Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 29)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927–
British novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.
Born in Germany of Polish parents, educated in England, and living in India since 1951, Jhabvala writes from her experiences as both an "insider" and an "outsider" to present highly acclaimed fiction about life in India. Her characters, whether Indian or European residents, are minutely drawn, as she focuses on their relationships, families, and culture. Critics often discuss her work in terms of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India for her insights into Indian and European contrasts and Jane Austen's novels of manners for her gently understated satire. Jhabvala received the Booker McConnell Prize for Heat and Dust (1973), a novel about European residents of India who come to question their Western assumptions. She has also written several screenplays, including Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Autobiography of a Princess (1975), and it has been suggested that her experience with cinematic devices has influenced the narrative structure of her later novels, especially A New Dominion (1972).
Jhabvala's fiction is often based on her characters' conflicting desires for both Western comfort and the spiritual satisfaction offered by Hinduism and Indian tradition. In Esmond in India (1958) an upwardly mobile Indian unwittingly initiates the demise of his traditionally religious family structure, while an Indian in The Householder (1960) tries to use Hinduism as an escape from his marital obligations. Hans, in The Householder, and the young women in A New Dominion are Westerners in search of oriental spiritual wisdom who misinterpret Hindu philosophy. Some critics find these and other characters of Jhabvala's clichéd and oversimplified. Nonetheless, critics generally agree that her most prominent theme, the conflict between East and West which Jhabvala portrays through her characters, is well developed.
In her recent novel, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Jhabvala again explores the theme of expatriation. This work depicts a group of German refugees living in America who pursue unobtainable goals. Several critics find her characters less successfully drawn than those in her Indian novels. Jhabvala's most highly acclaimed works remain those in which she combines her unassuming style and satiric tone with her unique cultural perspective to depict the complexities of India and its confrontations with Western values. She is ranked by some critics with R. K. Narayan as the most important English-language writers of fiction in India.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Nancy Wilson Ross
The author of "Amrita," R. Prawer Jhabvala, who has been widely compared in the British press to Jane Austen, has written a fresh and witty novel about modern India. It is not necessary to know anything about the customs and habits of the mixed population of India's capital city, New Delhi—the setting of Mrs. Jhabvala's lively comedy of manners—to enjoy her ironic social commentary. The book's characters, however, including the heroine, Amrita, are lent a special fillip by their geographic and historic setting. They have been created in part by the yeasty paradoxes of post-independence, post-partition, post-war India.
"Amrita" tells the story of a star-crossed romance between a girl from a local Anglicized Hindu family of proud lineage and Hart, a transplanted Punjabi Hindu from Lahore….
The families of Hari and Amrita provide Mrs. Jhabvala with her opportunity for deft portrayal of a number of modern Indian types….
The entire social atmosphere, in spite of the presence of glaring inequalities, fatalism, family feuds, envy and greed, is enclosed in that indescribable Indian climate of lovableness and emotional prodigality which so touches and puzzles the Western visitor. This novel of acute observation and literary distinction is a better guide to modern urban India than any guidebook.
Nancy Wilson Ross, "A Fresh and Lively Comedy of Love in Modern...
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Santha Rama Rau
R. Prawer Jhabvala's first novel, "Amrita" [published in Britain as "To Whom She Will"], is an amusing, slightly caustic comedy, as genuinely Indian as any tale of village suffering, but dealing with aspects of Indian society that have received little attention.
Mrs. Jhabvala sets her story in post-independence New Delhi, and this gives her an excellent opportunity to describe some of the many levels of Indian urban life and to explore with an entertaining detachment some of the pretensions, maladjustments, successes and charms of modern life in an Indian city. Her central character, Amrita, is the daughter of a respectable, fairly rich family.
She has managed to get a job as an announcer in the local radio station, and there has met and fallen in love with Hari, a most unsuitable young man….
Both families set briskly to work to break up the attachment by various stratagems. (p. 4)
From time to time Mrs. Jhabvala's writing achieves a sharp irony. There is, for example, a very funny description of a fashionable lunch party complete with those readily recognizable Delhi characters—the foreign professor who insists on lecturing about ancient Indian art, a Lady Ram Prashad with her determined cultivation, the aggressively simple Dr. Mukherji who makes a virtue of her crumpled cotton saris and the fact that she eats boiled vegetables with her fingers, the Indian host who is proud of...
