You can only enjoy Kiran Doshi’s Jinnah often came to our house (JOCTOH) as a work of fiction and not as book of history. Although to be fair this is the exact purpose of the book. In fact the author at the very end of his magnum opus makes his purpose clear by citing Francis Bacon: “Truth is hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” When you create a plausible work of fiction peppered with historical facts and figures, it sells and it soon becomes the popular narrative. Hollywood and Bollywood two greatest propaganda machineries that the world has ever seen do it all the time. The pulp fiction that they churn out mutate into myths that become so ingrained in public memory that it becomes very difficult to separate fact from fiction. The plethora of clichés and stereotypes soon replaces the truth.
In his book Doshi has painstakingly caricatured and demonized Muhammad Ali Jinnah, his sister Fatima, the first prime minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan and the state of Pakistan. The narrative is so powerfully and convincingly built that a gullible person will fall hook, line and sinker for it. In a period spanning 1903 to 1948, Jinnah is convincingly cast as a person, whom you would end up hating. Endeared by the Bombay high class, for his handsome demeanor, exquisite dress sense and elegant manner, Jinnah is also depicted to be popular with the Muslim masses brilliantly arguing and winning their cases in the court from British judges, who hate Jinnah from the core of their hearts but can do little to decide against him. His facility to treat them with disdain and derision is a facility that is completely alien to the natives. Slowly and gradually the complexities in Jinnah’s character are highlighted. A person with no interest in religion, Jinnah is brought across as a person, who converts from Ismaili Khoja sect to Ithna Ashari Shia – none of these two religious schools of thought represent mainstream Islam in the Indian subcontinent. This is made out as the first contradiction in Jinnah’s complex make up. A metamorphosis in Jinnah’s persona is gradual. From his very secular outlook and nationalist identity and friendship with nationalist like Tilak, a change in personality is visible as Gandhi arrives on the scene and replaces him from his pedestal as the uncrowned king of Bombay. Gandhi demolishes his credentials as a politician and dims his chances to shine bright on the firmament of Indian political scene as a nationalist leader. Jinnah after having failed to win any support in the ranks of the Indian National Congress initially goes into denial but subsequently picks up the cause of the Muslims with a vengeance. He uses religion as a platform, instigates the Muslims to opt for partition of India that causes unimaginable mayhem and bloodshed. Jinnah vengeance is because he has been jilted in matters of love and denied what he considers his rightful place in the Indian politics (sic). For this he exacts a terrible price for which everybody has to pay for. In the bargain he creates a nation that is barbaric and bloodthirsty. Fatima Jinnah is depicted as a dominating shrew, hovering over his brother and quarrelling with his young wife. Liaquat Ali Khan is shown as weak and vulnerable person, who can have his potential rival eliminated through dirty means.
Set in Bombay before partition, JOCTOH is a story set against the travails of the trials and vicissitudes of the Kowaishi family. This Muslim family is rich and powerful and the elder Kowaishi is a property tycoon, who has multiplied his wealth manifold. His son the England returned Sultan has made a name as lawyer of repute. He is married to Rehana, the main protagonist of the story. Rehana is not only well read and educated, she is extremely talented. Wedded to the cause of female education, Rehana establishes a school for Muslim girls in Bombay with the money she receives as endowment from Sultan’s aunt, the Bari Phupho. On Jinnah’s advice she opens up her school or girls of other faith. Jinnah is smitten by the talented Rehana and would like to go back to her after his fragile marriage with Ruttie collapses. Rehana despite being attracted towards spurns his advance because she has come to believe in the Gandhian cause and would not compromise on her principles. It is a long tale of love and deception. It has been told effectively and emotively but at the end of the day is meant to create hateful images that become jarring on the nerves. One would advise the reader not to draw any hasty conclusions.
