The real Jinnah was very loyal. He was unbribable: Sheela Reddy

  • 24 Feb - 02 Mar, 2018
  • Mariam Khan
  • Interview

She was donning shades of red, the time I met her in a hotel, known for its scenic view of the Arabian Sea in Karachi. Sipping green tea, Sheela Reddy, helped us travel in time to her childhood, when twilight turned to dawn on occasions when she picked up her first classic, Pride and Prejudice or What Katy Did. "I was a dreamy kid. I became addicted to books at a very young age. Mostly the stories I read remained my entire world for a while," Reddy talks about her childhood. "My parents being from the post-independence generation were very keen on their daughters getting the best possible education," she shares.

Stanley Girls High School in Hyderabad, India is where she did her primary schooling from. "Then I went to a boarding school St. Joseph’s, Visakapatnam for three years, and later went to St. Agnes in Secunderabad, a twin city of Hyderabad. After finishing school, I went to Osmania University," she says.

Reddy wanted to be a doctor, but while she was waiting to appear for her medical exam, Literature had her trapped in its many realms. "I had very good teachers of both, Literature and History, so I became very interested in the two subjects and decided that I don’t want to be a doctor. It was then that I decided to go for journalism," she brought to mind the day when she had her professional path set.

Coming back to the present moment, a session was ongoing at the 9th Edition of the Karachi Literature Festival, with a speaker's voice forming a backdrop to our conversation. Seated beside a picture window, with a copy of Mr And Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India set on a coffee table, Reddy reveals, the book could not have been penned had it not been for her 35 years in journalism. "It was my entire life in journalism that prepared me for this book," she expresses. Being a book's editor at Outlook for 13 years, Reddy read a book on Quaid-i-Azam Mumammad Ali Jinnah by Jaswant Singh which intrigued her. "I knew nothing of Jinnah till then but reading that book opened my eyes to a more human angle to Jinnah as a person. Like, there was one chapter on his death and one on his marriage; I was like, how interesting are all these aspects to this important man who I had not been aware of before." The appetite to read more on the leader is what made Reddy dig for more books on him. "I was surprised that there really wasn’t much on his personal life. There was work on his political career mostly and there were a few, brief mentions of other things he had done but there wasn’t much on him as a person," she says.

Soon after, Reddy came across a book on Ruttie Jinnah by Khwaja Razi Haider. "It was like a sourced material on Jinnah’s wife which again raised more questions than it answered. It gave one a sense of this fascinating and fashionable person who adored Jinnah, yet they got separated and one doesn’t know what caused the rift but then they still remained devoted to each other. The book was, again, like an appetiser for me. I was basically flirting with the idea of turning this into a short story or a script."

A hobby of Reddy's is reading letters from real people. On one of her visits to the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, New Delhi she was looking for Padmaja Naidu's letters to Nehru, and came across a voluminous catalogue of letters that Ruttie had written to Padmaja, (daughter of Sarojini Naidu, a feminist, poet and an activist), from the time they were pen friends. "The file I got from the librarian consisted around 100 pages of letters, all handwritten. Padmaja had preserved all the letters that Ruttie had written to her from the age of 13-and-a-half to 14-and-a-half. The entire span of Ruttie’s married life was there in the file," Reddy recalls the day she hit one of history's treasure.

Not being a trained historian, Reddy knew just having some letters is not enough to write a book on historical figures. "Although letters do give away facts, but usually we don’t say the most personal things, so I knew one thing from the start: I would have to join the dots, the dots between what the letters are hinting at," which took her on a journey of four-and-a-half years to bring the project to fruition.

Going through newspapers, memoirs and political proceedings of the time, Reddy had to research extensively. "I set out to write about a marriage, but in the process I learnt about an entire slice of history because I could not separate the politics from how it played in the personal lives of Jinnah and his wife,” she states.

When it came to Jinnah, Reddy had a tough time researching. "Jinnah was difficult to research because he was impersonal even in his personal letters. He was almost afraid of saying anything personal in his life. He was a man who was very economical with words and would not open up himself to anybody, not even to his best friends," she makes it known.

This very book of hers, made Reddy travel to Karachi as well, where on the very first day she set foot, she hit gold, again. "I found out through other books that the personal collection of Ruttie and Jinnah were stored in Dr. Mahmud Husain Library's basement in University of Karachi. The books were the physical copies owned by Jinnah and his wife, so their markings were still there which gave me a lot of personal information about who they really were. I found a book on the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst owned by Ruttie which was signed by her in 1914 where she had written comments like ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good for you’ in it. I also found a lot of Jinnah’s books which were differently marked with a pencil with words underlined and tiny tick marks," she expresses.

All through her time discovering Jinnah, Reddy was continually surprised. "Depending on who I was talking to about him, I would hear diametrically opposite things; that he was cold or he was warm; he was reserved, stingy or very generous. But I found that the real Jinnah was very loyal. He was unbribable. I think his predominant quality was his pride, and I say this in a good sense. The sense that he was too proud to take any favours, he was too proud to allow himself to be bribed. He was too proud to sell himself for approval."

Now, does Reddy feel she knows Jinnah? "I don’t pretend to understand him but I definitely feel better acquainted with him and grateful for having this opportunity to learn about him because it was through him I understood a lot of other things, as well."