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The Times Literary Supplement
[Mrs. Jhabvala, in A Backward Place,] has not the sustained brilliance that Jane Austen often rises to; and she cannot quite manage that astonishing bite and attack. All the same her many excellent qualities are nearly all Austenish ones, and they make her a most interesting and satisfactory writer.
Mrs. Jhabvala can supply one ingredient quite outside Jane Austen's repertoire: an exotic, colourful background which she touches in with swift, sure strokes….
[The] scenery of the novel is never allowed to be more than the discreetest, most unobtrusive of backgrounds. Always well to the fore are the little groups of characters. Bal, the aspirant film-actor with a gift for unemployment, his English wife Judy, his brother and sister-in-law and his devout aunt Bhuaji form one cluster. Then there are the expatriates….
Mrs. Jhabvala examines her various little character-groups, in a quiet, well-behaved, observant way. She works through the medium of many short scenes. There is no sweep, no undertow. Her effects are achieved by piecemeal accumulation. Gradually they mount up into something impressive—lucid, controlled, eschewing commentary, unsparing in delineation of human foible and yet understanding.
The story is about Bal's yearning for the cinematic fleshpots of Bombay, and about how, after Etta has taunted him about his willingness to live on Judy's earnings, he stiffens...
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A Backward Place is very professional light comedy. After Independence, the Europeans have descended on India, investigating, enthusing, simply finding that the country suits them to live in. The author … keeps a tone of affectionate irritation, but keeps it with difficulty. Novels about Asia concentrate too much on invertebrate charm, like novels about college girls married to actors. The over-optimistic, childish, feckless, family-ridden side of the male population can't be the only side there is…. The English wife, who works in a flyblown cultural outfit in Delhi to support her husband while he dreams of astounding his café friends by, say, making a success in films, accepts a world not too different from her lower-class English home, but her ghastly friends do not. Gentle, sadly amusing, this picture of the greatest of all ex-colonial territories makes it seem a picturesque backwater.
R.G.G. Price, in a review of "A Backward Place," in Punch (© 1965 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. CCXLVII, No. 6511, June 23, 1965, p. 942.
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H. Moore Williams
Mr. Khushwant Singh in bracketing Mrs. R. Prawer Jhabvala with Mr. R. K. Narayan as the leading Indian novelists now writing in English has suggested that she writes in the main about the "Babbitts" of Delhi. It would be a gross generalization to speak of "Babbittry" as Jhabvala's preoccupation although at least two of her six novels (Get Ready for Battle and The Nature of Passion) explore in depth the lives of the rich and corrupt bourgeoisie of present-day India, while several others have rich bourgeois characters in less central positions. The original Babbitt of Sinclair Lewis was a satirical exposure of American bourgeois society, told not without some ultimate sympathy for the hero caught in the trap of social climbing and conformism, a sympathy which Jhabvala sometimes imitates towards her Babbitts. As a novelist Jhabvala is highly delicate and ambiguous in tone and her satire is only an element (though an important one) in her work. An examination of her Babbitts in fact shows how the Indian tradition and context and related cultural differences have complicated the picture. In this essay therefore the word "Babbitt" will be used to cover a range of Indian bourgeois types, some of which have only a tenuous connection with the Sinclair Lewis prototype. Jhabvala is more essentially a novelist of manners rather than a novelist of ideas; and notions of class and economic conflict are subordinated to her study of family life,...
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The Times Literary Supplement
Travelling people, moody, self-absorbed people shopping round for a friend or a lover or a guru, form the motley cast of R. Prawer Jhabvala's [A New Dominion]. She lets them loose to test their trite identities ("Gopi the gay and gallant groom", "Margaret hates modern materialism") against an Indian culture that returns a mocking echo to every question. If they find what they are looking for, perhaps that is only because India is so hybrid, so vast, so obligingly ambiguous. Mrs Jhabvala observes her people with concentrated calm: their energetic aimlessness, dim yearnings and contradictory oracles make a fascinatingly various pattern….
