Out of India
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany in 1927, emigrated with her family to England in 1939, and emigrated again, this time to India, in 1951 as the wife of an Indian architect; after many years in India, she resides in the United States. As one might perhaps expect, her work is characterized above all by a sharp and astringent intelligence which observes the customs and habits of many national groups and subgroups without appearing to accept any of them; a faint sense of wonder—Why would people behave like that?—pervades even the shortest of her fictions.
In these stories, which span three decades of her career, several nationalities are observed through the complex and shifting “pecking order” of the Indian subcontinent. All emerge in some way or other with discredit. In one of the earlier stories, “The Man with the Dog,” Jhabvala fixes on a leftover from the time of European domination, the Dutchman Boekelman, who has refused to go home after the end of the war and the coming of Indian independence. He lives a life of total seclusion from India, associating only with other exiles, and able to speak only two words of Hindi, achchha (all right) and pani (water). Ridiculously he does not notice his own vulnerability, exploiting and provoking his Indian landlady and lover, till she tells him to go. Even then, pity melts her. Boekelman could stand as an image of the old racial pride and separation—apartheid (separateness), if one wanted to use the South African word.
That, however, is not how his Indian lover sees him, or not only how she sees him. In spite of his ridiculousness and weakness, and his physical ugliness, she sees him somehow as a source of deep peace and joy, for which she too is prepared to be an exile of sorts, separated from all of her children. Nationality is part of the relationship but not the most important part. In a similar way, several of Jhabvala’s stories in this collection fix on the theme of the English female who comes to India, not to rule anymore but to work for international organizations or to sit at the feet of some spiritual teacher, only (very nearly invariably) to meet some kind of sexual betrayal or humiliation. Part of the reason for this, one often senses, is the female character’s inability to read the clues of a different culture. When Betsy, in the story “Passion,” stops her taxi and offers a lift to the young man who has found her books in the library, she ought to have realized, first, that the act of doing this once creates an obligation to do it again, and, second—as the behavior of her flatmate’s boyfriend should have warned her—that this is liable at once to be sexually misinterpreted. Misunderstandings on both sides then grow exponentially. Har Gopal cannot handle alcohol, openness, or irreverence. Betsy cannot handle sex, social expectations, or the practical experience of poverty. The story ends with the two characters sitting silently on a step, not understanding each other in the slightest—but with Betsy in a further and dangerous state of total self-delusion about the society that surrounds her.
Indian society, however, by no means escapes the penetration of Jhabvala’s eye. In several stories she openly mocks the way in which Indians have failed to grasp the essence of a Western way of life, which they feel bound to admire or which they want to exploit. Thus the guru of “An Experience of India” takes an immediate interest in that story’s heroine when he discovers that she is married to a journalist. What he wants is media exposure and, after that, a lucrative spiritual practice in Europe or America. What he has failed to notice, though, is that the heroine is totally out of sympathy with her husband and has no power to give the guru what he wants at all. Even his vengeful rape of her only weakens his chance of domination; she is accustomed to being regarded as a loose woman by Indian males and is indifferent to it.
Indians are presented elsewhere as naïve or inexperienced. Rusi, the spoiled brat of “Bombay,” converses largely in fragments of nonsense dredged from science fiction or misunderstood newspaper headlines, and he gains a great reputation for intelligence within his own family by doing so. The insubstantiality of his ideas, though, is paralleled only by the similar passion for talk, debate, and ill-calculated experiment of the cabinet minister in “Rose Petals.” One might say that a standard reaction for Jhabvala is to distrust and mock any statement both grand and abstract, whether it is about “moral training,” India’s “need for economists,” or the leavening of “Western materialism” by “Indian spirituality.” To cant of this kind, though, she sees upper-class Indian culture as especially prone and Western middle-class females, perhaps, as especially vulnerable.
A characteristic not explained by Jhabvala’s cosmopolitan background is her sudden awareness of truth among the verbiage, of jewels amid the dross. Her stories abound in phonies such as the guru of “An Experience of India,” his counterpart of “A Spiritual Call,” and the cabinet minister of “Rose Petals.” Yet, as with Boekelman, one cannot be sure that every character will conform to type. The obvious answer to “How I Became a Holy Mother” is that the clever, hardened, former model heroine of that story became a holy mother by being caught engaged in intercourse with a handsome swami next to the Pillar of the Golden Rules, an incident which gave the swami’s European patroness no choice but to abandon her schemes or include the heroine in them. This satiric explanation, however, leaves out the enigmatic and for once wholly untarnished figure of “the Master” who instructs all the other characters in the story. Does his acceptance of physicality not override the cynicism of the others, even justify the heroine’s act? Jhabvala is at any rate quick to discern spiritual appetite, and praise spiritual truth, even in unpromising circumstances. Several of her heroines, even most of them, seem in obvious ways to be sexually exploited. Yet they can find peace, happiness, even transcendence in what happens to them. As with the couple in “The Man with the Dog,” conventional expectations of who is the winner and who the loser in a relationship may be dramatically overturned. Often her stories end, like “The Housewife,” with statements of sudden, unexpected, blissful happiness.
