Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s lack of ties to any one place may account for her objectivity as a writer. However, her detachment does not prevent her from empathizing with her characters, nor does her rootlessness make her less conscious of the importance of place. Jhabvala’s experiences may have made her more capable of understanding how feelings of isolation affect individuals, whether they are Indian women, restricted by too many traditions, or Manhattanites, burdened by too many options.
Jhabvala’s early stories reflect the delight that, in her story “Myself in India,” she describes as a Westerner’s initial reaction to India. Like Jane Austen, to whom she was compared by critics, Jhabvala here emphasizes the comic elements in family life, though she does satirize self-deception, snobbery, or pretentiousness. In these lighthearted stories, Jhabvala’s characters emerge from their adventures relatively unscathed. For example, the narrator of “My First Marriage,” from Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories, regards her seduction and abandonment as incidents that merely make her more interesting.
In the 1970’s, Jhabvala’s short fiction became more pessimistic. Some of her characters seek to escape from the world by following spiritual leaders, as does the protagonist in the title story of An Experience of India; others, like the minister in “Rose Petals,” from the same collection, have hopes of improving society; still others, such as the minister’s wife, dedicate their lives to amusing themselves. Whether they reside in New Delhi or New York, the characters in East into Upper East live with the same uncertainties. Although these later stories often end unresolved, one can find satisfaction in their artistic perfection.
“The Old Lady”
“The Old Lady” from Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories is typical of Jhabvala’s early works. Its plot is minimal: The author simply records a few hours of ordinary life in a prosperous Indian family. Besides the servants, the household includes the old lady, her daughter Leila, her son Bobo, and Leila’s daughter Munni. Leila’s estranged husband Krishna and her older brother Satish, a lawyer, appear for lunch. The household is filled with tension. Leila finds her husband irritating and is annoyed with her mother, her brother, and her daughter for being so fond of him. During their lunch together, Leila embarrasses the inoffensive Krishna and quarrels with Bobo and Satish. Afterward, she criticizes her mother for being too old-fashioned to understand divorce. However, to Satish’s annoyance, nothing is decided. The protagonist recognizes this atmosphere as the one that prevailed when her husband was still living. Then she, too, was unhappy; now, however, she has learned from a guru how to distance herself from the emotional turmoil around her. There...
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