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A Tea Party is actually a segment from a broader novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala titled The Householder. Familiarity with that novel is key to providing context, then, for A Tea Party. Jhabvala's protagonist is a young, put-upon teacher named Prem whose beautiful wife, Indu, is pregnant with their first child. The Householder is about Prem's often comedic but frequently poignant attempts at navigating his nation's cultural and socioeconomic idiosyncrasies. Much as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw satirized Victorian customs, Jhabvala's novel shines a critical light on India's rigid caste system and on the pomposity of its educated classes. That pomposity is personified in A Tea Party by Prem's headmaster, Mr. Khanna, who invites Prem and Indu to a tea party during which he presides majestically if condescendingly over the proceedings. Much of the humor in Jhabvala's story is derived from Prem's obsequious attempts at assimilating into this intellectual and upper class environment while his less-educated and somewhat simple-minded wife blunders through the event.
Jhabvala was of European ancestry, but married an Indian man and resided for many years in her husband's native land. As a neutral but acerbic observer, the author was able to apply her experiences to her writing, which she did in her adaptations of Henry James and E.F. Forster for film. A Tea Party is a microcosm of the broader cultural milieu in which she was immersed for so many instructive and enlightening years.
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