The endings of Jhabvala’s stories are indeed peculiarly enigmatic. She has an evident liking for using “I” narrators, and since in the majority of cases these narrators are deluded or blind, the last sentence or paragraph of a story may crystallize a long-accumulating irony. When Betsy’s heart leaps for joy at the end of “Passion” at the vision of the “new life” about to begin for her, the reader who has followed her tale of neglect and misunderstanding can be confident that this new life will be utterly different from what she thinks. Similarly, at the end of “Rose Petals,” the nameless heroine recalls a Persian poem which says that human life is like rose petals that fall and wither by the side of a vase. This cannot be true, she decides; her husband, her daughter, are stronger than rose petals: She can rely on them. The reader, though, who has followed the clues which say that the daughter is inept and foolish, the husband shallow and pompous, knows that the narrator is wrong, suspects that the image (for the heroine and her friend) may be right.
Just the same, the image at the end of “Rose Petals” is a complex one, so that one cannot take the final sentences of the story as expressing only the self-delusion of “Passion.” Other endings are even harder to interpret. At the close of “Bombay,” the uncle (whose life has been spent in Platonic love for his niece) is a bedridden invalid in her husband’s house, taunted by his idiot great-nephew, neglected by his niece, a recipient of family charity. Yet he is convinced that his former landlady’s prophecy of a happy future for him is right. His life is still not over. Further, the statement—obviously wrong though it seems—carries a kind of conviction, expressing once more the strength of his love; even under these circumstances the future holds the presence of his beloved, and that, literally, is all that he needs. At such moments one has to ask who is in error: the deluded narrators, heroes, and heroines, or the clear-sighted readers, who nevertheless are left forever outside the charmed circles of devotion, happiness, transcendence.
Jhabvala is more than a satirical novelist, more than an observer of cultures clashing. Can Jhabvala avoid the charge, though, of being a “provincial” novelist, or perhaps a “parochial” novelist—the former being defined as the writer of a society which takes all of its opinions from elsewhere, having no self-confidence, the latter as the writer of a society with supreme self-confidence, which refuses to accept that opinions outside its own exist? Both accusations could be leveled at Jhabvala’s India, its upper classes talking English and aping Western fashion, its lower classes sublimely ignorant. Certainly Jhabvala takes pleasure in working out in her stories the details which make Indian life characteristically Indian. Above all she chronicles the pressure of the Indian extended family, a pressure which leads to the financial “suicide” and retirement of the central character in “The Widow”; to a succession of smothered, selfish mothers’ boys in several stories; and, by contrast, to an awareness of the delights of freedom and individual action by the role-bound, spied-on females of “The Housewife” and “Desecration.” Yet though the particular quality of what happens in these stories may be peculiarly Indian, the product of a world without privacy, no Western reader has any problem in following them or in imagining how analogous events could and do happen in his own world. In the same way, though a racial theme is often prominent in Jhabvala’s stories, the hostilities of color are so intertwined with hostilities of class, money, sex, and religion that they appear as only one more dimension, not as a controlling alienness. All fiction needs, perhaps, enough similarity to its readers’ experiences for them to understand it, enough difference for their understanding to be stretched. Jhabvala’s “provincialism” provides the latter, her wide experience of the world the former. Over both, her concern to reach quintessences of human experience gives her a claim to permanent value.
It may be remarked finally that the effort of imagination needed to understand Jhabvala is less than that needed to reach the novelist with whom she is so often compared, Jane Austen. If a final comparison need be made, it is this: Both are ironic writers, both project a strong image of sense and hardheadedness. Where Austen’s ironies rest, though, on an underlying conviction that what is right is known, Jhabvala’s stem from profound uncertainty. In her world, one judgment does not entail another. The silly girl of one story becomes the fulfilled woman of another; false guru may turn to spiritual master. The stories of this collection do not clump together, similar in outline though they often are. Instead, they radiate outward, like probes or explorations from a central core.
Booklist. LXXXII, April 15, 1986, p. 1182.
Kirkus Reviews. LIV, April 15, 1986, p. 594.
Library Journal. CXI, April 15, 1986, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 3, 1986, p. 4.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI, May 25, 1986, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, March 28, 1986, p. 51.
Time. CXXVII, May 12, 1986, p. 90.
Washington Post Book World. XVI, May 25, 1986, p. 9.