A few day ago I received a call on my mobile phone from an unknown number. The caller introduced himself as a retired senior officer of the Pakistan Air Force, now in his nineties. Oh yes I remembered Mirza Sahib. He was an aeronautical engineer and had done a stint in China as a technical attaché. He had been a contemporary of my father and a friend of sorts. At one time we had been neighbours but that was after I had left to join the army. To strike a sympathetic chord, he told me about how proud my late father had been of me and how he had given him a photograph of me being awarded a gold medal on my graduation day. He was being awfully nice and he didn’t need to do that, I would have listened to him in any case.
I remembered clearly that the Mirza family had medical problems. One of the sons was night blind and the daughter had died very young. The mother had died brokenhearted after losing their only daughter. The eldest son was my class fellow but we hadn’t been very close and it was quite natural that we didn’t ever meet after leaving school. Years later – in fact decades later, we would almost meet. About eight years ago I received a text message from Sikander asking me if I we would care to meet after Eid. He had got my contact from one of my sisters, whom he had met professionally, while working for an advertisement agency. I am still wondering how Mirza Sahib got my number. Anyhow, I had responded positively to Sikander’s invitation but alas we were not fated to meet. Shortly after exchanging messages, Sikander died of a fatal heart attack. I went to the Mirza family house to offer my condolences. I met his father and his eldest son. The son had not completed his education and I could see a long struggle ahead of him. That was the last that I saw of Sikander’s family until I got this call from the elder Mirza.
Mirza Sahib had fallen on bad times. His younger son had gone blind and had injured a spine in a bathroom fall. He had four orphans to look after and he wanted his son to be sent abroad for surgery. He wanted me to talk to one of the services chief’s to help him out. He also sent me an application for financial aid. The sum that he was asking for was an astronomical and I knew that nobody would give him that. Nonetheless, I was able to convey the distress of the old man to the people, who mattered. I felt extremely sorry, why should an air commodore be reduced to begging? Why shouldn’t his legitimate problems be addressed by his service and the state that he had served so honestly and diligently? I have no answers. After his first phone call Mirza Sahib, started calling me regularly and asking me if there was any progress. I could only advise patience. One day I told my wife that the least I could do was to visit Mirza Sahib and find out why things had come to such a pass. So today on a hot June during the month of Ramzan, we reached Mirza Sahib’s house in Chaklala scheme I. This is an upscale neighbourhood and the house we visited was large with a good lawn. There was no car in the garage. Perhaps Mirza Sahib was too old for it or worse he couldn’t afford one. One of his grandsons greeted us in the drive way. His grandfather had been waiting for us. He ushered us into the drawing room. Soon Sikander’s widow joined us and was followed by Sikander’s blind brother, who greeted me warmly. Mirza Sahib was interrupted from his late breakfast. He was old and diabetic and he could not fast.
It was a sorry tale but more of mismanagement than anything else. The family lives on Mirza Sahib’s pension. The bills are paid by the eldest son, who works for an advertisement agency like his father. I can only presume that he has a modest pay. Sikander’s widow is not keeping good health and has no skill set. So she is pretty much confined to the house. Sikander’s younger brother of course can’t work but is most anxious to go abroad for surgery to have his injured back repaired. Two of Sikander’s youngest children, a son and a daughter, don’t go to school but tend to their grandfather. For their education they’re enrolled in distance learning courses being offered by Allama Iqbal University. One son with a B Com degree is looking for a job. Mrs Sikander informed us that the eldest son has been married to a girl in the UK. So of course he’d be leaving as soon as his paper work is complete. What would happen once the sole bread earner leaves them and once Mirza Sahib passes away?
The opinion that I could make after seeing the dismal state of affairs of the Mirza family was that it was more a case of mismanagement than anything else. First and foremost, the family should stop feeling sorry for themselves. Secondly, the children should resume school – a real one and not one which teaches remotely. Thirdly, the big house should be sold or portions of it like the basement and the upper story be put on rent to generate some real income. In case the house is sold and it should fetch a good price, the family could move to a smaller house and the blind son can be sent for treatment abroad. The only thing is who can help the family take such a big step and also manage their affairs? The service, the state or concerned citizens?