A conversation with Dr. Saad S. Khan, the author of ‘Ruttie Jinnah: The Woman who Stood Defiant’

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By Pooja Pande

What do we mean when we think of history as the truth? As non-fiction? Could it be that the more accurate, truthful even, way of looking at history is that it is the oldest kind of narrative non-fiction? That it is, in effect, a story.

Dr. Saad S. Khan, who authored the book, titled Ruttie Jinnah: The Woman who Stood Defiant (Penguin Randomhouse India, 2020), with Sara S. Khan, a rare and intensive biography of a woman almost erased from history, words it poetically, breaking down History, which we tend to think of with a capital H, as a compendium of “historical stories” instead. They are not The Truth, which we tend to think of with a capital T; rather, they are “weaved around assumed truths, half-truths, convenient truths, made up truths, elements mixed up with truth, and finally, around narrations that one would like to have been the truth.”

It is this astute understanding as a biographer mingled with the dedication of a truth-seeker and the mindful patience of a through researcher that saw Dr. Khan plod along on an almost 12-year journey in his quest to piece together the life and times of one of the most fascinating women that ever lived in all of South Asian, and even world history.

In this author interview, we delve into the making of this brilliant book, its enthralling narratives, and surprising finds. As we picture Ruttie and the era she lived in, we are also reminded, as readers, that history is not only what we make of it, but how we decide to move ahead – as peoples, as citizens of nations, as political beings. Or as Dr. Khan puts it, citing a beautiful Chinese saying: “If the best time of planting a tree was a thousand years ago, the next best is now.”

An excerpt from Pooja Pande’s conversation with author, Dr. Saad S. Khan:

POOJA PANDE (PP): How did you settle on the word ‘defiant’ as the descriptor for Ruttie, for the subtitle of the book?

SAAD S. KHAN (SK): A lot of brainstorming has gone into the cover and title of the book, including its wording, the title picture, and the cover colour theme. Since Mrs. Jinnah is a less-studied figure, just naming the book “Ruttie Jinnah” would not have necessarily drawn the attention of potential readers and buyers. So, what she stood for, had to be mentioned. Many suggested subtitles such as “An unsung heroine of freedom struggle” and “The Woman who refused to be a slave” (based on an editorial about her from Bombay Chronicle of late 1910s), which were considered and dropped for one reason or the other. Ultimately, the existing title was based on the visualisation of her defiant stand against the colonial Police in the anti-Lord Willingdon protests of 11 December, 1918, when she refused to disperse even in the face of use of force. It was a defiance of the colonial government that the police symbolized. As her biographer, one would see her persona as a modern version of the Joan of Arc, who could defy the community, defy the conservative social values of her time, defy the patriarchy of the age, and show defiance against whatever she disagreed with.

PP: Were you always mindful of any potential traps you could fall into, in the process of piecing together and recreating the narrative of a life that most are largely unfamiliar with? Did your own personal politics come into play, and was it a challenge keeping them at bay, in the attempt to be impartial/unbiased?

SK: Biographies are usually written of persons whom people must know, whom people would like to know, or whom the people already know—but want to know more about—because they are, or had been, heroes or villains. When one is trying to write about a hero, or a heroine, the greatest pitfall is that the biography tends to become a hagiography. In the present work, without denying her the rightful place in history, one had to make sure that the subject personality does not end up being glorified to unjustifiable levels.

That said, let me add that as I delved more and more into the life of Mrs. Jinnah, I could not avoid the conclusion that she was a remarkable figure with a larger-than-life stature. That did not mean that she had no flaws which had to be mentioned too.

Although the historian is not supposed to be trying to fit his subject personality into his/her own pre-fabricated (ideological) mould, I do not think there is anything that can be called “total objectivity”, especially so when objectivity itself is relative. Without claiming that Mrs. Jinnah’s story is totally divorced from the political understanding of the storyteller (i.e., the biographers), viewing a life from all, or most, available perspectives would be a feat in scholarship. It is for the readers to ascertain whether the feat has been accomplished or not.

PP: Could you tell us about the research process and was it easier than the actual piecing together/writing of the story? Is there any material that you did not end up using? When did you know that there was enough for a book?

SK: Researching the life of a person, on whom so little has been written about, is a challenging work. Many of the books on Jinnah and the freedom movement mentioned her in passing, sometimes in a single sentence, or a paragraph, or at best in a page or two. But the very fact, that scores of accounts did mention her speaks of her centrality in Jinnah’s life during their married life and beyond. So, working on Mrs. Jinnah was akin to the practice of pearl-diving in the Persian Gulf. For centuries, this used to be a dominant profession for villagers on the coasts of what are now the United Arab Emirates. The diver would dive a couple of hundred times a year, and find a pearl only once, but that would suffice to sustain him for the whole year. Likewise, for this book, one would study scores of books on freedom movement in search of a mention of Mrs. Jinnah, finding a passing mention of hers after a lot of reading. But that would be so precious in plugging a specific gap about her life, that all effort would be worth it.

