Wednesday 9 August 2017

Book Review: Jinnah Often Came to our House, by Kiran Doshi

[I had almost sworn off reviewing books altogether. But this book, the winner of The Hindu Literary Prize, 2016 could not be resisted - this review virtually wrote itself in a single burst of typing, extracted from fingers throbbing with pain]

About History

I might never have liked writing exams on the subject, but I rather liked History otherwise. Maybe we had good teachers, or good text-books, but there was something grand about the whole thing – Kings and Wars, inspiring figures from history – it felt like reading stories, and that made it fun. It was in a history class (or rather, from reading the textbook before term began) that I first came to know about Leonidas’ last stand, the defiance of Boudicca, the shrewd coalition-building of Chanakya and the daredevilry of Shivaji and his mavlas.

By the time we were prepping for the Board exams, the focus was on a part of history that perhaps seems to pale by comparison – the struggle for India’s independence.  But it is not necessarily so. They were extra-ordinary men (and women), those who defied an Empire with sticks and stones, silence and non-violence, and if the textbooks failed to evoke that sense of awe, if the teachers failed to bring them to life, the fault lay there. Movies made up a bit of the difference – Gandhi, I suppose, merits mention - and visits to Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar and the Cellular Jail in Port Blair helped provide a context to my own feelings, but as a Government proceeds with systematic erasure of history and manipulation of memory, I wonder if the next generation will share those feelings, that sense of both gratitude and objectivity that I like to think ours could bring to that era.

Our final project in school was also on the freedom struggle, the topic I had been assigned was to do with the provincial governments, and since this was before Google made it easy to access information – and crackpot conspiracy bullshit – I had visited a few public libraries for books and old newspaper clippings. Along with information, what I also realised in the course of the research was that there was so much that was left out of the textbooks.

Of it all – and there was a lot – the most glaring anomaly, I realised, was the legacy of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The Qaid-E-Azam of Pakistan, the man who divided India, the sectarian who appealed and brought out the worst in our country and stoked its communal flames, who made a pan-India struggle into a political ploy for his own power – he was nowhere to be found in the literature pertaining to any period prior to 1930.

Instead, there was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, staunch nationalist, impassioned defender of Hindu-Muslim unity, defiant of the mullahs and the Muslim League, opposing reservations for Muslims and separate electorates, the most prominent leader of the Congress, defender of Tilak against sedition charges, a thorn in the side of the Empire.

But school projects come with deadlines, and in a rush to finish, submit and collect the grade, much was forgotten or rather, consigned to the side-lines as life moved on. I continued to look up information when it came my way – read about Bose and Nehru, Gokhale and Ranade, Tilak and Singh.

I read about Jinnah’s legendary speech of 1918, at Town Hall (now known as the Asiatic Library, opposite Horniman Circle), when he had opposed the construction of a memorial to the outgoing governor, Lord Willingdon (a proposal made by Willingdon himself). His denunciation of not just the governor, but the basis of British rule in India was extraordinary in its erudition and power, and when his eighteen-year-old wife, Ruttiebai, made her own speech from the balcony, shouting ‘We will not be slaves!’, it nearly sparked a riot, leading the memorial to Willingdon being abandoned and a hall being put up with Jinnah’s name on it, at Lamington Road.

And yet, this is the same man whose portrait now hangs on the other side of the Wagah border – the wrong side, it might appear.

Jinnah and Ruttonbai Petit

Blending fact and fiction

When Jinnah often came to our house popped up in the books Amazon recommended to me, it is therefore understandable that I was intrigued enough to buy it, and when a recent ailment left me unable to write at length, I picked it up to read.

The author Kiran Doshi spins an intriguing tale, a piece of historical fiction that unfolds with the pace and structure of a classic. It tells of the wealthy, elitist Sunni muslim Sultan Kowaishi, a London-returned barrister who strikes up a friendly rivalry with the then-leading star of the Bombay courts, M A Jinnah, a prayer-ignoring, whisky-drinking, pork-eating Shia. Sultan marries Rehana, a beautiful and educated girl who falls in love with the lovable, Wodehousian rogue that he is. As Rehana spends time with Sultan’s friends, Jinnah and Dhondav, the latter a Hindu Congressman, she becomes drawn towards the nationalist movement, even as Sultan remains a supporter of the Raj.

