(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Esmond in India is a novel of maneuver and misunderstanding. At its center is the traditional adulterous triangle of a man, Esmond Stillwood, and two women, his wife, Gulab, and the younger Shakuntala, with whom, late in the novel, he begins an affair. Yet in ironic reversal of novelistic convention, these romantic or sexual relationships are completely dwarfed in interest and importance by the subtler domestic struggles going on around them. Gulab never finds out about Shakuntala, and, though Gulab does leave Esmond and return to her family, this has nothing to do with her feelings about him, and everything to do with the long and vocal campaign conducted all through the novel by her Aunt Uma to get her, and especially her child Ravi, to come home to Indian food, Indian manners, and her Indian ties of blood. Similarly, Shakuntala’s family never find out about Esmond, or even suspect such a possibility, concerned as they are about making a prosperous marriage for her, which will above all defeat the feared and dangerous prospect of Shakuntala’s deciding to marry Gulab’s brother Narayan, a qualified doctor but one who shows no ambition toward using his qualifications to make money.

The real events in the novel, as one can see already, are almost hidden by a cloud of hopes, fears, and possibilities, few or none of which eventuate. The general anxiety which fills the novel is, moreover, generated and fueled by events in the past, both personal and political, which everyone remembers but no one is eager to mention. At the root of the whole confusion lies the changed relationship of Ram Nath and Har Dayal, the two fathers. Both were once of similar status, rich, Cambridge-educated, full of potential, with Ram Nath the elder and guiding spirit. This relationship, however, has, by the time of the novel, been reversed: Har Dayal is rich, Ram Nath relatively poor (though still supported by portions of his former property). The change...

(The entire section is 795 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Esmond in India, one of Jhabvala’s earliest novels, introduces a darker set of themes that the writer continued to explore in her later work. The principal theme is the dilemma of the foreigner in India, whose initial delight in the country turns to isolation and bitterness. Clearly, this is a subject of personal concern for Jhabvala. The novel begins and ends by focusing on the character of young Shakuntala and spans a period of five months, which is the time that elapses between Shakuntala’s graduation from college and her prearranged marriage with the son of her father’s friend and associate. It is the life of Esmond, however, the one stranger in the midst of four interlinked Indian families, that is of primary interest. The plot of Esmond in India brings the four Indian households into alternate periods of intimacy and conflict, as they are all connected by blood, shared memories, or old associations, while Jhabvala appears to isolate Esmond in order to examine him most closely. He is the only Westerner among them, linked to them by a marriage of which they all disapprove. He is, for a while, married to Gulab (belonging to one of the four families) and has a son, Ravi, though his wife and son return to her mother’s house by the end of the novel.

Although Esmond associates with other Westerners in India, he is isolated among them because he has no plans to leave India. He is also one of the few characters in the novel to...

(The entire section is 465 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Gooneratne, Yasmine. Silence, Exile and Cunning: The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1983.

Shahane, Vasant A. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1976.

Williams, Haydn M. The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1973.

Williams, Haydn M. “Strangers in a Backward Place: Modern India in the Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. VI (1971), pp. 53-64.