The social web is elaborate, insecure and many-layered, so that nobody can make a move without setting off significant vibrations. Glazed-eyed, determined American Lee …; hesitant, fastidious, English Raymond, who might have stepped out of a novel by E. M. Forster; the Swamiji learning to use the butter-knife in preparation for his world tour: all of them act on each other in unpredictable, often unconscious ways. For all her coolness, Mrs Jhabvala has the greedy curiosity of the true social novelist, and she finds plenty of food for it in the bland anomalies of the Indian scene….
It would not do, though, to make A New Dominion sound cosily recognizable; it has a distinctive and disturbing flavour. An English novelist, given this stuff, these people, would (one...
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There are three novels in [A New Dominion], Mrs. Jhabvala's latest tour of the Indian horizon, two of them excellent and the third interesting enough in all conscience. She dances between them in little sketches each with its headline calculated to produce the embarrassing faux-naif effect which one remembers from earlier attempts to introduce us to the charms of undeveloped philosophy….
The first novel concerns two English girls who come to India seeking self-fulfilment. They join the ashram of a guru called Swamiji, who teaches total subservience to himself and is surrounded by acolytes who belong to him, body and soul. One of the girls dies of infective hepatitis while the other, called Lee, who is a girl of sturdy common-sense and sees through the hysteria of the ashram, nevertheless decides to devote her life to serving the Swamiji for reasons which are too complicated and too feminine for me to understand. By the end we accept the Swamiji as a more or less cynical rogue, and so does Lee, but there it is.
The second novel describes old India making way for the new. A fat and middle-aged princess wallows in useless boredom while her brother, a politician, trots out all the clichés of socialist nationalism to explain why Miss Charlotte, an aged Englishwoman, should close down the small mission she has run for thirty years. (p. 203)
The third novel is about a repressed,...
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Vasant A. Shahane
The achievement of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as a literary artist is distinctive, yet limited at the same time; distinctive, because she has cultivated and demonstrated the qualities of a literary artist which are her own and emerge naturally from a social and cultural milieu peculiar to herself. But her distinction is modified and narrowed by the rather limited quality of her literary achievement, which is partly the inevitable result of her choice, and partly the artistic outcome of her creativity. This peculiar paradox of her attainment as an artist is, in a way, rooted in the environs of her literary effort, and is also co-extensive with the range and quality of her fiction.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has been variously described as an 'inside-outsider' and an 'outside-insider'. These apparently contrary expressions are more meaningful than mere high-sounding literary labels since they impinge on her special personal and literary situation. She is essentially a European writer who has lived, and continues to live, in India and has given to her experience of life and society in India an artistic expression. From a European literary vantage point she may seem an 'outside-insider', while from the Indian artistic point of view she seems an 'inside-outsider'. Both these descriptions involve a basic change of perspective, though one of them is inherent in her literary situation.
A New Dominion … marks a new phase in...
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EUNICE de SOUZA
[There] is a monotonous sameness in [Jhabvala's] writing: in the kinds of characters chosen, the angles from which they are observed. More important, there is no progress towards a deepening of insights about the social forces at work in [India], no striving to understand these. Indeed, the writer shows no inclination whatsoever even to attempt to go beyond the facile emotional reactions to what she observes on the Indian social scene. (p. 219)
[The kind of characters who inhabit the Jhabvala world are recurring stereotypes.] What is monotonous about all these one-dimensional stereotypes is that there is no objectivity or depth in their depiction. No attempt is made to understand and to project through the types the social pressures which produce such characters, the motivating forces and value systems that drive them to be what they are. There is observation in the novels and short stories, but not insight, analysis, or psychological depth. Perceived behaviour is all [that] Jhabvala seems to be able to cope with.
The unpleasant Indian types Jhabvala depicts certainly exist, and Indians probably dislike them as much as Jhabvala appears to do. But Indians cannot shrug them off with a sneer or an ironic comment as Jhabvala does…. Even if we agree with Jhabvala that the Westernized Indian is superficial, and there are many Indians who would agree with her on this score, the fact remains that it is these superficial,...
