Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer 1927–
Ms Jhabvala, a German-born novelist writing in English, has lived in India since 1951. Her fine novels examine contemporary intellectual, political, and social life in India. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
It is not often given to one to come, unprepared, upon a true and original talent. The recognition in such an encounter must always have something large and unsettling in it: And yet, there is a certainty about these things, an obviousness that seems to have leapt at one from the first page. From the outset of this novel of travelers in India [Travelers], the realization that there is an immense literary achievement at hand grows steadfastly upon the reader, and one is no more than a quarter of the way through the work when that realization becomes a certainty. It is, simply enough, the story of Englishmen and Indians, both of the well-born and the moderately poor sort, whose lives become tangled up in the course of their travels. The art that has arranged their meeting is subtle, perhaps negligible…. It is a story of random, endlessly impassioned encounters, a novel of caste and class so truly observed and so wittily reported that one must go a long way back to E. M. Forster to find the social novel that compares with it.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 5, 1973, p. 66.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novels of the contemporary Indian scene have for some time now been earning her a considerable reputation in England. The case has been different in America. Whether it is that India can never be quite the subject of interest to Americans it seems, eternally, to be to the English or whether it is that the leisurely play of character and observation native to this sort of sensibility falls on resisting ears here (I do not for a moment believe it), or some other thing, it is hard to tell; but she is much less known in this country. "Travelers" is Mrs. Jhabvala's 10th work to be published in America, the sort of novel that establishes itself, from the first pages, with that peculiar assurance it is sometimes given to a ripened art to have. (In considerable measure, that assurance has been there right along, notably in the story collections, "An Experience of India," "Stronger Climate," "Like Birds, Like Fishes.")
How does one know when one is in the grip of art, of a literary power? One feels, among other things, the force of personality behind the cadence of each line, the sensibility behind the twist of the syllable. One feels the texture of the unspoken, the very accents of a writer's reticence…. The quiet power is what strikes one in "Travelers" right off….
Mrs. Jhabvala's subjects are Indian, but there is an international standard for progressive social activity of the sort recorded in these pages, and Mrs. Jhabvala may well have brought off the finest literary rendering of it in this peculiar century of ours….
Given a hint of its background and of its Anglo-Indian theme, it is easy to mistake "Travelers" for a sociologically weighty book. It is a weighty book all right, in the way that psychological richness is always weighty. As for the sociology, there is not trace of it, except for the sort that comes naturally and implicitly to any novel worthy of the name. Mrs. Jhabvala's art is high comedy, woven in the most sober fashion into the characters of her protagonists. That comedy is in their...
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very nerve and bones, but the lives they are aware of, the lives they have, are another matter: the life they know, each of them, is full of a terrible seriousness….
Mrs. Jhabvala's power as a novelist is compounded of an extraordinary mixture of sympathy, economy and a wit whose effects are of the cruelest sort: the sort that appears to proceed, not from any malice of the novelist, but from the objects of her scrutiny. One always knows what the objects of Mrs. Jhabvala's scrutiny think of themselves; there is not better definition of character in fiction. Her characters are forever jumping up in the middle of conversations to say, "You understand nothing!" She knows the quick, inner ear that judges its words and finds them wanting at the same instant they are spoken, and the impulse that shifts that judgment to another. No reader is asked to stop while she explains. "He who understands, understands," goes the Hebrew proverb, and so says the spirit of the work here; not many things profit literature so much as that spirit, in the hands of true sensibility. That Mrs. Jhabvala has: that and an extraordinary ear for language, for the peculiar idiosyncrasies of speech, here put forth shrewdly, lightly.
The way things sound is no small part of the way things are. There is another sort of recording she does, one of a deeper sort perhaps. The infirmities of her characters take them where we find them, take them, indeed, to ludicrous places and conditions of being. But there are limits to their frailties, stuff in the least contentious of them that rises, unexpectedly to take issue with things when need be. It is the sort of psychological movement that is given only to masterful fiction to produce. Altogether a work like "Travelers" does not come along very often: "Travelers" compares well with the best social novels in contemporary fiction. The reader who takes it up will encounter for himself the wit and the grace of mind that lies at the core of it.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1973, pp. 6-7.
