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.