Originally, the project to write book was for two years, starting 2008. Then it became four, then six, and eight, and seemed to be never ending. Hence, a cut-off date had to be determined, and we decided that date to be 19 April, 2018, the centenary of her marriage to Jinnah. The book missed that deadline by a whopping three years and I still do not think I have found everything about her that I wanted to know. Here, I would acknowledge the support of my better half, Sara Khan, who helped me in interviews and in making and arranging notes from the published and oral sources on Mrs Jinnah.

Piecing together the story was not easy either. The absolute hostility of her direct descendants in sharing any information about her, was a big handicap. Add to it the visa and mobility restrictions between India and Pakistan. This meant, that where I would have loved to work in a library or archives in India for one week, I had to content myself to a single day. So yes, some material needed to be forgone. But a time did arrive where one knew that in the present constraints, more material might not be readily available, beyond that already used.

PP: One of the impulses of the book seems to be setting the record straight, that history has done the Jinnah’s and especially Ruttie great disservice. Would you agree? And could you share what other impulses informed the origins of the book?

SK: Yes, I agree. So, the first and foremost consideration for the present work was to bury, once and for all, the many myths around Mrs. Jinnah’s birth, marriage, and death, that were repeatedly used as whipping sticks against the Muslim League by anti-League and anti-Jinnah political forces in united India during the 1930s and 1940s. Although, Jinnah’s political standing amongst the Muslims could not be significantly dented by the periodic triennial campaigns of slander—Jinnah got all 30 seats reserved for Muslims in the central legislature and 446 out of 492 Muslim seats in all provincial assemblies combined in 1945-46 elections (what more could he get)—but the facts around his marital life were tampered for good. The same incorrect information about Ruttie that once adorned tabloid press seven to ten decades ago, is believed as gospel truth even by Jinnah’s most ardent supporters today. Jinnah was never averse to being written about but was sick of unverified information abounding about his wife and family life. Apropos, correcting historical narrative was one major aim.

Secondly, I wanted to show the positive and progressive side of the South Asian society, personified by Mrs. Jinnah as our primary example. In the century following her death, the social trajectory, not only in India and Pakistan, but also in all smaller actors in South Asian region, appears retrogressive to some extent. The religious bigotry, patriarchal norms, professional ethics, societal harmony between faiths and castes, seem to have moved one step forward, two steps backwards. No single state in our region can claim the tolerance levels and gender parity that is a new normal for many States in the developed world. It is here that study of persons, as progressive and forward-looking as Mrs. Jinnah, may serve as a discursive tonic.

And finally, in the present polarization of attitudes towards Jinnah and Gandhi on either side of the Radcliffe Line, few realize that both men were nationalist freedom fighters, equally peace loving (though techniques and modus operandi were diametrically different), and respectful of each other. We introduced Mrs. Jinnah as a personality who could be celebrated and admired equally on either side of the ideological or geographical divide.

PP: As a follow-up to the above question, I’m keen to know your views on the power dynamics inherent in the writing of history. How we read about, in fact study, the stories we do, spending a good chunk of our lives believing it to be the only history and hence, truth, and how that can be problematic?

SK: I could not agree more with you. Historiography is essentially a political process. A historian does not operate in an intellectual, political, or power vacuum. If a historian ends up coming out with a slightly distinct historical narrative, within the dominant narrative of his spatial and temporal existence, it can be a significant contribution to knowledge. With power in the hands of right-wing governments, both in New Delhi and Islamabad, it would be fanciful to assume that one would be able to publish a book in India that is all praise for Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s political acumen, or do that in Pakistan defending, explaining, or rationalizing the decisions of Mahatma Gandhi. For the foreseeable future, at least, that may not happen. In fact, in the din of criticism, many of the valid points may disappear in the haze.

While writing this book, I knew my red lines, what could cost me my life, what could cost my liberty or means of income, and finally, what may lead the book to be banned on this side or that of the border. Working on this book was always like walking on a tight rope between two hilltops, with a deep ditch beneath, like a Chinese acrobat. Each sentence had to be composed, then rephrased, then corrected, then altered again, and one was still not sure if the wording was strong enough to convey the underlying message and soft enough so as not be offensive to anyone in the power spectrum. Doing so was problematic. Yet, just like the rope-walker it was a thrill when being done and an achievement once done.