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Writing for the cinema allows Mrs. Jhabvala to reach a far larger audience than she could ever have thought it possible (before 1975) to reach with her novels and stories. A concern to strip life of its illusions seems to motivate her films and fiction alike during the period under review [1960–1976], and it is evident that she often works out in her films ideas that run as major themes through her fiction. Asked in 1975 to comment on the influence of film-making on her writing of fiction, she referred to a "personal influence":
The films allowed me to travel a lot more and meet a great many people of all different types. You must have noticed that my early books were all set in Delhi but later on I do branch out and travel. That is entirely due to film.
It is certainly true that the fiction written after 1960 ranges far more widely than before; geographically, as in A New Dominion, which takes its characters by stages (like Jenny, Tom and the Ustad in The Guru) deeper into India, and socially more freely than ever up and down India's infinitely varied and graded social scale. The early novels were indeed all set in Delhi, and though they could be said to present India in microcosm, the later fiction travels not only through space but through time in ways that make Mrs. Jhabvala's India begin to take on the aspects of a cosmic metaphor for life and universal...
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V. S. Pritchett
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's stories have been compared to Chekhov's. She is a detached observer of what he called morbus fraudulentus, the comedy (in the sternest sense) of self-delusion which leaves us to make up our minds. Her novel A New Dominion embodies this irony, but one is more struck, this time, by the echoes of A Passage to India. Two generations have passed since Forster. The Westerner is not now in India to rule or give…. But, allowing for this difference, Forster's and Mrs Jhabvala's characters are matched. Raymond, the sensitive English aesthete and inquirer, is another Fielding, plus unconscious homosexuality; his Indian friend, the ingenuous and plaguing student Gopi, is a budding, ill-educated, up-to-date version of Dr Aziz. The disturbance in the mind of the unhappy Mrs Moore becomes bold and explicit in the persons of three English girls who have recklessly gone to India on a spiritual quest. They throw themselves without defence upon India in order to attain their 'higher selfhood' and to find their 'deepest essence'. To these lengths Forster's characters never went, for the girls have come to suffer, to be destroyed so that they can be remade. Times have changed, but the theme is similar: opposites have met.
In one way, Mrs Jhabvala's book is a satirical study of the disasters that overtake those who dabble in the wisdom of the East, and one can think the lesson forced. The girls are rootless,...
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Having come to New York in the 1930s, a refugee from Austria, Leo Kellermann [in In Search of Love and Beauty] establishes himself as a 'psycho-spiritual therapist': a Bacchus figure in a monk's robe 'girdled by a studded cowboy belt'. Aside from collecting the pupils and disciples he collects, he is also the pivot around which turn the lives of three generations (the story spans half a century) of an émigré New York family whose matriarch, Louise, 'adopted' him when he first arrived in the States.
Leo is neither the first 'guru' to feature in Prawer Jhabvala's fiction, nor is he the only one in In Search of Love and Beauty. Louise's daughter, Marietta, resentful of Leo's hold on her family, tours the ashrams of India in a desultory quest for the more traditional variety. And this, of course, is the novel's subject—that structureless, restless, enervated, peculiarly Western search for the Meaning of Life. Marietta sometimes pursues it through her passionate love for her son; or in promiscuous sexual relations with middle-class Indian boys. Her son, for his part, looks for it in a quasi-sadomasochistic involvement with a 'wholesome, Anglo-Saxon' stud called Kent. Her mother, Louise, has her complex devotion to Leo; while her mother's friend Regi trawls the world for face lifts, excitement and servile young men.
The problem is that Prawer Jhabvala is none too sure if her characters are at least...
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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's [In Search of Love and Beauty, her first novel] since the prize-winning Heat and Dust, is set largely in the United States. For a writer who has made Indian-Western relationships her own particular field, there is an element of risk in moving into new territory—in this case, cosmopolitan New York—which the natives themselves have cultivated with great success and perhaps to the point of exhaustion. The foreign writer must adopt an individual strategy unavailable to the natives: pure fantasy for a non-visitor like Kafka, humorous disdain for an exile like Nabokov. Mrs Prawer Jhabvala has opted for a sort of selective romanticism—selective, because she admits only a small cast of characters: romantic because she seems to exclude anything likely to interfere with the quest proposed in her title. Clearly, love and beauty can easily be pushed out into the margin where modern metropolitan life is concerned. Only by neglecting most of its impact can the novelist devote her attention to her theme.
