Ruttie Petit Jinnah’s shrouded body, all of twenty nine, was kept next to the freshly dug up grave. As the last offices began, resonance of wails filled the eerie cemetery and Mohammed Ali Jinnah piercingly glanced at his second wife’s body. He then collapsed into the chair, sat stock-still, dismayed, fixing his gaze at nothing.
Seized with parables of a brave new Pakistan, he wasn’t in touch with her for quite a while and the last of the letters he received was written by her a year ago aboard S.S Rajputana at anchor off the shores of Marseilles. A letter so beautifully written, brimming with love, melancholy and irony, that rest of his lifetime wasn’t enough to fathom the passion it imbued with.
He then coughed, choked and, every few minutes, walked away to spit. The spittle was too slimy to be called hecking cough and, despite his visits to London, Delhi and Lucknow, his lungs had signed their own non-cooperation league. He didn’t divulge about his condition, perhaps contracted from an ailing Ruttie in Paris, except to Fatima, his sister, but he called it phthisis, not tuberculosis. He was, of course, wise enough for Mountbatten might have stalled the partition had he known.
As the great Iqbal, Jinnah’s opponent-turned-mentor, had said, no one else could have achieved the dream of Pakistan except Jinnah in the face of wherewithal and intellect of the Hindus in cahoots with the British establishment.
The Karakul hat, the Jinnah cap in time to come, hiding his balding scalp, sitting stiff near Ruttie’s body, his gaunt features betrayed no emotions, even as the low definition of her blurry memories kept turning high by the minute.
Their great crush had fired away at Petit Hall, the swanky bungalow in the upscale Malabar Hill neighbourhood, owned by her father Sir Dinshaw Petit, whom Jinnah had befriended at the Bombay Parsi Club. Her mother, Sylla Petit, sister of JRD Tata, the first Indian woman to have driven an automobile, used to fondly call him Angrezi Bhai, given his very English outfits and demeanour.
A precocious child, as she matured into adolescence, Ruttie’s immaculate manners, brains, scholarship and, above all, her celestial beauty beguiled everyone and the Parsi community was proud from the rooftops, calling her the ‘Flower of Bombay’. The most beautiful girl in the town was also known for shockingly unorthodox views for, as her father would say, her radical genes swam against the currents of dogmas and canons. That, though, never mattered because brilliant people are allowed eccentricities.
Jinnah was the first Indian to be called-to-the-bar in England at the age of 19 and, being the only Muslim lawyer, at forty, the dashing, stylish and the most eligible single in Bombay, he was just a couple of years younger than Ruttie’s father.
Five months after getting the temporary position of Bombay Magistrate, when Jinnah was offered permanency on a 1500-rupee salary, he haughtily declined saying, “I can make 1500 rupees a day.”
Within months, he went on to get much more than 2000 a day. He had over two hundred suits, most of them European and never wore the same silk tie the second time.
During a litigation, when a judge admonished him, saying, “Mr Jinnah, remember that you are not addressing a third-class magistrate.”
“My Lord, please bear in mind that you are not addressing a third-class pleader either,” Jinnah returned.
He had endeared the Gujarati elite with his charm, warmth and class. Having become bosom friends with Dinshaw, Jinnah regularly visited Petit Hall. The sprawling, unsuspecting ambience of the bungalow gave enough space for Ruttie and Jinnah to take their thing a little further than mere acquaintance crammed spaces would usually allow.
When the Petits planned a two-month summer vacation in Darjeeling, Dinshaw invited Jinnah to join them. Even as Jinnah hung back, Ruttie brooked no refusal. It was at the Petit Summer Residence in Darjeeling where the asymmetrical stages of life blossomed into unstinting romance.
While he wore sweater over sweaters, she roamed the streets of Darjeeling in sleeveless cardigans, surprising even the Gurkhas.
The horse-cart they engaged everyday was so rickety that at every turn and bump they collapsed on each other, feeling their bodies. Even otherwise, the pull was gravitational, beyond the laws of sensual gratifications, tumbling towards some central, common compelling force.
Spending days together at the heart of Darjeeling, the Mall Square, Chowrasta, they shopped for pricey clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks, shoes, leather jackets etc and there wasn’t a thing he could decline.
