W hat is the place of (yet) another novel on India’s
independence movement? This episode in history has been recounted from
most angles. Paul Scot’s The Raj Quartet gave the British view, Khuswant
Singh’s Train to Pakistan depicted the horrors of the migration, Chaman Nihal’s
Azadi was a touching account of a Hindu family, and Balraj Sahni’s powerful
film Garam Hawa that of a Muslim one. There have been numerous other works both
in print and on the screen. However, I haven’t come across one that covers, as
say Gone With The Wind did the American Civil War, the whole story.
Perhaps it should be said right at the beginning of this review that in Jinnah Often Came To Our House, it is literally the case that Jinnah pops in and out of a story built around a high class Muslim family, rather than the story unfolding around him. The strength and weakness of the book lies not in this leader’s progress towards carving Pakistan out of British India but in the fact that it weaves itself around the lives of historical characters of the independence movement right from 1903-04 to the folding up of the Union Jack in 1947.
The entire cast, from Dadabhai Naoroji to the post-Tilak younger leadership of Nehru and Patel, features in the narrative. The protagonists are two Muslim barristers, Sultan (later Sir Sultan) Kowaishi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and their wives, Rehana and Rattanbai (Ratti). The former is the college-going, teenage daughter of a Muslim professor who works in a non-academic position in Bombay University. The latter is the daughter of a Parsi entrepreneurial family’s scion, Sir Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, 2nd Baronet (1873–1933). Predictably, it covers Jinnah’s career, in law from his days in London and in politics from his membership of the Congress Party in 1906 to his entry into the Muslim League 1912 and the eventual Partition of India and formation of Pakistan.
The story is set in a Bombay that people of my age can recall; today, the landmarks left by the British who founded the city are gone. One wonders whether present-day Mumbai that has removed so many reminders that it was the leading commercial centre in the colonial days is better than the Bombay of yesteryear. The reminiscences that the description of the city, its buildings and statues, British-named roads and maidans evoke are legion. They are a mark of the author’s love for times past and a reflection of the writing’s power to stir the reader’s emotions while ruing the wholesale sack of history.
Although little is said about the city’s founder, Sir Bartle Frere (first governor of the presidency appointed by the crown from 1862-1867), his vision for it as one of the world’s great showpieces comes through. The Gothic buildings, like the courts and university he decreed to ornament the Esplanade that was then the seafront, are the scene of action. For Sir Bartle, architecture and sculpture went together. As if in acknowledgement of this dictum, the backdrop of an early scene is Kala Ghoda, the main crossing in South Bombay, in which stood the huge, powerful black stone equestrian effigy of Edward, then Prince of Wales and later King Emperor of India. The statue has now found its way to Byculla Park, the repository (or mortuary) of uprooted British memorials in this city, some standing in the open, and others in the Bhau Daji Lal Museum. A car park now blights the site.
The fate of zamindars and other wealthy natives enamoured of
the culture, ways and power of the colonial masters offers scope for a masala
plot. Having missed the boat themselves, their hope is that their yearning to
belong will be realised by their progeny who are sent to the home country in
the hope that they will assimilate with the white sahib’s tribe and on their
return join the rulers. In pursuit thereof Sultan Kowaishi finds himself in
Cambridge (where he acquires an Oxford accent, there being no such thing as a
Cambridge accent that the author plants on him) and then onwards in the legal
profession via the Middle Temple in London. But this rich philanderer is
promptly entrapped by a waitress, allowing for the mandatory racial
insult. A certain Miss Beatrice Bullocks (how suggestively disparaging can a
name get?) catches his fancy because she says she was from nobility but forced
to work because she had fallen upon hard times. Having drawn him to bed and
sympathy, it is hardly surprising that she soon leads him to the altar by
announcing that she is with child.
Surely, a Muslim youth, knowledgeable about the ways of the zenana in Hyderabad, would scarcely feel honour-bound to tie the knot because of an inconvenience that a few valuable trinkets would have set aside? The adoption of the Victorian code of ethics of the English gentry is a reflection of the native’s desire to look good in the colonial master’s eyes. Unsurprisingly, the marriage breaks down in two months. It ends with the exchange in which he says to Beatrice: “Please don’t leave your clothes on the floor,” and she replies “And if I do?” removing her second glove in three tugs and tossing it over her shoulder .
“You’re not pregnant!” he cries.
“Co-rect,” she says, and goes on to meet his outburst “You tricked me! I doubt very much if you’re from a noble family at all”, with the tart riposte, “I may or may not be from a noble family, ducky, but I am not a bloody coolie.”
Walking out of his Mayfair flat, he has a feeling that it was not a marriage that could be ended with a simple talaq, a view that is corroborated by the solicitors he consults.
