Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3744
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s distinctive qualities as a novelist grow from her sense of social comedy. She excels in portraying incongruities of human behavior, comic situations that are rich with familial, social, and cultural implications. Marital harmony or discord, the pursuit of wealth, family togetherness and feuds, crises of identity and...
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- Critical Essays
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s distinctive qualities as a novelist grow from her sense of social comedy. She excels in portraying incongruities of human behavior, comic situations that are rich with familial, social, and cultural implications. Marital harmony or discord, the pursuit of wealth, family togetherness and feuds, crises of identity and homelessness—these are among the situations that she repeatedly explores in her fiction. She writes with sympathy, economy, and wit, as well as with sharp irony and cool detachment.
Jhabvala’s fiction has emerged out of her own experience of India. “The central fact of all my work,” she once told an interviewer, “is that I am a European living permanently in India. I have lived here for most of my adult life.This makes me not quite an outsider either.” Much later, however, in her introduction to Out of India: Selected Stories (1986), she revealed a change in her attitude: “However, I must admit I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in Indiamy survival in India.” This shift in attitude has clearly affected Jhabvala’s fiction. There is a distinct Indianness in the texture and spirit of her first five novels, which are sunny, bright social comedies offering an affirmative view of India. The later novels, darkened by dissonance and despair, reveal a change in the novelist’s perspective.
In almost all of her novels, Jhabvala assumes the role of an omniscient narrator. She stands slightly aloof from her creations, an approach that has advantages as well as disadvantages. On one hand, she does not convey the passionate inner lives of her characters, many of whom are essentially stereotypes. Even her more fully developed characters are seen largely from the outside. On the other hand, she is a consummate observer. She has a fine eye for naturalistic detail and a gift for believable dialogue, but she is also an observer at a deeper level, registering the malaise that is characteristic of the modern world: the collapse of traditional values, the incongruous blending of diverse cultures—sometimes energizing, sometimes destructive, often bizarre. Jhabvala’s fiction, thus, while steeped in the particular reality of India, speaks to readers throughout the world.
Amrita inaugurates Jhabvala’s first phase, in which reconciliation between two individuals (symbolic as well of a larger, social integration) is at the center of the action. Amrita, a young, romantic girl, has a love affair with Hari, her colleague in radio. Their affair is portrayed with a gentle comic touch: Amrita tells Hari of her determination to marry him at all costs; he calls her a goddess and moans that he is unworthy of her. Jhabvala skillfully catches the color and rhythm of the Indian phraseology of love.
While this affair proceeds along expected lines, Pandit Ram Bahadur, Hari’s grandfather, is planning to get his grandson married to Sushila, a pretty singer, in an arranged match. When Hari confesses to his brother-in-law that he loves Amrita, he is advised that first love is only a “game,” and no one should take it seriously. Hari then is led to the bridal fire and married to Sushila. He forgets his earlier vows of love for Amrita, even the fact that he applied for a passport to go with her to England.
The forsaken maiden, Amrita, finds her hopes for a happy union revived when another man, Krishna Sengupta, writes her a letter full of love and tenderness. Enthralled after reading his six-page letter, she decks her hair with a beautiful flower, a sign of her happy reconciliation with life. Amrita shares in the sunshine of love that comes her way.
The original title of the novel, To Whom She Will (changed to Amrita for the American edition), alludes to a story in a classic collection of Indian fables, the Panchatantra (created sometime between 100 b.c.e. and 500 c.e. and first published in English as The Morall Philosophie of Doni in 1570). In the story, which centers on a maiden in love, a Hindu sage observes that marriage should be arranged for a girl at a tender age; otherwise, “she gives herself to whom she will.” This ancient injunction is dramatized in the predicaments of Hari, Amrita, Sushila, and Sengupta, the four main characters. The irony lies in the fact that Amrita does not marry “whom she will.” Nevertheless, the regaining of happiness is the keynote of Jhabvala’s first novel of family relations and individual predicaments.
The Nature of Passion
Alluding to Swami Paramananda’s translation of the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (c. fifth century b.c.e.), which Jhabvala quotes, her second novel, The Nature of Passion, deals with one of the three kinds of passion that are distinguished in the Bhagavad Gita: that which is worldly, sensuous, pleasure seeking. This passion, or rajas, rules the world of Lalaji and his tribe, who represent the rising middle class and whose debased values become the object of Jhabvala’s unsparing irony. She presents a series of vignettes of the life of the affluent—such as Lalaji and the Vermas—who migrated to India after the partition and continued to prosper. Here, Jhabvala’s characters are not intended to be fully rounded individuals; rather, they play their parts as embodiments of various passions.