Immense relish was spending time at the empty Scots Church and the crowded Bridge at Victoria Falls. Her childish curiosity savoured sightings of the Red Panda, plants like magnolia, carpets of primula and umpteen varieties of orchids. The tea gardens on slopes of hills, pines and the diminutive rhododendron shrubs were equally mesmerising. They rejoiced in the Toy Train levitating over the steep gradients and curves of the mountains, connecting Siliguri.
“Darjeeling is paradise on earth…highly photogenic,” Jinnah said, bedazzled by the snow-clad peaks of Kanchenjunga. “There’s something that invigorates you.”
“Do you know what the American whose pen name is Mark Twain said about Darjeeling, J?” Ruttie asked.
“What did he say?” Jinnah asked, lighting a cigarette.
“The one land that all men desire to see and having seen once even by a glimpse would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined,” Ruttie said.
He always carried a tin of Craven ‘A’ cigarettes, smoking at least fifty a day and a pack of Cuban cigars to go with.
“I want to learn to gallop a horse properly…but you would be my trainer, J, not the Gurkha,” Ruttie said.
At the Darjeeling horse-riding school, when she climbed up the horse, the saddle was on an angle; she fell in a heap. Even as Jinnah laughed, she dusted herself and, making a face at him, said, “Never…lousy trainer, never again.”
The very next day they booked a suite in Struan Lodge giving fictitious names.
In the warm, roomy seclusion, the two found the world in each other.
Showing a tiny floral tattoo inside of her wrist, Ruttie said, “This is done by a celebrated Liverpool artist…and I have many on my body.”
“I can’t see them, where are they?” Jinnah asked.
“They are hidden in strategic places, J,” Ruttie said.
“Would this bloke get to see them?” Jinnah asked.
“Of course…in the dead of the night, when the lights are off…”
“So how do I see..,” Jinnah asked.
“They’ll shine through…in their full florescence,” Ruttie said. “Plump as I am, J,”
“You aren’t plump,” Jinnah said, smelling her flowers.
“I know…the fat is in right places where it’s beautiful.”
“Absolutely,” Jinnah said. “I love the eyes that you do while talking.”
“They are the gateways to my heart, your elegance has gained a pass, J,” Ruttie said.
He grabbed her head, stabbed his fingers into the thick tresses and worked an intense kiss on her lips.
“What a deep, smoky, full-blooded one…” Ruttie said, licking her chops, “Now test-drive me; I want to see how you clutch, change gears and cruise away…”
He was reliving his own misspent youthhood in her racy bent, nymphean charm, verve and linguistic nonchalance. Hers was a raw foil to the delicate approach he would have treated sensuality with.
This was when Jinnah began realising that their saga can survive the effects of the age gap.
He loved her love for poetry, the cadence of her francophone drawl and, above all, unlike kids her age, her worldly wisdom.
“Given the vast gap, can this go all the way,” Jinnah asked.
“The least I expect is marriage,” Ruttie said.
“How about being the first lady?” Jinnah asked.
“An unnecessary bonus…” Ruttie said. “I just want your undivided attention, J, body and soul; I fancy slow rhythms of a million lazy mornings in your arms.”
“First we have to tackle the age-old adversary.”
“Society,” Jinnah said.
“I can ambush it in daylight,” Ruttie said, “Easy-peasy.”
“You’ll see.” Ruttie said.
“What about Islam?”
“I love you, J, I love your Islam too,” Ruttie said, caressing her Zoroastrian pendant.
“In fact my father was a Hindu. The Lohana caste he belonged to was vegetarian; they ostracized him because he was into fish trading. He was so frustrated that he converted himself and his children to Islam and changed his name from Punjalal Thakkar to Punjabhai Jinno…or Zinno meaning skinny,” Jinnah said.
She was quiet.
“No sentimental attachment to your religion?” Jinnah asked, touching the pendant.
“No, no, neither I consult oracles nor I pay attention to omens,” Ruttie said.
“You are a cultural Parsi then, not religious,” Jinnah said and moved close to her.
“Before you jump all over me, tell me about your wayward childhood, I heard a lot…” Ruttie asked.
