The reader of Esmond in India understands its events much better than the characters do. Associated with this relative superiority of knowledge is a markedly low level of sympathy. Few, if any, of the characters seem attractive; all are much more easily characterized by faults than by virtues. Most of Har Dayal’s family appear snobbish to the point of hypocrisy. Their social position depends on Har Dayal’s standing as an interpreter of culture and the arts, and all the children have been expensively educated. Yet none of them seems to have retained even a mild interest in his or her studies. In an early scene, Shakuntala picks up an artistic magazine entitled Advance and riffles through its pages, thinking that she must ask “Daddyji” to tell her which articles to read when she has time. That, however, is as far as her interest goes. Her brother and sister-in-law are more frankly uninterested in anything except money, and even her father is exposed as a mere speechmaker and committee member, with no substance behind his words.
On the other side, Ram Nath’s family seem more physically repellent. Gulab, in particular, though famous as a beauty, radiates idleness and gluttony. Here, however, a cultural element enters. To Esmond (and very probably to any Western reader), Gulab’s smotheringly close relationship with her son Ravi, full of ardent kisses and embraces, seems downright unhealthy, as does her continuous appetite for scented oil, sugared milk with rose essence, cream-cheese curry, food fried in clarified butter, and the rest of a lovingly described Indian diet. At the same time, though, Esmond’s careful lunches, close self-control, and especially the concealed aggression of his speech, are all presented from an Indian viewpoint, coming over as cold, finicky, often ridiculous. One can see why Uma should want to take Gulab and Ravi away from this bloodless man and simultaneously why Esmond should want to flee to England, find another wife, and hope for a less sticky and cloying environment. “To know all is to forgive all,” runs the old adage, and the reader certainly knows much about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s characters by the end. Forgiveness, however, is less encouraged by the novel than cool evaluation, tinged by regret or pity.
Shakuntala (shah-kewn-TAH-lah), a nineteen-year-old, upper-class, recent college graduate, the daughter of Har Dayal and Madhuri. Shakuntala enjoys the luxuries of home and of being out of school with an as-yet-undefined future. Attractive, yet careless about her dress and appearance, romantic, headstrong, and slightly bohemian, Shakuntala rejects her mother’s conventional values and shares her father’s vaguely artistic inclinations. By the end of the novel, she has become Esmond Stillwood’s mistress, having cast herself at him because of his romantic good looks and his seemingly vast knowledge of and interest in Indian culture.
Esmond Stillwood, a thirtyish English lecturer on Indian art and culture. The husband of Gulab and father of Ravi, Esmond also is the lover of Betty and later of Shakuntala. Unhappily married, Esmond finds himself turning from mental to physical cruelty toward his wife, who cannot master his British traditions and way of life any more than he can truly understand her deeply Indian culture. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Stillwood will desert India, Gulab, Shakuntala, and even Ravi to return to England on Betty’s money.
Gulab (GEW -lahb), Esmond Stillwood’s wife, Uma’s daughter, and Ravi’s mother. Beautiful, idle, fatalistic, and deeply sensual, Gulab embodies an ancient Indian tradition and way of life. Once engaged to Amrit, Gulab jilted him and stubbornly married Stillwood. Although she tries to conform to Esmond’s household rules and is never overtly critical of them, she reverts to her way of doing things the moment he is out of sight, both in the food she eats and in her affectionate and deeply...
(The entire section is 1,538 words.)