live': When Mrs Jinnah left Mr Jinnah

A new book explores the tempestuous marriage of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Rattanbai 'Ruttie' Petit.

At the end of December 1919, Jinnah and Ruttie took their first trip out of Bombay since arriving with the baby. Leaving it behind with the nurse and nanny, they left to attend the year-end sessions of the Congress and the Muslim League in Amritsar. It had been only three years ago when a sixteen-year-old Ruttie had set out on a train with her aunt to attend her first Congress session, filled with excitement at the prospect of listening to three days of long speeches. But that wide-eyed excitement had long since died and now it was all as dull as she had feared it would be.

Amritsar was rainy and cold and depressing, and there was thin attendance at the sessions of the Muslim League, with the opening day going only into reading aloud the presidential address which stretched for several unbearable hours. Then, midway through the session, the Ali brothers entered and took over the stage and the hearts of the audience and the air was rent with cries of “Allahu Akbar” and loud weeping. It was a scene that appealed to neither of them.

The Congress sessions which took place simultaneously were equally tedious, with leaders spending hours debating over a single amendment to a resolution. Like her youthful self, the days of stirring political speeches that had so fired her up with patriotic zeal seemed to have suddenly ended. She felt burnt out.

The only thing she could think of that might help lift her sinking spirits was to plan a trip alone to visit Padmaja (Naidu) in Hyderabad, leaving both Jinnah and the baby at home.

It was a city that she had never visited before, except for the aborted trip she made with Jinnah the previous April when they were forced to take the next train back because the Nizam’s government objected to a speech he made there and banned his entry into the state henceforth.

She had always longed to go there, especially after she got to know Sarojini and her daughters. As a girl, Padmaja’s description of the life they led there, the impromptu parties and picnics and fetes and the warm friendships, with people visiting each other for breakfast and midnight music sessions, had made a deep impression on her, and now, being the social outcast she was in Bombay, she yearned to become part of this charmed social circle where no one ever seemed lonely or depressed.

“Hyderabad, it seems, could quite well give Bombay a lesson on ‘How to make things hum a bit,’” she had written wistfully to Padmaja at fifteen, when she was convalescing in the Petits’ monsoon retreat in Poona. And to Leilamani a year later, imagining a city of romantic charm: “of beautiful Begums and warrior Nawabs, of fragrant white jasmine and passionate burning incense sticks, of luxurious diwans and rainbow coloured sticks, of mosques and fortresses and muezzin cries, of throned elephants and oriental pomp”.

Except for the short trip she had made to Mussoorie to visit them in their boarding school shortly after her marriage and an equally short visit Padmaja made to Bombay just before her mother’s departure for England, Ruttie had not spent any time with either of the Naidu girls for the past two years. Caught up as she was in her new life, even the correspondence between them had stopped, with not a single letter exchanged between them since her marriage. She longed to get close to them again and spend at least a fortnight with them in their home when they could once again tell each other their secrets, and she would no longer feel so lonesome.

Not the least of its attractions was, of course, that it would give her the break that she badly needed, both from Jinnah and the baby. With the ban order against him, Hyderabad was the one place he could not possibly propose joining her. It was to be her bachelor trip, without him or the baby to hamper her, free to bond with her girlfriends.

Sarojini was still in England, convalescing from the surgery she had undergone, but both her girls were in Hyderabad with their father, with the younger one, Leilamani, having just finished school. They greeted her plans to visit with a warmth and enthusiasm that made her even more determined to go, although it left Jinnah less than enthusiastic.

Jinnah, of course, would have felt it beneath his dignity to argue with her, and it was only after she had actually left that he sunk his pride and began “writing and begging her to return”, as Padmaja wrote to her brother, Ranadheera, during Ruttie’s visit. Hurt he must have surely been, given his “over tuned senses”, as Ruttie termed that hypersensitivity he hid behind his impassive exterior.

For her to abandon him like that, when she knew very well that he could not enter Hyderabad because of the Nizam’s order, probably cut him to the core.

But more important, it would have triggered that conflict between his old and new selves that he had begun feeling ever since his marriage – the urbane gentleman of liberal ideas at war with his father’s son. It was not the first time – and certainly not the last – when he would have realised the abyss between them – he, born of a mother who had never once gone anywhere without her husband; in fact, her devotion to his father was so total that she even refused to stay a while longer in the village during Jinnah’s first wedding because her husband was going back to the city and she could not bear him going without her.

While here was Ruttie, from such a different world, setting out on a pleasure trip without him, as if it was the most natural thing to do – as indeed, it was, having seen her mother and her set living in a world quite apart from their husbands. But still, whatever his feelings might have been, he kept them stoically to himself, saying nothing while she made her own plans.

Funnily enough, neither of them seemed overly concerned about her leaving the baby behind, although it was only five months old. Having installed her from the day they returned from London in her own nursery, they seemed to have almost forgotten her existence. It would take at least another year before Ruttie’s unnatural lack of attachment to her baby would attract comment, but even in these early months there was less than the usual weak connection that seemed to exist between infants in well-born modern households and their otherwise busy parents.

So little did either of them involve themselves in the baby that it had not even occurred to either of them that she would soon require at least a name of her own.

It was a puzzle why Ruttie, of all women, who even as a child could not bear to see a suffering creature without rushing to its aid, turned her face away so resolutely from her own infant daughter. Could it be perhaps her resentment, hidden so far under her guise of careless insouciance, but chafing nevertheless at this “slavery”, as she later put it – this double bondage of wife and mother that she had not bargained for in her passionate eagerness for life, not yet daring to spill out into open rebellion, but still unable to resist her heart’s stifled cry of “Let me be free. Let me be free”?

Panicked suddenly that “her youth is going and she must live”, that “life is passing her by”, she was determined to try and recover her old self, “longing to be free of all her shackles”. She needed some time alone with her friends, to immerse herself once again in the old life that she had so foolhardily turned her back on. Of her family, Lady Petit, at least, was eager to make up with her daughter, yearning to see her little granddaughter but Ruttie, with a pride as stubborn as Jinnah’s, wanted to have nothing to do with her, turning instead to her friends in Hyderabad as if they were her one and only family.

But while it was easy, even imperative, to leave behind both Jinnah and the baby, Arlette, her precious dog, had to go with her because she could not bear to part from her, even for a fortnight. And although the Naidus’ home was already overcrowded with a menagerie of pets, including several dogs, cats, a squirrel, deer and a mongoose, she insisted on not just taking Arlette along but its attendant as well and the boxes of its special food, watched mutely by Jinnah, his face giving away nothing as she set out on her first holiday without him.

Excerpted with permission from Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, Sheela Reddy, Viking, Penguin Random House India.

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