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.)
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 India," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1956, p. 2.
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 his ability to serve a Western meal as fine as any you could get in Paris.
If Mrs. Jhabvala's writing hasn't quite enough authority to maintain this standard of satire, the reader is considerably compensated by her gentler treatment of the young couple, their own confusions, their misunderstandings of each other, their rather pathetic searchings in an unfamiliar emotional world. (p. 28)
Santha Rama Rau, "A Conflict of Loyalties," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1956, pp. 4, 28.
[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 his resolution and goes there, taking the family with him and using Judy's savings to pay the train-fare; but the narrative itself is of little importance. It is a tenuous thing, strong enough to give the shrewd social comedy enough momentum to carry it through to a conclusion—none the less satisfactory because muted questions are left like vultures in an Indian sky.
"Indian Austen," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3299, May 20, 1965, p. 385.
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.
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...
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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,...
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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,...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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