Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Art of Ambivalence

At the beginning of 1962, a tall, thin-lipped thirty-three-year-old named James Ivory and a charming, cleft-chinned twenty-five-year-old named Ismail Merchant turned up on the doorstep of a bungalow on Delhi’s Alipur Road. Ivory was a budding film director, Merchant a budding film producer. Together, they were hoping to adapt a novel called “The Householder,” a social satire of contemporary Delhi, and had decided to approach the author to ask if she would help them turn it into a film. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, diminutive and dark-haired, did not imagine herself to be a budding screenwriter. When they first telephoned her, she pretended to be her mother-in-law to put them off.

“I told them I’ve never done anything like this before,” she later recalled. “But they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We haven’t, either.’ ” The film made from her screenplay, which appeared the following year, was the first feature for all three, but far from the last. In a partnership spanning more than forty years, Merchant Ivory Productions made more than twenty films written by Jhabvala, who won Oscars for her adaptations of “A Room with a View” and “Howards End.”

There’s some poignancy in the fact that Jhabvala, who died in 2013, is best known today as the third member of the Merchant Ivory team. She considered “writing film scripts” to be a hobby alongside the real work of prose. In her lifetime, she published twelve novels and eight short-story collections. She excelled at concealing herself, most famously behind her own name. In 1957, the Times book critic Orville Prescott wrote of her novels that readers “would naturally suppose that their author was an Indian, probably a high-caste Hindu educated at Wellesley.” But Jhabvala was her married name; Ruth was not Indian, a point she later took pains to stress.

At the End of the Century” (Counterpoint) gathers seventeen stories, dating from Jhabvala’s first collection, in 1963, to “The Judge’s Will,” published in this magazine two weeks before her death. They invite a face-to-face meeting with a literary figure who deserves to be reckoned with on her own terms.

Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne in 1927 into a bourgeois, assimilated Jewish family. Her maternal grandfather was a cantor at a prominent Cologne synagogue; her father, Marcus, a lawyer, had emigrated from Poland during the Great War. Ruth entered school the year Hitler came to power; she walked there to taunts of “Jew, Jew,” and had things thrown at her. In 1934, her father looked into emigrating to Palestine, but her mother resisted, certain that conditions in Germany would improve. It was only in April, 1939, that the family escaped to England. At the end of the war, they learned that more than forty relatives had been murdered in the camps. To those losses would be added one more: her father, broken by the news, killed himself in 1948.

Ruth was by then a student of English literature at Queen Mary College, in London. When she was just six, she had had an epiphany after being asked to write a composition in school about a rabbit. “I wrote the title, Der Hase,” she recounted in a lecture. “At once I was flooded with my destiny; only I didn’t know that’s what it was. I only remember my entire absorption, delight, in writing about—giving my impression of—der Hase. To think that such happiness could be!” After that, she wrote ceaselessly, stuffing cupboards “full with unfinished novels, plays, stories”; from her teens, she wrote in English, which she came to consider her “first language.” While her elder brother, Siegbert, studied Modern Languages at Cambridge (he went on to become a distinguished scholar of German literature), she produced an M.A. thesis on “The Short Story in England, 1700-1750.” It’s a telling sign of affinity for a form she would come to excel at.

At a party in 1949, Ruth met Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian Parsi architect who had come to England a few years earlier to study. Jhabvala had already bought his ticket home, but by the time he set sail for India he and Ruth were engaged. Two years later, having secured a job lecturing on architecture at Delhi Polytechnic, he came back to England to marry her, and the couple settled in Delhi.

From Austerity Britain, where “everything was pretty basic and grim and grey,” the new Mrs. Jhabvala found herself transported to a “grand fairy land, full of sights and sounds and colors,” as she related in a later interview. There were exotic flowers, birds, and smells; captivating music performed by female vocalists “who for me were somehow an expression of everything a woman artist does”; and sweets that she consumed by the pound, “the essence of all sweetness that there ever could be.”

Jhabvala’s early fiction sauntered into middle-class Hindu households and wryly took the measure of their dramatic capacity: shy newlyweds and demanding mothers-in-law, pompous patresfamilias, feckless sons, and snooping aunties. The opening stories of “At the End of the Century” introduce Jhabvala’s remarkable economy of expression, devoid of sandalwood-scented, curry-flavored, bangle-clanging exoticism. Jhabvala sketches character, and by implication plot, in a few quick flicks, as in a tale of two rivalrous brothers, the elder “with his silk suit, his big ring, his oiled and scented hair,” and the younger “puny and insignificant,” who works as a shop attendant “with just the rightmixture of dignity and obsequiousness.”

If Jhabvala has an anthropologist’s curiosity about how society functions, she’s a decidedly nonparticipant observer; her narrative stance brings together candor and detachment. She’s unsparing about the constraints and the tedium of women’s lives, for instance, but also about the women who are leading them. The wife of a devoted elderly aristocrat, trapped among “provincial, dreary, unrefined people,” seeks diversion in the arms of an abusive local policeman. A young widow manages to resist the gestures of self-abnegation expected by her late husband’s family, and pursues corporeal indulgences “not for pleasure, but compulsively, sunk in sloth and greed because soft beds and foods were all that life had given to her.” In “A Course of English Studies,” Jhabvala delivers an astute portrait of an upper-class Indian woman in England whose feeling of cultural dislocation hinges as much on her own sense of entitlement as on her loneliness and unfamiliarity.

Anita Desai notes in the introduction to this collection that it was Jhabvala’s “fate to be presented to Western readers as a Jane Austen.” Jhabvala’s prose does share Austen’s acerbic wit and a well-cadenced fluency, confident in the strength of syntax to sustain explication—and comedy—without flashy language. As a screenwriter, Jhabvala learned to write with still greater economy. (“One sentence in a film is like, you know, fifteen or twenty sentences in a book,” she once said.) Her best novels are short, and her short stories are often better.

What the Austen analogy doesn’t capture is Jhabvala’s role as a preëminent social historian of newly independent India. Neither English nor Indian (nor even truly Anglophone before adolescence), Jhabvala came to her subjects without being trailed by the shadow of empire. Her ability to make fiction out of the bourgeois Indian everyday was revelatory to younger post-colonial writers such as Desai, for whom Jhabvala was “the first one who was writing about my world, our world.”

Jhabvala also chronicled a distinctive phase in encounters between Indians and Westerners, as a last generation of imperial Britons trickled away and new customs, new tastes, and new people (increasingly American) stepped in. This is movingly captured in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah,” Jhabvala’s first original screenplay. The movie follows a British family’s acting company as it tours India performing Shakespeare to dwindling audiences. Early in the film, the troupe encounters an itinerant monkey trainer who laments that people no longer care for his art. “Our story exactly,” one of the actors murmurs. Jhabvala’s script was inspired by the 1947 diaries of a real-life actor-manager, Geoffrey Kendal, but its brilliance lies in her turning what could have been a nostalgic period piece about the end of empire into a coming-of-age tale centered on the family’s teen-age daughter. (Kendal’s younger daughter, Felicity, made her screen début in the film, starring opposite her brother-in-law, Shashi Kapoor.) The Raj, for Jhabvala, was a closed chapter. She preferred to turn the page.

The nineteen-sixties brought a new wave of ebullient Westerners to India to “find themselves,” and Jhabvala was waiting with a skewer. “Which Yoga do you do? Hatha Yoga or Bhakti Yoga or what?” a European seeker asks the Indian hero of “The Householder.” None, he confesses. “Well you should,” she chides. “How do you think you’ll meet the Eternal and the Infinite if you don’t?”

Maya Jasanoff


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