Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Archived Letters: A Treasure Trove for Biographies

I have grappled with the acute shortage of source materials while writing biographies, particularly of people from the latter half of the 20th century, because telecommunications technology led to the demise of letter writing. And also because most Indian families do not preserve letters, let alone archive them. Letters are such a rich resource for historians and biographers not only because they provide evidence for events in the narrative of the life one is reconstructing but also because they, often, give you a glimpse of the social and political issues of those times. The book by Sheela Reddy is evidence, if ever one were needed, of how rich and credible the narrative can be, if such resources were available.

The book is based on a bunch of private letters preserved by Padmaja and Leilamani (spelt Leelamani, by some) Naidu, daughters of Sarojini Naidu, who was a close family friend of Ruttie Petit’s father (a fabulously rich baronet, Sir Dinshaw Petit, a prominent Parsi mill-owner of Bombay), and, later, Ruttie’s role model and confidante. Ruttie was a prolific letter writer; Sarojini and her daughters were the recipients. Apparently, Sheela stumbled upon them in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Padmaja Naidu “had the foresight and imagination to collect and preserve her family’s vast and lively correspondence... and put it at the disposal of the curious in the NMML archives.” It was pure fortuitousness that, while doing further research, Sheela found a temple trustee in Hyderabad (where the Naidu family lived) who helped her “locate Padmaja Naidu’s forgotten papers and photographs gathered in a cloth bundle and locked up in a dusty cupboard inside a dharmashala in a sabji mandi.”

The bundles contained not only letters about the Jinnah couple written by the members of the Naidu family to each other, but also several letters written by Ruttie to Sarojini Padmaja and Leilamani. She was very close to the Naidu family who, in later years, appear to be her only source of emotional support.  Sarojini Naidu also knew and greatly admired Jinnah; so, in some of her letters to her daughters, she does have some observations on what could have been his thoughts and motivations for some of his personal as well as political decisions.

What the author has done remarkably well is interpreting the content of the letters bringing to life the solitary, misunderstood Jinnah and the lonely, wistful Ruttie, weaving deftly the social and political ethos and issues of the times without losing focus on the main narrative. It would have been so easy to stray into a description, or even analysis, of the tumultuous events, the ferment of ideologies and ideas, and the number of important and interesting people that criss-crossed the lives of this star-crossed couple.

However, it is not just access to the resources that makes her book unputdownable; it is the author’s intensive and meticulous research, reflected in the nearly 50 pages of notes (of the 421-page book) that are as interesting and engaging as the story of the ‘marriage that shook India’. However, as a researcher and social historian, I would have preferred the citations and references as endnotes with cross-references in the main text. But perhaps because of her long experience as a journalist, the author did not want to ‘clutter’ the narrative with reference numbers. I also missed an index.

Since I have reviewed the book for Moneylife,  I will not go into the subject matter of the book. Here, I will share some of my views as a social historian and biographer on the use of archived letters. 

With such a treasure trove of resources, I wonder why the author/publisher did not use the letters as images. These would have not only added to the design dimension of the book but perhaps brought the characters to life more effectively. As an example, reproduced below is the last letter that Ruttie wrote to Jinnah. It is as poignant a missive as a heartbroken 28-year-old could have written in the second decade of the past century. She wrote it on 5 October 1928, on board SS Rajputana on which she travelled to India after she had been nursed back to life in Paris by Jinnah. Yet, they decided that they would go their separate ways. 

She writes, “When one has been as near to reality – (which after all is death) as I have been dearest, one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments and all the rest becomes a half veiled mist of unrealities. Try and remember me beloved as the flower you picked and not the flower you tread (sic) upon. I have suffered much because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to (sic) the measure of my love... had I loved you a little less, I might have remained with you. Only after one has created a very beautiful blossom, one does not drag it through the mire. The higher you set your ideal, the lower it falls... I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved. I only beseech you that our tragedy which began with love should also end with it. Darling, good night and goodbye.
PS. I had written to you from Paris with the intent of posting the letter here but felt that I’d rather write to you afresh from the fullness of my heart. R.”

Sheela has quoted the letter as text. Notice the difference when you see it as an image in her handwriting – the tenderness that it oozes.


There is no shortage of drama to the story of this May & December marriage, especially when the protagonists are MA Jinnah and Ruttie Petit. Twenty-four years older to her and a friend of her father, Jinnah was a leading Muslim barrister in Bombay and, by then, already a powerful politician. The only daughter of Sir Petit, Ruttie was a girl of 16 when they fell in love, so pretty, vivacious and fashionable that she was known as the ‘flower of Bombay’.

Sheela gives a glimpse of how the politics of the times as well as his personal life gradually transformed Jinnah from being a liberal Muslim (and a ham-eating, cigar smoking, alcohol-drinking to boot, one who sent his sister to a missionary school, where she was the first Muslim girl to be admitted), to a more staunch and conservative one.

Perhaps the romance, and the marriage, was doomed because of the huge age difference between them. She was so vivacious, full of energy to explore and live life to the fullest and he was so seriously involved in the politics of the times. She truly wanted to be by his side and participate to the fullest in his political journey– something that was not viewed kindly by the Muslim community that gradually became Jinnah’s main constituency as the Home Rule Movement and then the Indian National Congress changed gears after Gandhi’s emergence on the Indian political scene. Unused to playing second fiddle, Jinnah became more and more involved in strategising with the Muslims, to the exclusion of Ruttie. So in this triangular love story, she lost out to her competitor – politics and Jinnah’s overarching ambition. Sheela says that Jinnah “drove her mad with his inhuman lack of all emotion, or so it seemed, and his punctilious sense of duty, as if she was no more to him than a duty he must discharge... (she got) the sinking feeling that she was being erased as an individual” (p282). Within a few years, their meteor of love had extinguished itself.

Ruttie died on 20 February 1929, her 29th birthday, alone in a house where she stayed after moving out from the Jinnah residence, consuming an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving her daughter, Dina, and her inconsolable husband, who never married again.

Sheela ends her book with a sentence that makes one’s heart go out to Jinnah, since she has so poignantly narrated the story of his failed love. She says: “The effects of what he had done only sunk in later. Jinnah wept when he saw the refugees in the country he had just created almost single-handedly. But the tears were less for the refugees that for what he had just done – destroyed yet again that which he loved the most.”

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