It costs his father two properties in Bombay and more. While this encounter could have set him to hate the British, it doesn’t.
The rescue is complete when he passes his last paper (criminal law) in London and sails home first class (presumably posh–port out starboard home) and is invited to the captain’s table during the voyage.
The book follows formula for a while. Back in Bombay, his
marriage to a suitable oriental girl is fixed, as balm to his hurt feelings and
to further his famous family and ensure the rightful inheritance of its wealth.
This takes us into the depths of Muslim society as it was in the first decade
of the 20th century. The exposure of its girls to western education, the
sinking in of the mores of western customs from romantic Jane Austen novels and
acceptance of this transformation by elders, shows the dawn of an era that was
new even for Hindu women, let alone the more conformist Muslim society.
For instance, Sultan insists he will not marry a girl he has not seen. Though this is a disruption of business-as-usual, the problem is solved by his mother taking him for an early morning ride and asking the coachman to stop just beyond Watson’s Hotel. A horse tram approaching from the direction of Colaba breaks the suspense.
“Watch that tram, Beta,” his mother whispered “She will come out from the front door. But please keep quiet.”
“Out of a…,” he can’t complete the exclamation as his mother says: “Sh!”
A few passengers, two of them carrying books in their hands, step down from the tram. “The one behind,” his mother whispers, “The one in pink.”
A glimpse is enough. She is all Sultan ever wanted—pony-tailed, long-necked (and tapering shouldered, one presumes) and tall. It is love at first sight, though when his mother asks for his opinion he replies: “She’s okay, I guess.”
Thereafter he pursues the arrangement and makes it happen.
The author uses this introduction to reveal Muslim society emerging from the purdah and the burkha into the world of English and a culture imported from the West, in cities at least. We don’t know that is as it really was, but are supposed to take his version for granted. The romantic plot builds up with Rehana going one better and asking her father: “And why does he want to marry me?”
“Is that a question to ask?” he laughed. “He wants to marry you because you are educated, beautiful and very, very lovable.”
Rehana then insists on meeting Sultan Kowaishi before agreeing to the marriage. She then presses her shocked father into conveying her request to Sultan’s family.
The dawn of the emancipation of Muslim women glows in this exchange. The reader must fall back on his own perception to judge its likelihood a century ago.
I certainly know some “convent-educated” women in their seventies of whom this could be true, but I cannot say that with any confidence of their mothers.
The life that follows the nikah is heart-warming as two people unknown to each other turn an arranged marriage into a romantic, caring and understanding relationship. The point is whether this kind of gender parity is plausible. There is initially a childless period that causes Sultan to consult a Harley Street specialist about his infertility. But soon after, they’re blessed with a girl and a boy.
Rehana so charms her family by marriage that she not only runs it but is declared the beneficiary of a trust set up by Bari Phupi, her father-in-law’s sister, for the education of Muslim girls. However she soon sees the limitations of a madrasa-type school and starts afresh. Naming it Ekta she widens its ambit to take in children of all religions. This is a time when the British make one more move to widen the Hindu-Muslim divide by establishing separate seats and electorates in the 1909 Act that stipulated that only Muslims should vote for candidates in Muslim seats. This is the first seed in the truncation of British India four decades later.
But Rehana, now a supporter of the Congress and a follower of Gandhi, stands firm and runs her show with greater determination to foster ways that hold the two communities together. Sultan is, of course, of the firm belief that British Raj is a boon and best left to rule Indians for a thousand years.
The novel also takes in the lives of the lower strata (in
this case Jinnah) whose families send their sons to read law in London not so
much in the hope of assimilation but of seeing them flourish in the
professions. That Jinnah turns out to be a fop is due to something innate in
him rather than in the vision of his Gujarati Ismaili Khoja family.
The masala in Jinnah’s case is mixed differently. Whereas Sultan Kowaishi passes so much as a white that the Pathan guard outside the “Europeans only” loo in the Great Western Hotel not only salutes him when he comes out but also rubs his shoes, Jinnah is tapped on his shoulder when he tries to use the same facility and forced to button up. When he haughtily asks the guard whether he knows he is dealing with a barrister, the Pathan replies with, “Abey barrister ki maa ki…Get out!”
Whether this has anything to do with his long bachelorhood (during which his sister Fatima rules and runs his high-class establishment on Malabar Hill) is anybody’s guess. But so uncontrollable is his passion for Rehana that he plants a kiss on her in public in broad daylight when her chauffeur’s back is turned on them. While it is for the reader to decide whether such indiscretion was even a possibility in the first quarter of the last century, it does add a human touch to an otherwise stiff countenance, which does not abate even in the account of his marriage to the 18- year-old Ratti against her father’s wishes. But his grief at the loss of his only child, a daughter, leads us to treat him with sympathy as a human being, no matter how we differ with his politics.