Lalaji’s role is to illustrate the contagious effects of greed and corruption. An indiscreet letter written by his older son finds its way into a government file controlled by Chandra, his second son. When Lalaji asks Chandra to remove the incriminating letter, Chandra’s self-righteous wife, Kanta, objects. She soon realizes, however, that their comforts and their holidays depend on Lalaji’s tainted money, and she relents, allowing the letter to be removed. Lalaji’s daughter Nimmi, too, moves from revolt to submission. Lalaji’s tenderness for Nimmi is conveyed beautifully. When she cuts her hair short, Lalaji accepts this sign of modernity. Nevertheless, despite her attraction to another young man, she accepts the marriage partner chosen for her by her family.
Jhabvala’s irony is cutting, but her style in this novel has an almost clinical precision, a detachment that discourages reader involvement. By concentrating on social types rather than on genuinely individualized characters, she limits the appeal of the novel, which already seems badly dated.
Esmond in India
Jhabvala’s third novel, Esmond in India, as its title suggests, is concerned with the conflict between cultures. Esmond is an Englishman, a shallow man with a handsome face who tutors European women in Hindi language and culture and serves as a guide to visitors. He is an egotistical, aggressive colonial, and Jhabvala is relentless in her irony in sketching him, especially in a scene at the Taj Mahal, where he loses his shoes. The pretentious Esmond is cut down to size and becomes a puny figure.
Esmond’s relationship with his wife, Gulab, is the novel’s central focus. She is a pseudoromantic Indian girl, very fond of good food. Their marriage is in ruins: Esmond feels trapped and speaks with scorn of her dull, alien mind, while she is keenly aware of his failure to care for her. Nevertheless, Gulab, as a true Hindu wife, bears Esmond’s abuse and his indulgence in love affairs, until their family servant attempts to molest her. She then packs her bag and leaves Esmond.
Is Gulab a rebel or a complete conformist? In marrying Esmond, an Englishman, she surely seems to have become a rebel. Later, however, she is subservient in response to Esmond’s cruelty; the servant assaults her because he knows that Esmond does not love his wife. This sets into motion her second rebellion: separation from Esmond. Gulab is a complex, memorable character. Esmond, too, though he is drawn with sharp irony, is no mere caricature. At the heart of the novel is his overwhelming sense of a loss of identity, a crisis that grips his soul and makes him unequal to the task of facing India, that strange land.
The Householder is perhaps Jhabvala’s most successful, least problematic, and most organically conceived novel. A true social comedy, it is a direct, simple “impression of life.” It centers on the maturation of its likable central character, Prem, a Hindi instructor in Mr. Khanna’s private college. Prem is a shy, unassuming young man, in no way exceptional, yet his growth to selfhood, presented with insight and humor, makes for compelling fiction.
The title The Householder is derived from the Hindu concept of the four stages of a man’s life; the second stage, that of a family man, is the one the novel explores. Prem’s relations with his wife, Indu, are most delicately portrayed. A scene of Prem making love to Indu on the terrace in moonlight is both tender and touching. They both sense the space and the solitude and unite in deep intimacy. Prem realizes that Indu is pregnant and tenderly touches her growing belly—such scenes show Jhabvala at her best and most tender.
Prem’s troubles are mainly economic—how to survive on a meager salary—and the comedy and the pathos that arise out of this distress constitute the real stuff of the novel. The indifference, the arrogance, and the insensitivity of the other characters are comically rendered, emphasizing Prem’s seeming helplessness as he struggles to survive and to assert his individuality. (A minor subplot is contributed by Western characters: Hans Loewe, a seeker after spiritual reality, and Kitty, his landlady, provide a contrast to Prem’s struggle.) Nevertheless, Prem is finally able to overcome his inexperience and immaturity, attaining a tenderness, a human touch, and a balance that enable him to achieve selfhood and become a true “householder.”
Get Ready for Battle
Get Ready for Battle, Jhabvala’s fifth novel, resembles The Nature of Passion. Like that earlier novel, it pillories the selfish, acquisitive society of postindependence India. In particular, it shows how growing urbanization affects the poor, dispossessing them of their land. Like The Nature of Passion, Get Ready for Battle derives its title from the Bhagavad Gita, alluding to the scene in which Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna to “get ready for battle” without fear; similarly, Jhabvala’sprotagonist, Sarla Devi, urges the poor to get ready for battle to protect their rights. Get Ready for Battle is superior to The Nature of Passion, however, in its portrayal of interesting and believable characters. While the characters in the later novel still represent various social groups or points of view, they are not mere types.
The central character, Sarla Devi, deeply committed to the cause of the poor, is separated from her husband, Gulzari Lal. They represent two opposite valuations of life: She leads her life according to the tenets of the Bhagavad Gita, while he, acquisitive and heartless, is a worshiper of Mammon. The main action of the novel centers on her attempt to save the poor from being evicted from their squatters’ colony and also to save her son from following his father’s corrupt lifestyle. She fails in both these attempts, yet she is heroic in her failure.
