The Householder Summary
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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The Householder Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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In the opening pages of the novel, the third-person omniscient narrator introduces Prem, struggling to maintain an illusion of dignity and beset with anxieties over how he will manage the family’s affairs. His marriage with Indu was arranged, according to Hindu custom, by his mother after his father’s death. He is in his first year as a Hindi teacher at Khanna Private College, a school for boys of wealthy families who need additional study before they can be accepted into better colleges. Although he has been married for a few months, Prem regards Indu as a stranger; she does little that suits him, and he is critical of even her visits with the Seigals, his upper-middle-class landlords who live in an apartment below his own modest quarters. Prem, characteristically lacking self-confidence, sees himself as a failure as both a husband and a teacher.

Prem defines his role as husband as only that of material provider. Embarassed by sexuality and Indu’s increasingly visible pregnancy, he thinks of the anticipated birth only in terms of higher salary, lower rent, or both. His bumbling, comic attempt to request a raise from Mr. Khanna, the aloof overbearing headmaster, ends without Prem having even made the request. When Prem attempts to ask the Seigals for reduced rent after the baby arrives, he suffers the same result: Prem cannot ask for what he wants, because he does not know what it is that he really wants. Isolated from his fellow teachers and indifferent to classroom discipline, Prem is befriended by Sohan Lal, a mentor figure, who has been a householder for much of his life. Lal’s response to the anxieties and responsibilities of family life, however, has been to adopt lower-middle-class living standards and periodically to visit a local guru, whose message, ironically, is the renunciation of mundane, material life—including that of the family. The message is anything but relevant to Prem. Trying to assert himself as a disciplinarian in order to impress Mr. Khanna and hoping to avoid what he perceives as the humdrum routine of Lal’s life, Prem reports several students who harass young girls passing the school. When he is confronted by Mr. Khanna’s inaction (he is afraid of losing the boys’ tuition), Prem retracts his accusations. Whatever Prem sets out to do, he seems destined to fail.

In the midst of his anxiety, Prem meets a young German, Hans Loewe, who sees Prem as a stereotype of Indian spiritualism. While Hans questions him about the philosophical virtues of Hinduism, Prem reports the material progress of independent India. Shortly after his new friendship with Hans, Prem accompanies Lal to the guru’s temple, the top floor of an old house. While Prem is moved by the guru’s happiness and devotion, the impression is fleeting. Completely isolated (even his weekly meetings with his friend Raj at the cinema have ended), Prem is forced to confront conflicting loyalties to his wife and to his mother, who plans to visit at the same time that Indu plans to return home, a plan that Prem has forbidden to no avail. To make matters worse, Prem has been invited to a tea party at his school—an occasion whose importance he vastly overestimates—and he expects Indu to accompany him.

When his mother arrives, Prem’s household becomes engulfed in silent tension. His mother gives the couple little room for privacy, and Indu withdraws further into herself, remaining silent much of the time, weathering the mother’s snide comments and retiring to bed earlier than usual. As his mother, a self-pitying busybody, apologizes for Prem’s bad marriage, Prem himself comes to appreciate Indu more than ever before. In fact, he begins to fall in love with Indu, although he is still unwilling to defend her from his mother’s criticism or notice that she delays her trip in order to go to the tea party with him. Resuming his friendship with Raj, Prem finds himself warming to the idea of being both husband and father, a householder.

At the Khannas’ tea party, Prem is fascinated with Indu’s beauty, but his enthrallment gives way to embarrassment as Indu gobbles up sweets and ignores the condescending insults of Mrs. Khanna, the domineering, arrogant voice of power behind the scenes at the school. Desperately hoping for the chance to impress his colleagues at the party, Prem remains oblivious to Mrs. Khanna’s shabby treatment of his wife; he leaves the party still dreaming of the perfect profound statement but without having uttered much more than a word. The next day, once again sensing his failure, Prem contemplates the guru’s call for renunciation of desire and ambition and for a life of devotion, bhakti yoga. After once more attempting and failing to ask for lower rent, Prem begins to sense that much of his life is illusion, or maya, as the guru had suggested. He is jerked back into reality, however, by his mother’s relentless martyrdom and Indu’s departure for her parents’ home.

In Indu’s absence, Prem’s mother pampers him as if he were a child. The very contrast in his mother’s attitude and his own sense of failure as an adult drives Prem deeper into his frustration. During his mother’s visit, however, Prem develops a genuine love for Indu: He writes angry letters and an explicit love letter but then destroys them. After another visit to the guru during which Prem realizes that devotion to God can also be devotion to Indu and the householding stage of his life, a halfhearted attempt to secure a new job in Raj’s office, and receiving a letter from Indu, Prem realizes that he enjoys the household pressures. He begins to feel confident that he can accept responsibility, and stronger for the realization, he writes to Mr. Khanna requesting a raise.

When Indu arrives home, Prem acts quickly, writing his sister in Bangalore in order to arrange for his mother to visit his sister upon her request. Indu and Prem discover new intimacy in their sexuality, and Prem senses, perhaps for the first time, that they do belong together. Once more overcome by timidity, however, he asks his mother to request the reduction in rent, which fails when she insults the Seigals before asking them. After his mother leaves for Bangalore, Prem and Indu fall more in love than ever. The sense of belonging fortifies Prem anew: he argues with Mr. Chaddha, the pretentious history teacher with whom he shares a classroom, after Mr. Chaddha has insulted him in front of his students. As a result, Prem is threatened with dismissal, but he accepts the threat stoically, realizing that lower rent (when Prem finally does make the request, the Seigals ignore him) and a higher salary will not be possible.

Happy simply to have his job, Prem’s depression abates more rapidly than it might have in the weeks before Indu’s return. A visit to the guru, a chance encounter with Hans while he visits his friend Raj, and the recollections of his own wedding while attending that of Lal’s daughter all lead to Prem’s growing satisfaction with his responsibilities. When Hans visits him at the college before returning to Europe, Prem realizes that his best friend is Indu. He delights in pleasing her by inviting Raj and his family to dinner. With his confidence in both her and himself thus expressed, Prem beams with pride when Raj accepts the invitation. As the novel closes, Raj compliments Prem on Indu’s cooking, symbolizing Prem’s newfound comfort and pride in his role as head of household.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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

McArthur, Herbert. “In Search of the Indian Novel,” in The Massachusetts Review. II (Summer, 1961), pp. 600-613.

Shahane, Vasant. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1976.

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