Three weeks after reading the book and putting it away, I
tried to recall the crescendo of the novel’s largely placid plot. For me it
came when Sultan is sent a sealed envelope by an Englishman, the
assistant public prosecutor, that has an undated opinion from the Harley Street
doctor he consulted considerably earlier. It ends with the line “What the above
means is that you cannot produce children…”
Though puzzled for a moment, he jumps to the conclusion that his wife has been unfaithful and someone else has fathered the children. Going into an uncontrollable fit as expected from a cuckold—shades of Othello—for a while he even struggles with the thought that the lover could be the self-proclaimed celibate Gandhi whom Rehana goes to see whenever he visits Bombay!
Sir Sultan is of the same stature among Bombay’s leading criminal lawyers as Jinnah—a stature he has won with his acumen at the forensic examination of evidence. Why, then, does he not stop to question the authenticity of an undated letter delivered care of the public prosecutor? It seems the author feels the need to inject a mid-story crisis in a tale that is flowing perhaps too smoothly.
When it is pointed out that his children also carry a birthmark that he has, he settles on his own father as the adulterer. Such a summation would only give one section of readers needed corroboration of their perception of licentious goings on behind the zenana. Others would reject it as unacceptable. Rehana and the now repudiated children are summarily thrown out of the Kowaishi mansion and thereby hangs the next part of the tale of independence as it unfolds for the now separated couple.
In the larger story—in which the patriotism of the Maratha is depicted by the sacrifices of one idealistic Dhondav whose son goes rogue—what one misses is the far more frequent thwack of the lathi-charge on India’s streets. Sadly, the numerous, micro anti-British street agitations do not come across as they would in the portrayal as a narrative of a peoples’ movement. I have childhood memories of the headiness chants such as “Inquilab zindabad, Bitish raj murdabad, toady bachcha hai, hai” induced, the arrival of police with lathis and the sounds of a charge to disperse a mob.
It is too late when Sultan discovers that the medical opinion was forged and planted by this Englishman in revenge for the loss of a well-publicised case in which he was counsel for the defendant. (Perhaps this is Doshi’s way of showing that the superior race was just as deceitful as the native Macaulay reviled in his famous opinion that “just as the claw is to the tiger…deceit is to the Bengali.”) And thus the story tapers off with the end of a single India and the end of the hapless knight.
To those, especially women’s libbers who look for God’s justice, Sir Sultan probably get his just deserts—but to my mind as a gin-slinging (at the Taj and other high class bars) simpleton rather than a man who causes unprincipled Muslim male-chauvinist damage to a very likeable and innocent woman.
With “moth-eaten” Pakistan in his pocket, Jinnah on the other hand seems to hold himself together despite the loss of his wife and daughter.
This is what wins its place on the shelf of Independence novels.
May I say Amen or do I say Ammin? As one walks in a park on a monsoon sunset on verdant grass,
shimmering trees and drenched and drooping zinnias at the end
of the long story of Jinnah one is struck by one thought. Taken from a
start with Tilak’s first incarceration in 1897 and its end in 1947, it
encompasses the Independence movement, the Russo-Japanese war, First World War,
the Russian Revolution, the Third Afghan war, formation of the Chinese
Communist Party and the Chinese civil war and the Second World War which ended
with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. India sent millions of soldiers to the two world
wars—and yet there was no bloodshed on the subcontinent’s soil except in the
extreme east around Kohima.
In the novel the only major human upheaval is the split in the Kowaishi family ending only in a murder in 1947. Other than that there is civil disobedience and Gandhi’s detention in the Aga Khan’s Palace (!) but no grand clash of arms—except the formation of the ineffectual Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose. An enemy bombed no one out of his home, no men were slaughtered in the streets, no children were orphaned, no women were taken as sex slaves, i.e., we saw none of the mayhem of modern, industrial warfare.
The Jallianwala carnage was a split second, a tiny sanguinary dot from which the flow of blood added only imperceptibly to the mass exterminations in Europe and the Far East. On the whole, people went about their work, married, children grew up: while the belligerents lost an estimated 100 million people, India’s population increased and England ran up a huge war debt.
The calm was only disturbed by huge but peaceful waves of protest against the backdrop of cataclysmic international bloodletting. This calm comes through well enough in the family saga to make one wonder about the strangeness of India’s struggle against its colonial masters who conquered the subcontinent with cannon and grapeshot and thereafter defeated the Kaiser, Hitler and Tojo. They left India peacefully, perhaps because while they knew how to overcome the force of arms with “blood, sweat and tears” they were more than perplexed by the convulsions of ahimsa.
It is ironic that the massacres of the riots came after the British gave up power.
Jinnah Often Came To Our House
Tranquebar, 490 pages, Rs. 695