Ruttie & Bella


Ratanbai Petit

I was recently struck by the strangely inverted but parallel lives of two young women, both tragic figures in early 20th-century Parsi history.

Ratanbai Petit and Bella Captain were born in 1900. Ratanbai or “Ruttie” lived in Bombay. She was the only daughter of the Parsi heir to a textile mill fortune, Sir Dinshaw Petit. Bella was an orphan girl who was adopted by a Parsi couple in Rangoon, Mr. and Mrs. Shapurji Cowasji Captain.

One of these women suffered for leaving the Parsi tradition: Ruttie married her father’s friend and future founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. To do so, she converted to Islam, causing an outcry within the Parsi community and the severing of her relationship with her father.

The other young woman suffered for trying to get in: Bella and her Parsi family went to court for her right to enter Rangoon’s fire temple as a member of the Parsi community. Bella lost her case, which dragged on for 11 years and went on appeal to the highest court in the British Empire, the Privy Council in London.

Ratanbai died at the young age of 29, ill and separated from Jinnah. They had one daughter, Dina. Ironically, Dina later married into the Parsi Wadia familyagainst Jinnah’s wishes.

Bella withdrew from Parsi society after losing her case, which had been highly publicized and led to a series of acrimonious libel suits over racial purity. She too died young–some time in her 30s.

These two women probably never met, living as they did on opposite sides of British India. But they must have read about each other in the newspaper. We can only wonder if they too spotted the curious similarities in their lives, which were deeply affected by conflict within the Parsi community.

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