Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany in 1927, emigrated with her family to England in 1939, and emigrated again, this time to India, in 1951 as the wife of an Indian architect; after many years in India, she resides in the United States. As one might perhaps expect, her work is characterized above all by a sharp and astringent intelligence which observes the customs and habits of many national groups and subgroups without appearing to accept any of them; a faint sense of wonder—Why would people behave like that?—pervades even the shortest of her fictions.
In these stories, which span three decades of her career, several nationalities are observed through the complex and shifting “pecking order” of the Indian subcontinent. All emerge in some way or other with discredit. In one of the earlier stories, “The Man with the Dog,” Jhabvala fixes on a leftover from the time of European domination, the Dutchman Boekelman, who has refused to go home after the end of the war and the coming of Indian independence. He lives a life of total seclusion from India, associating only with other exiles, and able to speak only two words of Hindi, achchha (all right) and pani (water). Ridiculously he does not notice his own vulnerability, exploiting and provoking his Indian landlady and lover, till she tells him to go. Even then, pity melts her. Boekelman could stand as an image of the old racial pride and separation—apartheid (separateness), if one wanted to use the South African word.
That, however, is not how his Indian lover sees him, or not only how she sees him. In spite of his ridiculousness and weakness, and his physical ugliness, she sees him somehow as a source of deep peace and joy, for which she too is prepared to be an exile of sorts, separated from all of her children. Nationality is part of the relationship but not the most important part. In a similar way, several of Jhabvala’s stories in this collection fix on the theme of the English female who comes to India, not to rule anymore but to work for international organizations or to sit at the feet of some spiritual teacher, only (very nearly invariably) to meet some kind of sexual betrayal or humiliation. Part of the reason for this, one often senses, is the female character’s inability to read the clues of a different culture. When Betsy, in the story “Passion,” stops her taxi and offers a lift to the young man who has found her books in the library, she ought to have realized, first, that the act of doing this once creates an obligation to do it again, and, second—as the behavior of her flatmate’s boyfriend should have warned her—that this is liable at once to be sexually misinterpreted. Misunderstandings on both sides then grow exponentially. Har Gopal cannot handle alcohol, openness, or irreverence. Betsy cannot handle sex, social expectations, or the practical experience of poverty. The story ends with the two characters sitting silently on a step, not understanding each other in the slightest—but with Betsy in a further and dangerous state of total self-delusion about the society that surrounds her.
Indian society, however, by no means escapes the penetration of Jhabvala’s eye. In several stories she openly mocks the way in which Indians have failed to grasp the essence of a Western way of life, which they feel bound to admire or which they want to exploit. Thus the guru of “An Experience of India” takes an immediate interest in that story’s heroine when he discovers that she is married to a journalist. What he wants is media exposure and, after that, a lucrative spiritual practice in Europe or America. What he has failed to notice, though, is that the heroine is totally out of sympathy with her husband and has no power to give the guru what he wants at all. Even his vengeful rape of her only weakens his chance of domination; she is accustomed to being regarded as a loose woman by Indian males and is indifferent to it.
Indians are presented elsewhere as naïve or inexperienced. Rusi, the spoiled brat of “Bombay,” converses largely in fragments of nonsense dredged from science fiction or misunderstood newspaper headlines, and he gains a great reputation for intelligence within his own family by doing so. The insubstantiality of his ideas, though, is paralleled only by the similar passion for talk, debate, and ill-calculated experiment of the cabinet minister in “Rose Petals.” One might say that a standard reaction for Jhabvala is to distrust and mock any statement both grand and abstract, whether it is about “moral training,” India’s “need for economists,” or the leavening of...
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