A lot of eating, spending and insistent hospitality goes on in this and other early Jhabvala novels, and the author has a good deal of fun with Indian philistinism and pragmatism, where these qualities have an innocent look to them. Then there are those hapless Westerners who come to India looking for spirituality, and get dysentery instead. Actually, it was unnecessary for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to spell out, and in such novelettish terms, what we might have gathered for ourselves — an odd lapse in an otherwise evocative and compact work.
Harriet is one of those narrators who are skilled in self-delusion, who make plain to the reader things they prefer not to acknowledge themselves — in this case, the rottenness of Crishi, who is on the make, and worse. He is cashing in on Western preconceptions about the spirituality of the East. Michael Wishwell, the first to go overboard for the movement, is also the first to have misgivings, misgivings which build up as the twins, the colourful Eastern trio and part of their entourage leave America for London and then Delhi, where Crishi behaves towards Harriet in an alternately evasive and ingratiating way.
Harriet, in her besotted state, is willing to put up with anything, and before the book ends, she has rather a lot to put up with. In the world of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, convention is either ignored or obeyed with misgivings. Take her novel "Heat and Dust," in which a bored Englishwoman in India during the days of the Raj risks dishonor by having an affair with an Indian prince. Or consider her screenplay adaptation of E. Forster's "A Room with a View," in which Lucy Honeychurch, betrothed to the wealthy and proper Cecil Vyse, wrestles with the desire to chuck expectations into the bin and pursue a romance with the poorer and freer-spirited George Emerson.
Variations on this conflict appear throughout Jhabvala's work, as do ethnic clashes, both between India and the West and within each culture. The impression one gets from reading Jhabvala's work is that of a sculptor who reuses a favored armature to build nuanced depictions of similar likenesses. These 17 stories span 50 years of Jhabvala's career, and they have a distinctly old-fashioned quality.
Modern readers accustomed to arresting openings and dramatic clashes will find these stories quaint. Jhabvala's technique was to ease the reader into her stories with deceptively calm passages, a theater apparently devoid of theatricality.
The elegance of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
The cumulative effect, however, can be devastating. After she found a US agent in the s, many of her short stories appeared first in the New Yorker. Her early comedies drew comparisons with Jane Austen, in their anatomy of power within westernised, extended families, or the slow growth of love in arranged marriages. She found affinities with Jew ish culture in an emphasis on family and humour. As a character says in a story in Out of India , her India was not that of "tigers, sunsets and princes", but the " real urban, suffering India" of tenements and bazaars.
According to the short-story writer and critic Aamer Hussein, Jhabvala was the first to write in English about north India's urban, lower middle class, "people with small jobs and modest artistic aspirations, their lives often blighted with failure. She wrote with a hard realism as well as great compassion. Just after independence, says Desai, "nobody else in India had that clarity of vision of the new society, or that acuteness of observation".
You take other people's backgrounds and characters; Keats called it negative capability. As she said, "all these people coming looking for peace and going to pieces. It was a riot.
Profile: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Film | The Guardian
Maybe if I hadn't been a writer, I might have taken up with a guru. Jhabvala, says Hussein, was "way ahead of others in exploring the east-west encounter: bumbleheaded people coming to serve themselves in India, setting themselves up for exploitation, then feeling betrayed". Yet for Newman, "almost as many characters are liberated by India as destroyed by it. India's a vital force, like sexuality. But that someone should be looking for something better or higher than what's offered - that kind of idealism I do admire.
But Jaffrey, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival for her role as a Bollywood idol in Jhabvala's Shakespeare Wallah , an original screenplay based on the travels of Geoffrey Kendal and his daughters in India, says her characters are "wonderful for an actor because they leave so much unsaid". In the film, a teenage daughter played by Felicity Kendal falls for Shashi Kapoor's dashing but possessive Indian. Films, she says, were a "nice change for me; before that I sat at home. I also met people I wouldn't otherwise have done: actors, financiers, con men," she laughs.
Though Jhabvala seldom appears on set, Ivory describes her as "merciless and exacting" in the editing room, where, he says, it is almost unheard of for a writer to sit in. Yet in contrast to some of this work, he says, "Jhabvala doesn't glorify the link with empire, and she breaks taboos on miscegenation. Her Englishwomen are absorbed into India; they're not just playing out their own dramas. With its Forsterian allusions, Newman sees the novel as an ironic undercutting of "Forster's faith in friendship between coloniser and colonised". Among critics in India was the poet Nissim Ezekiel, who condemned Heat and Dust as "stereotyped in its characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene".
Jhabvala says: "Once they found out I wasn't Indian, they didn't like my books at all: they said, 'she doesn't look deep; she doesn't know anything about us'.
She's always had fervent admirers, but it's very sad that there was, and continues to be, resentment towards a foreigner writing about India with such frankness and irony. In "Myself in India", an essay from the s, Jhabvala wrote: "My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year. She says: "First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India.
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People said the poverty was biblical, and I'm afraid that was my attitude too. It's terribly easy to get used to someone else's poverty if you're living a middle-class life in it. But after a while I saw it wasn't possible to accept it, and I also didn't want to. In Jaffrey's view of Jhabvala's fiction, "India often seems to be enticing the westerner with its sensuousness and lechery.
It's as though India became a snake charmer, with Ruth trying to resist. She embraced English innocence and the literary tradition of Austen and Forster as a way of trying to transcend trauma. But her fiction looks at that attempt ironically, with a cold eye. Even the move to India is a way of escaping the history and trauma of Europe, but the search for transcendence and redemption never works for her characters or herself.
Feeling a "terrible hunger of homesickness" for Europe, she says, "you try to reclaim what's yours, to recapture your past - even the past you haven't had".
In , with the proceeds of the Booker, she bought a flat in New York, a "very European city", but one she saw as innocent of Europe's history. Since she has had dual British and US citizenship.
Her three daughters and six grandchildren live on three continents. The eldest, Renana, is national coordinator of an Indian women's trade union; Ava, a planning inspector, lives near Colchester; and Firoza teaches children with special needs in Los Angeles. They take after their father's family, Jhabvala says: her father-in-law was a trade-union pioneer, her mother-in-law active in women's rights, "both into social work".