Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Short Fiction Analysis
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s lack of ties to any one place may account for her objectivity as a writer. However, her detachment does not prevent her from empathizing with her characters, nor does her rootlessness make her less conscious of the importance of place. Jhabvala’s experiences may have made her more capable of understanding how feelings of isolation affect individuals, whether they are Indian women, restricted by too many traditions, or Manhattanites, burdened by too many options.
Jhabvala’s early stories reflect the delight that, in her story “Myself in India,” she describes as a Westerner’s initial reaction to India. Like Jane Austen, to whom she was compared by critics, Jhabvala here emphasizes the comic elements in family life, though she does satirize self-deception, snobbery, or pretentiousness. In these lighthearted stories, Jhabvala’s characters emerge from their adventures relatively unscathed. For example, the narrator of “My First Marriage,” from Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories, regards her seduction and abandonment as incidents that merely make her more interesting.
In the 1970’s, Jhabvala’s short fiction became more pessimistic. Some of her characters seek to escape from the world by following spiritual leaders, as does the protagonist in the title story of An Experience of India; others, like the minister in “Rose Petals,” from the same collection, have hopes of improving society; still others, such as the minister’s wife, dedicate their lives to amusing themselves. Whether they reside in New Delhi or New York, the characters in East into Upper East live with the same uncertainties. Although these later stories often end unresolved, one can find satisfaction in their artistic perfection.
“The Old Lady”
“The Old Lady” from Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories is typical of Jhabvala’s early works. Its plot is minimal: The author simply records a few hours of ordinary life in a prosperous Indian family. Besides the servants, the household includes the old lady, her daughter Leila, her son Bobo, and Leila’s daughter Munni. Leila’s estranged husband Krishna and her older brother Satish, a lawyer, appear for lunch. The household is filled with tension. Leila finds her husband irritating and is annoyed with her mother, her brother, and her daughter for being so fond of him. During their lunch together, Leila embarrasses the inoffensive Krishna and quarrels with Bobo and Satish. Afterward, she criticizes her mother for being too old-fashioned to understand divorce. However, to Satish’s annoyance, nothing is decided. The protagonist recognizes this atmosphere as the one that prevailed when her husband was still living. Then she, too, was unhappy; now, however, she has learned from a guru how to distance herself from the emotional turmoil around her. There is a wonderful comic irony in the fact that though her offspring think themselves so much cleverer than their mother, she alone has found the secret of happiness.
“A Course of English Studies”
One of the recurring subjects of Jhabvala’s short fiction is the conflict between East and West. In the early story “A Course of English Studies” from An Experience of India, an encounter between East and West is shown as essentially comic. Both of the major characters are worthy targets of satire, the silly Indian girl Nalini, who came to a British university in order to have a literary love affair, and Dr. Norman Greaves, the weak-willed English teacher whom Nalini chooses as her lover. The story is told from Nalini’s perspective, and though it is told in a third-person narrative, the style reflects her breathless enthusiasm. While Nalini has no common sense, she is a brilliant tactician, and as she is unhampered by principles and incapable of feeling shame or embarrassment, Greaves does not stand a chance against her. Nalini thoroughly enjoys the affair; it is Greaves who lives in apprehension. After Nalini pays a visit to his wife and begins planning to take him back to India with her, Greaves terminates the relationship. Nalini recovers rapidly. Convinced that the English poets were wrong about their countrymen’s capacity for passion, she decides that she should return to India alone. In other stories, Jhabvala shows cross-cultural adventures as dangerous and potentially tragic, but the lovers in “A Course of English Studies” end up no worse for their affair, though probably no wiser.
“How I Became a Holy Mother”
The title story from the collection How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories focuses on a phenomenon which the author finds puzzling, the migrations of Westerners to India in search of spiritual enlightenment. The story is told in the first person by Katie, who at twenty-three tires of her life in London and heads for India. Katie settles down in an ashram, which is relatively clean, has a picturesque setting, and is headed by an energetic but undemanding master. Katie enjoys conversing with the master and with the best looking of his Indian disciples, Vishwa, who eventually becomes her lover. However, she sees right through the master’s chief sponsor, the rich, tyrannical “Countess,” who plans to take Vishwa to the West with her. Determined not to lose him, Katie lets the Countess discover them making love. The master solves the problem by suggesting that they go on tour together, with Vishwa cast as the Guru and Katie as a Holy Mother. The story is particularly interesting because, unlike so many of Jhabvala’s spiritual pilgrims, this protagonist does not allow herself to be overwhelmed by India. Though Jhabvala has said that one can resist India only by escaping from it, here she suggests that common sense may be one’s best defense.
Although it is set in Manhattan, “Fidelity,” from East into Upper East, is much like such stories of one-sided devotion as “Bombay” and “On Bail,” from Out of India, and the poignant “Expiation,” one of the New Delhi stories in East into Upper East. In “Fidelity,” Sophie loves her self-centered, habitually unfaithful husband, Dave, so much that she will not tell him she has a terminal illness for fear of causing him pain. Sophie knows how easily Dave is driven to tears. She also knows that he is having trouble with the young girl for whom he left her. However, as Dave admits to his sister, he has more than his mistress to worry about. If he does not come up with a significant amount of money, he will be sent to prison for fraud, as happened once before. After his nephew Michael has paved the way for him, Dave appears at Sophie’s bedside. Although he pretends concern about her health, Dave is much too focused on himself to notice that she is dying. However, Sophie has decided that the easiest way to give Dave the money he needs is to die as soon as possible. While he holds her, she prepares to take the pills that will end her life, and though Dave has no idea what is really happening, as usual, he prepares to shed his convenient tears. “Fidelity” demonstrates Jhabvala’s power to reveal the very souls of her characters without intruding into the narrative.