Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927, the daughter of Marcus and Eleonora Prawer; her family’s heritage was German, Polish, and Jewish. She emigrated to England in 1939, became a British citizen in 1948, and obtained an M.A. in English from Queen Mary College, London, in 1951. That same year, she married C. H. S. Jhabvala, an Indian architect, and went to live in India. Jhabvala formed a profound, albeit conflicted, relationship with that country. With her Indian husband and Indian-born children, Renana, Ava, and Feroza, she has had the unique opportunity of seeing the subcontinent from the privileged position of an insider but through the eyes of an alien. Thus, rootedness in a culture and people, an issue with which she is intimate, provides a wellspring for her screenplays, novels, and stories.
Jhabvala has returned to India, for millions a place of ancient wisdom and spiritual equilibrium, time and again. Her exposure to the waves of young foreigners who descended on India in the 1960’s, only to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “mystics,” influenced such books as Three Continents. Indeed, the theme of religious charlatans permeates much of Jhabvala’s work. While she would spend three months of each year in New Delhi, Jhabvala settled in New York in 1975, living near her friends and film colleagues, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. Her work on film scripts with the team, which began in the 1960’s, enriched her technique as a writer of fiction and widened her vision. One may well view this move to New York as initiating the second major influence on Jhabvala’s body of work, giving rise to her collection of short stories East into Upper East. In 1986, Jhabvala made her commitment to her chosen home official by becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States.