Jhabvala brilliantly depicts the wasteland created by India’s growing cities, which have swallowed farms and forests while at the same time destroying the value structure of rural society. Get Ready for Battle also includes adroitly designed domestic scenes. Kusum, Gulzari Lal’s mistress, is shown with sympathy, while the relationship between two secondary characters, the married couple Vishnu and Mala, is portrayed with tenderness as well as candor. They show their disagreements (even speak of divorce), yet they are deeply in love. For them, “getting ready for battle” is a kind of game, a comic conflict, rather than a serious issue.
A Backward Place and Travelers
Jhabvala’s next novel, A Backward Place, initiated the second phase of her career, marked by dark, despairing comedies disclosing a world out of joint. With this novel, too, Jhabvala began to focus more attention on encounters between East and West and the resulting tensions and ironies. The novel’s title, which refers to a European character’s condescending assessment of Delhi, suggests its pervasive irony; neither Indians nor Europeans are spared Jhabvala’s scorn. Although it features an appealing protagonist, the novel is too schematic, too much simply a vehicle for satire.
A Backward Place was followed by Travelers, a novel in the same dark mode, which presents the Western vision of contemporary India with telling irony. European girls seek a spiritual India, but the country that they actually experience is quite the opposite. Despite its satiric bite, this novel must be judged a failure: The great art of fiction seems to degenerate here into mere journalism, incapable of presenting a true vision of contemporary India.
Heat and Dust
The novel that followed, Heat and Dust, has been Jhabvala’s most highly praised work. The plot of the book is complex: It traces parallels between the experiences of two Englishwomen in India, the unnamed narrator and her grandfather Douglas’s first wife, Olivia. In the 1930’s, Olivia came to India as Douglas’s wife. Bored by her prosaic, middle-class existence, Olivia is drawn to a Muslim nawab with whom she shares many escapades. While the two are enjoying a picnic close to a Muslim shrine, Olivia finds the nawab irresistible. They lie by a spring in a green grove, and the nawab makes her pregnant. She then leaves Douglas, has an abortion, and finally moves to a house in the hills as the nawab’s mistress.
After a gap of two generations, the narrator, who has come to India to trace Olivia’s life story, passes through a similar cycle of experience. Fascinated by India, she gives herself to a lower-middle-class clerk, Inder Lal, at the same place near the shrine where Olivia lay with the nawab, and with the same result. The young narrator decides to rear the baby, though she gives up her lover; she also has a casual physical relationship with another Indian, Child, who combines sexuality with a spiritual quest.
Unlike most of Jhabvala’s other novels, Heat and Dust has a strong current of positive feeling beneath its surface negativism. Olivia, though she discards her baby, remains loyal to her heart’s desire for the nawab, and the narrator, while not accepting her lover, wishes to rear her baby as a symbol of their love. This note of affirmation heightens the quality of human response in Heat and Dust, which is also notable for its fully realized characterizations.
In Search of Love and Beauty
In Search of Love and Beauty, set primarily in the United States but ranging widely elsewhere, centers on the experience of rootlessness—an experience Jhabvala knows well and that is widespread in the modern world. The novel is a multigenerational saga, beginning with refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria and concluding in contemporary times. The rootlessness of that first generation to be dislocated from their culture is passed on to their children and their children’s children, all of whom go “in search of love and beauty.”
The members of the first generation, represented by Louise and Regi, wish to retain their German heritage, which is concretely symbolized by their paintings and furniture. The members of the second generation, represented by Marietta, are partly Americanized. The restless Marietta travels to India, falls in love with Ahmad, an Indian musician, and befriends Sujata, a courtesan—a character Jhabvala sketches with deft accuracy. The image of India is lovable, vital, and glorious, and it seems almost a counterpart to Germany’s ideal image. The third-generation refugees, represented by Natasha and Leo, are more affluent and still more Americanized, yet they are trapped in drug abuse, depression, and meaninglessness.
Three Continents is among the lengthiest and broadest in scope of Jhabvala’s novels. Like the later Shards of Memory, it revolves around an Indian mystic and his followers. Young narrator Harriet Wishwell, the daughter of a rich but troubled American family, and her gay twin brother, Michael, are raised by their grandfather after their parents’ divorce. Educated at international schools, the twins go in search of a deeper meaning to life than what their American heritage provides. Their wishes are seemingly answered when they meet Rawul, whose movement, the Fourth World, is intended to transcend racial and political divisiveness and establish a state founded on peace and love. Michael believes he has found Nirvana in Rawul’s son, Crishi, while Harriet also falls under his spell. The twins and Crishi form a sexual threesome, and eventually Harriet, besotted by Crishi, weds him, only to find herself continually frustrated by his lack of devotion to her. Rawul’s, and by proxy Crishi’s, charismatic hold on his devotees proves the ultimate undoing of Harriet and her family.
