Truer than facts

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Jinnah House, the palatial former home of Jinnah in Mumbai, which lies neglected now. Photo: Savita Kirloskar/Reuters

Kiran Doshi takes an important period of modern India’s history and fictionalises it to make it more intelligible and plausible.

IT has been said, and rightly so, that anyone who wants to know about Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign should read Tolstoy’s War and Peace rather than the numerous history books on the subject. The same can be said about Kiran Doshi’s book, which tells us more about Jinnah than many scholarly treatises do. The first chapter deals with what happened in 1903-04 and the last, the 35th, takes us to 1948. The author aptly quotes Francis Bacon in his acknowledgement: “Truth is hard to sell; it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” Our author has added fiction to truth only to make it more intelligible. What strikes the reader is Kiran Doshi’s uncanny ability to recreate the past in an exceptionally vivid manner. Sultan Kowaishi, one of the main characters, is introducing Jinnah and himself to the reader:

“Jinnah came from a family of recent converts to Islam, that too from the caste of Bhatia in some backwaters in Gujarat. The Kowaishis were converted centuries back, and before that, they had been Brahmin, the highest of the high. Of course, they rarely spoke of their Brahmin ancestry, for they disapproved of the caste system of Hindus, which divided human beings between highborn and lowborn. Why, perhaps, they had never been Hindu at all. According to Bari Phuppi, Sultan’s father’s aunt, their ancestors were pure Arabs, quite possibly of the Quresh clan, the clan of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). The blood that flowed in their veins could well be that of the Prophet (PBUH) himself! Their fair skin was living proof of that.”

Sultan remembers that once, when he went to the bathroom marked “Europeans only” at the Great Western Hotel, he was not stopped, whereas he had heard that the Pathan guard “rapped Jinnah rudely on the shoulder when he was only half done, and ordered him to get out of the loo”. Jinnah asked the man in his usual haughty voice if he knew who he was—a barrister. The Pathan squinted his eyes and cried: ‘ Abey barrister ki maa ki...Get out!’” Thus, the reader learns on page 1 itself that it is not enough to know English to get the full flavour of the book.

The quality of a novel depends on the ability of the author to create characters that remain with the reader long after she has finished reading the book. Sultan and his wife Rehana will remain with the reader for a long time. Sultan, studying in London for law, meets Miss Beatrice Bullocks and falls for her; gets married after she tells him that she is pregnant; within two months of the marriage, he wants to break up with her after being told that she had fooled him about the pregnancy; he goes to a law firm by name Messrs Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener and Swann and is fleeced. The reader will laugh no end looking at the names of the law firm and the girl.

Sultan returns to India, and his mother tries to arrange a match for him in the traditional way. He rebels and insists on seeing the girl at least once. His mother takes him in a victoria and he catches a glimpse of the “long-necked” Rehana as she steps out of the tram in front of Elphinstone College. Sultan falls for Rehana. He asks his mother how old she is and she lies that the girl is 16. Rehana is 18, well past the marriageable age, but she looked younger. When the proposal is put to Professor Habibullah, Rehana’s father, through a broker and he asks her, to his utter surprise and shock, she wants to see the boy first. Finally, they meet at the Taj Hotel. Having read about the annulment of his marriage with Miss Bullocks in the London Times, Rehana asks him about it and he gives her a satisfactory reply. In answer to his question whether she will marry him, she replies: “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” We are in 1904. Kiran Doshi is a magician in creating drama and his characters are witty. Rehana takes her husband to meet her father. The conversation is about the British. Sultan is a firm believer in the immortality of the British Empire. Habibullah states categorically that the British “will be there for a thousand years”. Rehana too is inclined to be pro-British, but all that starts to change after she reads Dadabhai Naoroji’s book Poverty and UnBritish Rule in India. The book was sent to her by Dhondav, a relation of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Dhondav, a fearless freedom fighter, emerges as a major character.

Let us follow Jinnah’s political journey in the novel over the years, along with other developments. In 1905 when the Congress splits into Moderates and Extremists, Jinnah tries to mediate and bring the two sides together. In 1907, when Lord Mayo encourages the creation of the Muslim League, Jinnah opposes it. Talking to Rehana, Jinnah says: “‘To be sure, it’s the doing of Principal Archbold of Aligarh College, who has done so much to poison young Mussalmaan minds against Hindus. I wouldn’t be surprised if the guest list for Lord Mayo’s meeting was also prepared by him. Every one of the invitees is a reactionary, and the leader of the gang is the number one reactionary Mussalmaan of them all—the Agha Khan, or, to give his full title, His Highness Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Prince Aga Khan the Third,’ Jinnah sneered. ‘Prince of what I ask you?’”

The above account of the formation of the Muslim League is historically true. The Congress closed its ranks when it held its annual meeting in Calcutta, presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, whose presidential address was drafted by Jinnah. Several nationalist Muslims, including Jinnah, held a separate meeting and condemned the approach of the League and opposed the demand for separate electorates.

Changing views

Jinnah was an invitee to the 1911 Durbar in Delhi when the division of Bengal was reversed. Rehana and Sultan go to Bombay’s Excelsior Theatre for a special screening of a film on the Durbar. People sing with fervour “God Save the King” at the end of the film. Rehana’s political views are changing. She had started a school called Ekta and she decides to stop referring to the King in the morning assembly and instead sing:

We the girls of Ekta are

United, united, united by far

Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsee

Aarti, Azma, Amy, Aarsi...