“When I was eleven years old, my aunt came to visit us in Karachi. She brought me to Bombay and enrolled me in a school but, within months, I was sent back to Karachi because I was unmanageable,” Jinnah said.
“What about the child marriage?”Ruttie asked.
“Yeah, my mother had forced me to marry a fourteen-year-old girl when I was fifteen because I was going to England on an apprenticeship. I continued my schooling after the marriage and left to London. Within couple of years, she and my mother died while I was pursuing law there,” Jinnah said.
“Why did you stay single all these years?” Ruttie asked.
“Well, when I was twenty, my father insisted that I remarry…but I refused saying I will remain unmarried until my last, but, but…after twenty years, I found you,” Jinnah said.
Back in Bombay, beating about the bush, when he eventually wished to wed Ruttie, Dinshaw almost threw Jinnah out of his bungalow.
Despite Ruttie’s mercurial nature and signature tantrums, since her birthdays were always grand affairs, Dinshaw decided to celebrate her pubertal birthday at the Taj Mahal Hotel, owned by Ruttie’s maternal grandparents.
After the six-tier cake was cut, the sooner Dinshaw finished regaling the audience with his wit, even before the storm of applause died down; she dropped an atom bomb from the podium, devastating every Parsi in the hall.
“That was a well-meant but rather pedestrian articulation dad…since you wanted me to be brief, I will be terse…I am accepting Jinnah’s proposal, our Nikah will take place soon…I seek blessings of everyone present here,” Ruttie said.
The word Nikah sent outrage down their spines; all of them left the hall in disgust, cursing the sixteen-year-old Ruttie. The numbers 40 (Jinnah’s age) and 16 resonated throughout the banquet hall.
Islam had invaded Persia, killing teachings of Zarathustra; alas, it wasn’t leaving the Parsis alone even in India!
Ruttie’s father stormed out of the hall; she confronted him right outside and gave a piece of her mind in her grandmother’s language, French, “Get down from your high horse…no one can push me down the aisle.”
“Finish it the hell up with him…” Dinshaw cried.
“Immmmposssssible…” Ruttie cried, even as Ms Pittalwala, her bosom friend, pulled her away.
“Your funeral…lost to all shame,” Dinshaw yelled and drove away
“Isn’t it too selfish…the whole community is offended,” Ms Pittalwala said.
“Gentlemen like J are endangered species, he is sanity personified…stupendously adorable, not marrying him isn’t an option,” Ruttie said.
“Isn’t he as old as your father?”
“I am not after a matching, unerring groom…he is a charmed killer, armed with impeccable manners to the teeth…he is after highbrow pursuits, not my sexual charisma…sweet, short life would do for me,” Ruttie said.
“You’ll regret…mired in the home rule thing, the lanky won’t have any time for you,” Ms Pittalwala said.
“Shut up…and push off,” Ruttie said, “I will invent time for him.”
“What about the wavelengths?”
“He is the essence of humility, thoroughly at peace…while I am wild in all its eloquence, we are poles apart,” Ruttie said.
“Perhaps that causes the magnetic enchantment,” Ms Pittalwala said.
“We love each other to pieces,” Ruttie said. “My father has five kids but, unlike him, I want two girls, two boys and the last one…the decider.”
“Why so many?” Ms Pittalwala asked.
“Universe needs more clear-headed people like J,” Ruttie said.
“Isn’t he too tall for you?”
“Yeah, I am actually marrying a tree,” Ruttie said.
In the face of Dinshaw’s gritty efforts to stall, Ruttie was twice as stubborn to get married at sixteen; Dinshaw balmed his badly bruised ego by taking recourse in law.
A few days after she turned eighteen, Ruttie packed her bags and left Petit Hall. The sooner she embraced Islam, Jinnah and Ruttie married at Jamia Masjid after he presented a haq-meher of over a lakh of rupees. Following an anathema from the family, she was banished from the larger Parsi community.
The newly married couple resided at South Court Mansion, a few blocks away from Petit Hall. The first few years were euphoric; the true blue wanderlust, fashionista that she was, Ruttie’s playgrounds were the style meccas of Europe—London, Rome, Paris and Milan.
The ostracization continued even after the birth of their only child, Dina, the following year on 15th August 1919. Is the date just a coincidence? Was it an augury? Jinnah couldn’t tell apart, even after the partition.