Poet and Dancer
Like many of Jhabvala’s other works, Poet and Dancer explores the dangers of love and commitment. In a foreword, the fictional narrator, who is a professional writer, distances herself from the novel’s characters by explaining that she is constructing their story largely from her imagination. Admittedly, she had met one of the people in her novel, Helena Manarr, an elderly woman, who had begged her to write the life story of her daughter Angel, who had died.
As a child, Angel begins turning out poems, and thereafter she considers herself a poet. Unfortunately, when she is only eight, Angel is initiated into sexual pleasure by her pretty, spoiled seven-year-old cousin Lara, and what might have become a real commitment to poetry becomes a commitment to Lara. When the young women meet again as adults, Lara has dabbled in dance, but her real goal in life is to satisfy herself, whatever the cost to others. As Angel comments, no one seems able to resist Lara, not even Helena’s devoted friend and business partner, Mrs. Arora, or Peter Koenig, Angel’s father, who risks his marriage for Lara.
Nothing and no one can satisfy Lara, however. Since Lara can no longer bear to be alone, Angel begins to ignore the needs of her two grandmothers, one of whom is ill, while the other, Helena, depends on her help in the business. Angel also turns away from Mrs. Arora’s son Rohit, who has always loved her. In the end, Angel is pulled into Lara’s mad world, where the only solution to life’s frustrations is death.
Shards of Memory
Shards of Memory concerns a young man, Henry, who has inherited all the correspondence and other writings of a mysterious spiritual leader who is known simply as the Master. Through visits to his grandmother, Baby, in her Manhattan townhouse, Henry slowly uncovers bits and pieces of his family’s past involvement with the Master’s spiritual movement. The story related is this: Elsa, Baby’s mother, married an Indian poet but spent her later years with her lesbian lover, Cynthia. Baby married Graeme, a standoffish British diplomat, but she later admits they had nothing aside from their daughter, Renata, in common. As Graeme continues traveling the world, Baby gives over the raising of Renata to the child’s grandfather, Kavi. Renata later falls in love with Carl, an idle German idealist. The son they produce, Henry, bears a striking resemblance to the Master. Baby sends young Henry from New York to London to be groomed by Elsa and Cynthia as the Master’s heir. After a car accident there kills the women and leaves Henry disabled, Henry returns to New York.
As trunks full of the Master’s writings arrive at the family apartment, Vera, the piano teacher’s vibrant daughter, assists Henry in categorizing the vast quantities of work. There is a resurgence of interest in the Master after Henry publishes a book on his teachings, and eventually his parents purchase the Head and Heart House, which was intended as a center for the Master’s spiritual movement. Involvement with the Master, a complete sensualist, takes over the followers’ lives; parents become incapable even of rearing their children. Jhabvala’s depiction of this spiritual movement has overtones of contempt. The zombielike groupies around the Master, as well as his own shady dealings in foreign countries, provide a clear warning against placing one’s well-being in the hands of self-proclaimed gurus.
My Nine Lives
As Jhabvala explains in her “Apologia,” My Nine Lives is not an autobiographical novel but a work about possibilities. It is true that the “I” in each episode is Jhabvala, and the settings are places with which she is familiar. However, the other characters and the events are the author’s creations. In structure, too, My Nine Lives is unusual. It is a collection of stories that are related not by the repetition of characters but by the repetition of a pattern—the search for a lover, a guide, a friend. Usually this search ends in disaster. In “Life,” for example, Rosemary gives all she has, including her independence, to the prostitute Priti, only to realize in her final years that she will never find the friend she sought.
In many of these stories men take advantage of vulnerable women. The title of “Gopis” suggests that, like the divine Krishna, the god of love, a mere mortal can attract “gopis,” or handmaidens; in this case, it is an Indian shopkeeper whom women find irresistible. In “Ménage,” the pianist Yakur first enslaves the aunt of the narrator, then her mother, and finally the narrator herself. In “Dancer with a Broken Leg,” the ambitious young Vidia, who had been pampered by the dancers in his mother’s troupe, has no trouble persuading the young narrator to support him and even to marry him. “Pilgrimage” depicts two charismatic men who prey on women, one a European and the other the Indian guru Shivaji.
Only in “A Choice of Heritage” does the search for a guide end happily. After meeting Muktesh, her grandmother’s likable friend, the narrator discovers that instead of the Englishman whose name she bears, it is Muktesh who is her real father. The narrator is fortunate in that even after Muktesh is assassinated, she will always know that, like her mother, she has loved and been loved by two exemplary men. More often, Jhabvala suggests, people who put the welfare of others ahead of their own become the victims of those who care only for themselves.