Historical lovers, courtesy researchers and biographers, can’t act coy in death. Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover by RJB Bosworth details the grand passion between Italy’s prime minister Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci, all the way down to that unforgettable portrait of their butchered bodies hung upside down in Piazzale Loreto. Sheela Reddy’s Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India chronicles a liaison closer home, but no less doomed.
If Mussolini was 49 to Claretta’s 20, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was 40 to Ruttie Petit’s 16. Ruttie, a social butterfly in her gauze saris and backless blouses, romances a reticent and charismatic politician whom no one, not even her, called by his first name. He was her J.
Despite their elopement and Muslim-Parsi tag, the Jinnahs too had to contend with domestic ennui. The man from Karachi and the girl from Bombay fall for each other in haste but they repent in exquisite leisure.
While Motilal Nehru escapes having a son-in-law from another caste, Sir Dinshaw Petit was tricked into revealing his doublespeak when Jinnah asked him his opinion on inter-caste marriage and, after ascertaining his support for it, requested his daughter’s hand and the father refused.
It was Ruttie who chased after Jinnah and nothing stopped them from being one of the history’s tempestuous couples. Prominent figures are part-narrators, like Sarojini Naidu, whose letters, maternal advice and perceptive insight into the matrimonial disaster between two such dissimilar people via letters to daughters Padmaja and Leilamani are a testimony to the timeline.
Ruttie sashays off the pages with great panache. Jinnah hardly blinked when his first wife, Emi Bai, died but Ruttie’s death changes the tone of his silence. He had shaved off his moustache to marry her—a precondition she laid down—and been a most indulgent husband, letting her shop infinitely, getting out of his car to buy her roadside chaat, handing only child over to nannies so Ruttie could gallivant around. But couldn’t give her what she wanted most, his time.
He was grooming himself for destiny, she was dressing up for him. It was her sparkling mischief against his staidness, her pout against his stiff upper lip. Naturally, they suffered. The same woman who told the court: ‘Mr Jinnah has not abducted me... I abducted him’, when her father sued him for kidnap, much later, when not a star was left in her eyes, told Sarojini he could never ‘satisfy her mind and soul’.
Sarojini documented Ruttie’s changing persona in a letter to her daughter: ‘There is something hard and cold about it all— paint, powder, bare back...’
Bedridden with discontent, ‘Ruttie’s body seemed unable to rise to the ordeal of breaking free’ even after she mentally fled the marriage. She kept her only daughter nameless through sheer lack of interest.
Since the book bats for Ruttie—it is all about her desire, her disappointments and her death—the reader awaits a husbandly version. One can’t help wonder what Jinnah’s matrimonial take might have been. It is not the first time a childish, high-strung flibbertigibbet wife drove mad a man inherently disinterested in coochie-coo.