PP: Also, another connected question here! Your views on contemporary storytelling and the writing of history that’s happening in the online world – what are the equations between histories, stories, and truth, in this new age?

SK: Since time immemorial, historical narrations, religious dogmas, travel-writing, and storytelling have been intertwined. Truths and untruths get mixed up liberally in all four genres. One does not need to go beyond Marco Polo’s travelogues to see how the apparently-serious works copiously mix facts with fiction to increase readership and appeal. In the present age of information revolution, one would be lucky to spot four or five newspapers in a country as big as China, or as diverse as Indonesia, or as aged as Egypt, that could be characterized as doing objective reporting. Independence, from the control of the government and from fear of powerful interest groups of the society at large, is becoming rarer for print or electronic media. The online world, due to the possibility of anonymity and the extent of its accessibility, is a different ballgame. Since everyone owning a handset is a journalist-cum-historian-cum scholar in one, truths, untruths, and counter-truths cancel out each other.

History, perhaps more than novels, is told as a story. Glorifying the figures and events of the past that fit into one’s preferred political narrative, and denigrating or neglecting those parts which do not, have become the default template of post-modern scholarship. History of Russia, China and Iran taught in pre- and post-revolution in these countries, provide cases in point. From Tamerlane of Mongolia to King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, virtually every famous king is known to have taken refuge in a cave utterly dejected, when he saw a spider trying and trying again to make a web. Did Mr. Spider meet each one of these defeated kings to inspire them, or none at all? Spider’s story may be inspiring, yet it, after all, is just that—a story.

Ordinarily, being a fiction, a story, is necessarily an imagined or concocted account. The historical stories, supposed to be non-fiction, also get weaved around assumed truths, half-truths, convenient truths, made-up truths, elements mixed up with truth, and finally, around narrations that one would like to have been the truth.

PP: What parts were most difficult to write, and how?

SK: What would have been the easiest part for any other biography became the most difficult to write, in this work. While writing about Jinnah and Gandhi, for instance, the very basic information about the family, siblings, birth year, schooling, and initial professional choices, are the least disputed and easiest to answer. In case of Mrs. Jinnah, such fundamental data as her pedigree, the number of siblings, her schooling, etc. was missing (mostly) or contested.

Refusal by her direct descendants to share any information about her could have been tolerable (even if ethically contestable), but in this case, there seemed to be an absolute hostility on their part to this project. It would not have harmed them in any way, if only the name of the school where she did her Senior Cambridge from, for instance, was shared.

I have no hesitation in sharing my belief that concealment of such basic facts by family members who otherwise benefit from the material and reputational legacy of an illustrious ancestor, is not only immoral but also a criminal destruction of history and heritage. This needs to be criminalized in all states just like defacing the façade of Taj Mahal in Agra or demolition of shrines in Timbuktu or blasting Buddha statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan can be.

PP: Did you have to keep pulling yourself away from the details of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s life and persona, in order to ensure the focus remains on Ruttie? As a reader, I found this to be one of the book’s main achievements, both because of his larger-than-life persona and the fact that their lives were so intertwined, and I kept wondering if this was difficult to do, and how you managed it.

SK: Absolutely, yes. Probably if we are to be asked about three biggest challenges in piecing together the life of Mrs. Jinnah, the first one would be to stop it from becoming a biography of her husband; second would be the balancing act of conveying the truth in a politically and socially acceptable way, without risking the book being banned in one country or the other; and the third, of course, the din of conflicting information about her that would usually contradict each other and sifting the correct story.

Let me come back to the first point. We had to weave an independent story of Mrs. Jinnah first as an individual, then that as a politico-social activist and lastly, and only parenthetically, her supporting role in her husband’s political journey. All of this was a Herculean task. More so, without letting her husband’s life becoming the focus of the narration, without veiling unpleasant facets of the relationship including the couple’s unmet expectations from each other. How did we accomplish this? Well, it took twelve years to complete the book, with so many revisions again and again to stop it from becoming a eulogy for a particular figure, much less her husband’s, or a rant against another. It was supposed to be a biography of Ruttie Jinnah and it had to remain just that!

PP: What are your views on the gender imbalances prevalent in our world – and in our South Asian cultures & societies particularly – and how these too impacted the story of Ruttie Jinnah? Do you feel that with a fair amount of interrogations on and around patriarchy going on in recent times, it’s good timing to start conversations such as the one this book centres on – revisiting history and historical figures also?

SK: Talking of gender imbalances in the world, I think, it’s the whole of Asia, not just South Asia. The Arab nations in West Asia and relatively developed nations in East Asia, including China, Japan, and South Korea, suffer from varying degrees of misogyny to patriarchal mindsets. Asia has three fifths of the world’s population, yet it has been outdone by Europe, Oceania, North and Latin Americas in journey towards gender equality, mainly in the past three decades or so.

