Critical Context

A novel such as Esmond in India could probably not have been written by a native-born Indian. Its attitude toward independence, recorded barely ten years after that achievement, is too disillusioned. It is difficult, meanwhile, to imagine an English author writing with such neutrality about the way English people are perceived. Jhabvala, however, is almost a perfect example of an “outsider” author, having been born in Germany, of Jewish parents, having emigrated to England before World War II, and having emigrated again to India in early maturity as the wife (perhaps significantly again) of a Parsi, belonging to another religious minority. Jhabvala is accordingly in touch with many cultures but committed to none.

Her awareness of cultural oppositions in space and time was to bring her the Booker Prize for Fiction for Heat and Dust (1975). The main achievement of Esmond in India, however-her third novel, written some twenty years before-lies in its combination of deep cultural relativism in subject with close adherence to tradition in form. Esmond in India is a classic example of the wryly amused “storm in a teacup” novel, so strikingly pioneered by Jane Austen. Jhabvala follows Austen’s technique, manner, tone, and even, to some extent, her moral attitude. Yet all has been transported, miraculously, to far different skies and customs.