They made three to four jaunts a year to Europe, leaving their daughter to the care of nursemaids. So engrossing were their near-nomadic voyages that the child remained unnamed until she turned nine.
They battered the St. Mark Square in Venice more often than the Adriatic tides did. Their love for the nautical culture of the Gothic city was matched only by their utter fascination for the scenic French Riviera. Absence of etiquette, ostentatious display of opulence and the thrilling gondola rides through the Venetian Grand Canal were the lures. The Renaissance palaces, the Central Square, Piazza San Marco, St. Marks Basilica, the Campanile Bell, the ubiquitous coffee shops and watering holes were the settings they luxuriated in.
Her unquenchable appetite for splurging at fashion-houses in Milan and London could only be met by Jinnah’s big dollars. Emptying his coffers, Ruttie devoured best of bespoke diamonds, opals, gemstones and artefacts of white gold-platinum alloy. The French twist was the annual Catholic carnival, Mardi gras, in Paris.
At the joint session of the League and Congress at Nagpur, Ruttie defended Jinnah’s decision not to address Gandhi as Mahatma. And when Nehru attacked Jinnah, ignoring the tide of protests, she silenced him with her witty eloquence.
“Congress is where the dumb congregate,” Ruttie said, “Gandhi is subjecting us to a word salad of communal jargon.”
“Of course politics is gladiatorial,” Jinnah said storming out, “Yet, they could be so merciless is inconceivable…leather-heads.”
The humiliation Jinnah had to face at that session took its toll at home. The debonair in him couldn’t resist when things got on his nerves; fierce fights ensued between them. Strong as their passions were, gloomier was the ensuing despondence but the endgame unfolded gently, like slow poison. Jinnah began retreating into his stoical cocoon, ignoring her intolerable aggression and endless petulant fits. Besides, Fatima and Ruttie’s entirely different temperaments sparked off squabbles over trifles, snuffing out remainder of peacetime.
As the questions of Hindu-Muslim hostilities, home-rule gnawed him, the marriage kept crumbling, yet Jinnah continued to shell out fuelling her lavish lifestyle. But Ruttie needed a Jinnah who pampered her all the time, who orbited her like a satellite, perpetually in awe of her gorgeousness. Before long, she doubled down on her demands despite grasping that she wasn’t the centre of his universe anymore.
As he turned a blind eye, her failing health didn’t even let her look after her cats. Both began living separately—she at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Jinnah at South Court Mansion. A year later Ruttie and her mother sailed to Paris for treatment. Within days, Ruttie slipped into coma; Jinnah, who was in Dublin, rushed to see her.
“This demon will take me away,” Ruttie said.
Two-thirds of her body weight was eaten up by tuberculosis. Jinnah was devastated to see her skeletal limbs; spending a month with her, he summoned best of doctors from London.
Having recovered a bit, back in Bombay, she relapsed. After spending every evening of a month with her at the Taj Mahal Hotel, as Jinnah left to Delhi for the budget session, Ruttie slipped into coma and, within weeks, died on her twenty-ninth birthday.
Couple of years after Ruttie’s death, Jinnah’s daughter Dina wanted to marry a Christian, eleven years older than her, Neville Wadia. Fate was unrelenting, Jinnah had married a much younger woman of a different faith and his daughter was now seeking to wed a much older man of a different faith!
“While there are a million Muslim boys, is the Christian the only chosen one?” Jinnah asked.
“While there were million Muslim girls, was my Parsi mother the only one you could marry?” Dina shot back.
He seldom spoke of Ruttie but kept her anniversaries with singular solemnity. Every often, until his death, Jinnah asked his servants to open the wooden chests at midnight. He would stare at Ruttie’s clothes laid over carpets, stay still and, just before they could discern his moist eyes, he would walk away.
In the cemetery, louder wails stirred him up. As Ruttie’s body was lowered, Jinnah was asked to cast some soil first, he cupped some, showered over the body and, while standing up, he suddenly cried like a child, sobbing, shivering and shaking his head. A few minutes later, as Fatima comforted him, he collected himself, ambled back to the car, adjusting his cap.
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai cursing the humidity all the time. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org