The book proceeds apace, many threads picking up and explored, the lives of Sultan’s brother and sisters, and later, his children, explored, even as the independence movement continues in the backdrop. Rehana joins the Congress formally and goes on to become a staunch Gandhian, even as Sultan is inducted into the Muslim League, and Jinnah tries to straddle both worlds, making impassioned but futile attempts to engender Hindu-Muslim unity. Rehana sets up a school for girls education with her best friend Tehmima. The ‘Ekta’ school inducts Jinnah on the Board of Trustees, and on his suggestion, admits non-Muslim girls as well. But politics also begins to pull the couple imperceptibly apart, until an unexpected piece of news drives a deeper wedge between them, one that threatens to unravel the entire Kowaishi family. The wheels of time move, ever forward, and the personal triumphs and tragedies of Sultan and Rehana are dovetailed into the events of the freedom struggle, from Jallianwallah to the Simon Comission, from the Dandi march to the Naval mutiny.

Chronicling the tragedy

The author tells the story simply but with plenty of heart. We see the love and heartbreak of Hina Kowaishi, Sultan’s sister, and her channelling it into establishing a hospital for the poor, we gape in horror as Madhav, Dhondav’s son, is gunned down by Dyer’s gunfire in Amritsar and marvel at the chicanery of the British, who stoop so low to conquer that the muck at the foundation of their towering edifices of Empire is laid bare.

Through it all, we see Jinnah’s gradual transformation. From vehement opposition of reservation to becoming an advocate for ‘special rights’ for Muslims. From rejecting the concept of ‘separate electorates’  for Muslims as it would be divisive, to unabashedly using them to gain power. From defiance of conservative religious dogma to becoming an apologist for it and from there to taking advantage of it to further a political goal. We see ambition tilt against the better nature of men and come out victorious, while the tragedies of the ordinary people – the Dhondavs and Madhavs, the Rehanas and Tehmimas – are but footnotes in history. We mourn for the death of Ruttiebai and see dying with her the spark of hope and reconciliation. We read with horror about thousands, lakhs dead, becoming a statistic of Partition. We shudder at the horrors that are wrought by the inability of three factions to come together.

The threads converge as the book draws to an end, some are snipped off cruelly, others run out of string and some, frayed and fragile though they become, survive. It is worth the 500-page read to find out who, why and when. The language flows, the characters come to life and events, real and fictional, blend into a lovely, often heart-breaking tapestry.

It ends, appropriately, with Jinnah’s death. Rehana’s school holds a minute’s silence for their former Trustee.

“Dadi, did you know this man Jinnah?” asks her grand-daughter, as they sit to dinner.

“Yes, darling,” she replies. “A long, long time back, he often came to our house.”


You can find the ‘Jinnah Hall’ at Lamington Road, even today, tucked within the offices of the Indian National Congress. The Hall built to commend him for his defiance of the British on that day in 1918 when he stood before the people of Bombay, including whites and policemen, and denounced everything the Empire stood for. Feel free to marvel at it, the legacy of a dead man entombed within the offices of a moribund political party that does as much to drive itself to oblivion today as it did to drive out the British Raj once. Feel free to wonder whether, long before it made the series of mistakes that reduced it to its present state, it made a far bigger mistake in alienating a man who was preaching Hindu-Muslim unity a decade before Gandhi even came to India.

The plaque with his name on it was destroyed a few years ago by Shiv Sena activists, whose grasp of history has always been questionable.

You can also see the Asiatic Library at Horniman Circle, in much the same condition as it must have been when it was the City’s Town Hall. The tall white steps leading to it are a bit of a tourist attraction now, and you will almost certainly find some young men and women taking pictures there, enjoying the freedom their forefathers fought so hard to win. Try to picture, instead, a forty-year-old lawyer and his new bride, defying common sense and friendly advice, risking arrest and physical harm to rail against the ravages of the British, on those very steps. 

Eleven years later, she would be dead, lovelorn and broken.

Thirty years later, so would he, having broken apart the country he had once tried so hard to free.

Buy the book here

Town Hall, pre-1947
The Asiatic Library, modern times.


  1. How one man's personal goal could change the destiny of nations?

  2. Perhaps, it was his inferiority complex being a Shia to rise as the saviour of Sunni Muslims which led to his transformation from a nationalist to separatist.

  3. This is a good review. But won't you be continuing with the fanfic anymore? When will the next chapter come along? Please continue.