Review: Jinnah Often Came To Our House

An intimate history of Independence

Published - January 13, 2017 05:10 pm IST

Jinnah Often Came to Our House; Kiran Doshi, Tranquebar, Rs. 695.

Jinnah Often Came to Our House; Kiran Doshi, Tranquebar, Rs. 695.

Since history is a site of greatest invention, the first quality one expects from historical fiction is the tone of the writer: assured and inviting with the ability to alter but not excessively provoke your biases. It is here Jinnah Often Came To Our House scores brilliantly. Kiran Doshi, through his easy use of language, use of Urdu and Hindi colloquialisms, ability to make you chuckle and tear up, gives you a peek into what could be stuff of well-curated museums — the lives of upper-class Muslims in Bombay at the turn of the 19th century.

The second expectation from historical fiction is the handling of the core topic; in this case, law. Here too Doshi scores high. He brings alive not only the court cases, but also weaves five decades of the story of India’s struggle as a river whose course is influenced by the dams the British erected when they changed the laws — the partition of Bengal, revocation of partition of Bengal, Tilak being exiled (an incident with huge impact in the times), Morley-Minto Reforms, birth of Muslim League, the Rowlatt Act, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, Simon Commission and its opposition, the two World Wars and how the British involved India with the lure of freedom to use our people as cannon fodder, the Provincial Elections and Constituent Assembly, and finally the Independence and partition of India.

The novel begins with Sultan Kowaishi, a young barrister arriving from Britain after studies and meeting his famed senior, pork eating, non-Urdu speaking, indifferent to religious rituals Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a Shia lawyer. The meeting is the peg to draw out as an exquisite comedy of manners introducing the Kowaishi family, Sultan’s marriage to Rehana, her relationship with Barri Phuphi. The main story proceeds to Rehana opening a school, Sultan succeeding as a lawyer, them separating, years later Sultan going in search of his children and finally his grandchild.

This story is the foreground to the political backdrop of Jinnah joining the Indian National Congress. The 490-page novel has a host of characters: some well known in history such as Gandhi, Tilak, Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, and many fictional ones: Dhondav, Griffiths, Pandey, Tehmina, Miriam, Firoz, and many others whose lives change with the political landscape. The rigour of writing is evident in how the writer ties up every thread and no character is left hanging — a difficult target to achieve at this scale. To set up the premise, Doshi uses a line attributed to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan but here given to Jinnah: “Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of India, they can never be separated.” The novel ends with the Independence and partition of India, both India and Pakistan becoming one-eyed, blinded to the millions of lives lost and displaced.

The novel is a lament against bloodshed, wars, and of what we as a nation have done to ourselves.

Doshi achieves this massive story-telling through three techniques: the narrative itself both factual and fictional, epistolary writing that foregrounds the back events of the times, and commentary shaped as dialogue between the people around Jinnah which includes a sane but anonymous newspaper column. What emerges is a fascinating tale of how Jinnah, both flawed and exhilarating, changed his mind from being an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, the bridge between the Congress and Muslim League, opposing separate electorates on community lines, to finally “being led instead of leading” and becoming the chief proponent of Pakistan.

The novel also lays out the three tools through which any establishment, here a colonial power, exerts its stranglehold on people: through Jinnah and the Congress, he shows how random laws define the fate of societies, through Dhondav he shows how bans on the freedom of press or media influence public opinion, through Rehana and her travails at school, he shows how language and textbooks become sites of conflict. The novel is a brilliant study of human character and Doshi pays homage to Shakespeare — his lines make for an engaging decades-long repartee between Rehana and Jinnah.

For older readers, this novel would be a delight, but for the younger generation, twice removed from Independence and partition, the novel would also serve as a space to reflect over the ironies of our times. It is fitting that Doshi creates many characters who are unaware of the larger political realities of their times and their implications until the choices they get in their lives become more and more lopsided and stark. The novel is a lament against bloodshed, wars, and of what we as a nation have done to ourselves. It points at how power works — always by co-opting the best of us to its side, by dividing the opposition to any travesty of justice.

Though Jinnah... is a story of its historical times, some key characters from the freedom struggle are missing: Bhagat Singh, Allama Iqbal, B.R. Ambedkar and so on. The author says his intention was to stay true to Jinnah’s life which is what he does with aplomb. After all, a historical fiction is not a textbook. For its sweep and story-telling, Jinnah... deserves a place among the greats.

Jinnah Often Came to Our House; Kiran Doshi, Tranquebar, Rs. 695.

Amandeep Sandhu is working on a novel and a non-fiction book on Punjab. His novel Roll of Honour was short-listed for The Hindu Prize 2013 .

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