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Round about: Sheela’s book on National Movement and the marriage that shook India

punjab Updated: Apr 30, 2017 13:01 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times
Sheela Reddy,Chandigarh,Mohammad Ali Jinnah

Sheela Reddy(Photo: Shireen Qadri)

Sheela Reddy, a journalist of many seasons, who is in Chandigarh for a face-to-face with book lovers on the invitation of the Punjab Arts Council, has come out with a book after she was done with the business of editing, reporting, writing, critiquing and so on. And it is a book of an engaging theme and meticulous research that has created ripples as it takes us to the times of the National Movement and the marriage that shook India, for it was a strange union of the brilliant and reserved Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was to be the architect of Pakistan and the pretty Parsi teenager Ruttie Petit, who was 24 years younger than her husband.

Sheela and I have had a long journey and friendship, precisely four decades, when we started as sub-editors. I have also had the pleasure of working with her when she was the founder editor, South Asia of the Women’s Feature Service. I have also learned much from her, both valuable and mischievous, including the whiff of nicotine. Besides many things, we would time and again talk about the book we would write one day. She had Hyderabad stories in mind and I the sagas of Chandigarh. “This book wrote itself out. I was working on a screenplay on the Jinnah-Ruttie story for a friend when I came across the personal letters of Ruttie to her friends that set me on to approach this book independently.” And she did a thorough job building a thick volume around these letters of love and longing.

I recall once viewing a story she had assigned me in the ’80s on the role women peaceniks had played during riots in the walled city of Delhi. I had worked hard on it, but Sheela glanced at it and then in her casual sing-song tone told me, “The story is fine but where is old Delhi in it? Where are the scents, sounds and moods of the streets of Delhi? Just bring that in.” So I did and never forgot the lesson and it is this art of Sheela done so artlessly that brings alive the times and the tragedies of Ruttie and Jinnah. It is also a book written as a woman writes and a bestseller for its carefully woven tapestry and, of course, the theme. In fact it is she who has first put in print the fact that Ruttie had committed suicide at the age of 29.

Sheela Reddy’s book takes us to the times of the National Movement and the marriage that shook India, for it was a strange union of the brilliant and reserved Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the pretty Parsi teenager Ruttie Petit. ( Photo: Shireen Qadri )

It is just that it makes for a daunting volume: 421 pages in hardbound. “I could have done a slimmer one but so little was known about this couple that I wished to leave nothing out of the research I did in Delhi, Mumbai and Karachi”. Yes, it is history seen through a marriage and politics seen on the affect it had on those in the thick of it.

In short, she has done it and when I tell her this, she laugh and echoes: “Yes, I have done it.” It was not an easy task, not just from the point of view of writing and research, but also the fact that she was sandwiched between the brilliant Malayali fiction writer NS Madhavan for husband and the precocious daughter Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan who came out with her books much before ‘Mama’ , of course to Sheela’s joy. Then she was workaholic at the magazines and newspapers she worked for, a homemaker and constantly feeding friends like me dosas and kebabs.

And now, it is celebrations as invitations pour in from different cities and feelers for a film here, a play there. So inspired by a song that went ‘Sheela ki Jawani’, one would say this is ‘Sheela ki Kahani’!

First Published: Apr 30, 2017 12:54 IST