A group of refugees arrives in New York some time in the early 1930s. Louise, her much older husband, Bruno, and her friend Regi are all rich: they have "brought their money out" and in the case of Bruno and Louise, their furniture as well.
Regi introduces Louise to Leo Kellermann, another refugee, described on the first page as "an Adonis!—An Apollo!" In reality he is a domineering...
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The follow-up to Heat and Dust has been a long time coming. And, although a fine novel, it's unlikely to keep [Jhabvala's] reputation at the sky-high level it suddenly achieved eight years ago. The narrative of In Search of Love and Beauty flits achronologically over the lives of a group of Austrian and German émigrés, comfortably resettled in America. They have contrived to get their money out, and have eluded Hitler. But refuge has its penalty in the pointlessness of refugee existence. Bored and stranded, their lives are historical leftovers, without any cultural significance or moment. Jhabvala's narrative is correspondingly inconsequential, observing no linear sequence, central action or climax. The novel, as it were, is not told: it takes place. Its intensest effects are those of charm and pathos….
Jhabvala's touch is too delicate for satire, but there is a pleasant hilarity in the description of the ritual dances performed by Leo's students symbolising 'the harmonious absorption of the Individual into the Universe'. No one, of course, becomes anything in this novel. Nor are the characters absorbed, harmoniously or otherwise, into the fabric of American life. They remain, like their favourite resort, the Old Vienna restaurant, fixed in foreign forms, smart and irrelevant. The novel, after circling aimlessly over thirty years of their aimless lives, concludes with Regi, alone and senile, blowing out the candles on...
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Though she was born in Germany of Polish Jewish parents and has until now located her fiction in India, where she lived for many years, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has always seemed, in temperament and practice, to be a British novelist of a very distinct kind. Such a novelist (usually, but not invariably, female) is notable for her ability to deal firmly with any amount of nonsense from her characters. She instantly sees through their little games, laughs at their pretensions and calls them to order when they step out of line. Their antics may sometimes surprise the reader but never their mistress. She is witty, often funny and nearly always a precisionist in style. Though she usually allows herself one or two pet characters in each book, she is not known for exceptional kindness to most of her creations, who, if female, are likely to be vain, demanding or self-deluding and, if male, pompous, weak or fecklessly eccentric. This novelist (who has far more individuality than my composite sketch can indicate) has appeared variously under the names of Nancy Mitford, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym.
Certainly Mrs. Jhabvala's "In Search of Love and Beauty" displays in abundance the wit and chilling accuracy of insight that I associate with the British type. A macabre comedy of impulsive, thwarted lives, it is her first work of fiction to enjoy—if that is the word—an American setting. Like its predecessor, "Heat and Dust" (the most...
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The title of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's new novel, "In Search of Love and Beauty" … evokes that of Proust's great opus concerning the search for lost time, and much else about the novel is Proustian: its aristocratic milieu, where there is always enough money to finance romance; its multi-generational scope; its free movements back and forth in time; its frequent scenes of sexual spying; its interest in Jewishness and homosexuality as modes of estrangement; and its insistent moral that human love will always find an unworthy object…. [However, there is] one respect wherein this novel does not resemble Proust—a certain hurried flatness of the prose; the authorial voice assumes a tone of gossip and summation before the characters have earned our interest and, briskly racing around the ambitious territory staked out, does not always provide the specificity of which this fine writer is capable. In Proust's interweave of romantic delusions, the glory of the descriptions, as the narrator strives to recapture the past, redeems everyone, even characters as tawdry as Jupien and Morel; in "In Search of Love and Beauty" no one is redeemed.
Yet the novel contains a world of knowing and many vivid scenes that in sum give a colorful picture of what America meant to the upper-class Germans who immigrated here during the thirties, and what they made of it. Like the Russians who came to Berlin a decade before, they retained as much of their social...
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