In 1913, Jinnah joins the Muslim League with the intention of working for the progress of Indian Muslims and bringing the Congress and the League together. By 1918, Jinnah becomes President of the Muslim League, a prominent leader of the Congress and member of the Imperial Council. As Jinnah remains a bachelor, some ladies take it upon themselves to get him married. Asked by Mrs. Pestonji why he is not married, Jinnah replies that all the women he likes were married already. Mrs. Pestonji tells him that she knows a girl “as lovely as a Renoir”. Jinnah does not understand the reference to Renoir. Mrs. Pestonji adds that the girl is a Parsee and dares Jinnah to marry outside his religion. The girl’s father, Sir Dinshaw Petit, is Jinnah’s client. Without any intention of introducing his daughter Ruttie to Jinnah, Dinshaw invites Jinnah to spend a few days with him in Simla; Jinnah meets Ruttie and the two fall in love almost at first sight. Dinshaw opposes tooth and nail, but nothing stands in the way of true love. Ruttie and Rehana become close friends.

A lot of Gandhi

Despite the title of the book, there is a lot of Gandhi in it. When Gandhi returns to Bombay from South Africa, Rehana and Sultan meet him at a reception given by Lalubhai Sheth. Rehana had written to Gandhi in South Africa and he remembers their correspondence. Rehana sees Kasturba and notes that her eyes were the “saddest” she had seen in a long while.

When the Jallianwallahbagh massacre occurs in April 1919, Jinnah tells Rehana that he did not believe that the British would shoot down people in cold blood. The reader will notice that Gandhi and Jinnah differed here. But, the first meeting between the two is in London in 1914, when Jinnah wants to press the British for political concessions as they need India’s support in the war, but Gandhi does not want to exploit the difficult situation that Britain is in. Jinnah is convinced that Gandhi is innocent of political realities.

Sultan keeps in touch with a British police officer called Griffiths, who gives him the British point of view. Griffiths tells Sultan that Gandhi was interested only in stirring “disaffection” against the British. Every time the government takes action against “miscreants” like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, and the Ali brothers, Gandhi “jumps up like Jack in the Box and starts making speeches against the government”.

Rehana meets Gandhi in 1920 and asks questions that young readers of the book would have asked him.

The first question: For years the Congress had followed the constitutional path; why did he want to abandon it? Gandhi’s answer is a counter question: What has Congress achieved in 35 years by following the constitutional path? The second question: Is it right to mix politics with religion? Gandhi’s answer: “Absolutely; it is wrong not to do so. Politics should always be embedded in spirituality. By spirituality I don’t mean the horrors that pass for religion in our country, nor what holy men claim their holy books say, for holy men are often wrong, but what essence of every religion is.” The next question: “Why are you supporting Khilafat?” Gandhi answers that it would be wrong for the British to hurt the feelings of the millions of Mussalmaans in India. The last question: Why was Gandhi so keen on involving the masses in the struggle for swaraj? Many people in the Congress thought it was dangerous. Gandhi’s answer: The British are not just greedy, they are also very intelligent. They know that they don’t have to listen to us, however brilliant our arguments are, so long as we are just a bunch of lawyers speaking for ourselves. We need the power of the masses behind us if we want the British to take us seriously. And we must have faith in the masses.

Jinnah’s estrangement

Rehana attends the Nagpur session of the Congress, which is dominated by Gandhi, and she sees Jinnah being heckled for differing with Gandhi. Jinnah looks at Rehana, sitting in the front row, with a look of such intensity that she had seen earlier elsewhere but is not able to remember; soon, she recalls that she had seen it in the eyes of Julius Caesar on the stage at Stratford-on-Avon, when he cried “Et tu, Brute?” and fell. Jinnah walks out from the stage and that very day he resigns from the Congress. Gandhi emerges as the supreme leader of the Congress. The journey to Pakistan begins.

Griffiths, annoyed with Rehana’s political activism, plays a dirty trick on Sultan. While in England, Sultan had gone to see a doctor. Griffiths produces a fake diagnosis from that doctor saying that Sultan was sterile. Sultan convinces himself instantaneously that Rehana had been meeting other men who must have fathered their two children, Mariam and Feroze. He throws Rehana and the children out of the house. This happens in 1923. Rehana goes back to her father’s house. Sultan marries Gul, and when she tells him that she is pregnant, Sultan is once again convinced that she has cheated on him and he divorces her. Sultan meets the doctor on his next trip to England and discovers that Griffiths had committed forgery.

Kiran Doshi takes more than 380 pages for the 34 years from 1903 to 1937. Thereafter, the pace of narration quickens and he takes only 105 pages for the 11 years from 1937 to 1948. But, he does not leave out anything important—the charade of the Cabinet Mission, the Quit India movement, Jinnah’s incitement to violence with call for Direct Action, the trauma of Partition, the invasion of Kashmir, Gandhi’s assassination, and finally Jinnah’s death. On a hot September day in 1948, as Rehana and her granddaughter Mira sit for dinner, The Evening News announces that Jinnah had breathed his last “in a stalled ambulance on a desert road with nobody by his side except his sister Fatima, struggling to keep flies away from his face with a folded newspaper”. “Dadi, did you know this man Jinnah?” Mira asks Rehana. “Yes, darling,” Rehana says. “A long time back, he often came to our home.”

Kiran Doshi has dedicated this book to his mother-in-law, Umrao Baig (1915-1981) who founded the Lokmanya Tilak Hospital in Mumbai. In the novel, Sultan’s sister Hina establishes the hospital. Kiran Doshi has covered a period in India’s history in which his and his wife’s parents were intensely involved and he has made the best possible use of what he learnt from their recollections. His use of Bacon’s formula is singularly brilliant.

This book could be put on the reading list of our universities. The reading public will be pleasantly surprised to see an unbiased rendering of history at a time the cottage industry to rewrite history, with its own axe to grind, is thriving.

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