What was admirable about Mrs. Jinnah was her firm conviction, one shared by her illustrious husband too, of the absolute equality between genders. In this, like in many other respects, Mrs. Jinnah’s thinking was far ahead of her times. There is a Chinese saying that if the best time of planting a tree was a thousand years ago, the next best is now. So, there cannot be any one specific good time to talk about issues of human dignity. Patriarchy, as a negation of human equality, is a slight on human dignity. Mrs Jinnah’s life story is a trigger for thinking on the issues of male chauvinism and various gendered attitudes in South Asian societies. It may actually help generate conversations on a gender sensitive view of history and historical figures.

PP: What has the response to the book been like, in India and Pakistan so far? Do you feel Pakistan and India are finally ready to consider different versions of their histories, particularly on the freedom movement? Did you feel any reservations about the pertinent questioning around Gandhi that the book brings up?

SK: Let me respond to the second part first. Yes, I did feel reservations about some questions, especially since I hold Gandhi ji in very high esteem. I believe he laid down his life for the cause of peace. All I wanted to point out was that he was a human too. He too had metamorphosized from being a British loyalist to a freedom fighter, just like Jinnah went through his own transition from being a(n all-India) nationalist to a bi-nationalist (for his Two Nation Theory). Just like Jinnah could not be totally insulated from the story of Mrs. Jinnah, neither ironically enough, could Gandhi. And some of the historical aspects around Gandhi had to be highlighted in order to explain the thought process of Mrs. Jinnah along the way.

That said, I am a strong believer that South Asian nations, under the platform of SAARC or the South Asian University, or any other forum they agree upon, must embark upon a collective, unified, and agreed upon South Asian History Project. The school level textbooks at least on history and social studies should be common in India and Pakistan. If we deem ourselves to be civilized nations, one of the biggest failing of our region is that we teach our children bigotry and hatred. A book on freedom movement, taught both in Pakistan and India, equally respectful to the viewpoints of the Congress and the Muslim League about independence and partition, would go a long way in developing internally harmonious societies. That would then reflect in our social behaviour on a broad spectrum of situations from road traffic congestion to child abuse to financial corruption.

As for the response to our book, it has generally been positive so far, probably because the book brings out many facts that were little known. “Ah, I didn’t know that!” is the most common compliment one hears about his book. However, once the book gets more debated in the coming months, and if it becomes the basis of a Bollywood biopic on Mrs. Jinnah’s life, I think it would influence Indo Pakistani thinking on the freedom movement. Just like Mohammad Iqbal’s poetry is honoured on both sides, in Mrs Jinnah, we have another personality who can be celebrated as one’s own, on both sides of the border.

PP: Are there other misunderstood (or lesser understood) historical figures that you plan to research and write about?

SK: Yes, there are so many lesser known or lesser understood personalities in India that one could write about. However, my focus in the past decade and a half had been on Jinnah and his family. I produced three books in Urdu and this one in English, on the Jinnahs. The completion of this project has, in fact, completed a chapter of my own life. For my future research endeavours, I am more inclined to write on the lesser understood events than personalities. For instance, one of my works in progress is about the reinterpretation of the events of 1857—the so-called Indian Mutiny—in a terminology dictated by the victors. To the extent, spatially and temporally, the British East India Company was operating on a license by the King Emperor of India, was it a mutiny of the emperor (sic!) against his own (British) subjects or that of the Company against the Mogul emperor? There are several legal, political, and moral angles, from which I am trying to find answer to that question.

Another project is about the reinterpretation of incidents of 1971 that led to bifurcation of Pakistan. I am studying the very strong currents both in the then East and West Pakistan that wanted to remain united, and especially those who still do. In yet another initiative, I am embarking on a project of understanding democracy to find out why democracies fail to deliver in certain places while, at others, seemingly autocratic regimes, make economic progress at break-neck speeds. However, these projects may last decades.

Bio:
A writer, editor, and TED speaker, Pooja Pande has over 17 years of experience in media, both print & digital. Her books include Red Lipstick (Penguin Randomhouse, 2016), a literary-styled memoir of celebrity transgender rights activist Laxmi, and Momspeak (Penguin Randomhouse, 2020), a first-of-its-kinds feminist exploration of the institution and experience of motherhood in India. Her passion for intersectional feminist revolutions led her in 2017 to Khabar Lahariya, India’s only grassroots news network run by women, where she worked in editorial, outreach, partnerships, and is today Head of Strategy at KL’s mothership, Chambal Media.

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