Does anyone ever write small novels about India? Ruth Prawer Jhabvala does, bless her. Small, I mean, in the way that Jane Austen's novels are small—subtle, concise, and magnificent. Neither Austen nor Jhabvala feels obliged to cram into one novel everything she ever felt or thought or saw: but by focusing the brilliance of their absolute attention on one small piece of human frailty, glory, or folly, they convince us—without This-Is-the-Meaning-of-Life pomposity—that in fact they understand everything, that life is exactly as they say it is and could be no other way….
What the women in Travelers have in common—whether their avowed needs are spiritual or fleshly—is the need to obliterate their own personalities, to be ravished (by God or man), to submit, to be overcome, to be submerged, to throw themselves away….
In this beautifully structured novel, spirituality and carnality, mysticism and decadence, crisscross; the one partakes of the other. Jhabvala—unlike most Westerners who, once they set foot on Indian soil, need to choose, define, declare (and are cornered and hardened by their definitions)—is comfortable with ambivalence and ambiguity. She doesn't come down heavily for either mysticism or logic, East or West, cause-and-effect or Karma. Jhabvala knows that neither the East nor the West has cornered the market on venality—or, as far as that goes, on goodness—and she knows that people can be as emotionally straitjacketed by repudiating reason as by fanatically adhering to logic. Travelers, superb in its characterizations of both Indians and Westerners, is remarkable for its absence of moralizing. If there is a moral at all, it is that if your "Self" is in trouble in Dayton, it's not likely to be in any less trouble in Benares.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, "We're Off to See the Guru," in Ms., December, 1973, pp. 28, 31.
The comparison [of Travelers] with A Passage to India is inevitable…. [Like the characters] the dramatic situations in Ruth Jhabvala's fine novel are familiar—the deceptions, the misunderstandings, the bad decisions that are made when people attempt to live by theories and abstractions—and all of these cause her characters to flail about exactly as Forster's did.
Fundamentally, though, the two books are not alike. The individuals of A Passage to India stepped gingerly towards each other, testing the relation between language and race. (For, in the last analysis, the only force that could overcome the obstacles to friendship and love between Englishman and Asian was the power of the Word.) Mrs. Jhabvala's "travelers," on the other hand, communicate not out of any positive desire, but merely from their need for escape. They act only to conquer boredom and restlessness. Yet every effort fails….
The form of the novel reflects the characters' emptiness. Travelers is composed of numerous short sequences … that turn the experiences of life into little more than a series of impressionistic dots. Mrs. Jhabvala is obviously less concerned with the significance of human existence in toto than with the quality of endurance.
Indeed, she pursues that concern in an almost clinical manner. Occasionally, the book reads like a controlled experiment, in which the author, by clearing away any possible limitation on her characters' lives (the kind that comes from poverty or imminent danger), allows them to examine the consequences of their freedom, to investigate the nature of their daily existence. From this perspective, Travelers is not a novel about India at all—it could have been set anywhere.
Francis Levy, "A Passage to Nowhere," in The New Leader, February 18, 1974, p. 19.
Mrs. Jhabvala cannot help but bring a Western, as distinct from a Westernized or Western-educated, sensibility to bear upon the Indian scene. Where she differs from eminent English writers about India, such as E. M. Forster, who serves as a frequent point of reference in her stories, is in her indifference to exoticism, her complete lack of condescension, the extent of her involvement which lies at a deeper and more visceral level than that of virile friendship, and the fact that as a woman with a family she has fewer lines of retreat open to her….
[The] early works belong to the honeymoon period of her encounter with India … when her contacts with Europeans were apparently minimal. Here, whatever the inner strains and stresses, the Indian family dominates, wrapping its members in a loving, protective cocoon.
Food plays an enormous part in a land where so many die of starvation every day. It figures as a token of love given and received. The preparation of the loved one's favorite dishes almost resembles a spiritual rite, or at least signifies participation in a powerfully vital and sensuous culture….
Throughout her books, the more extensive a European's knowledge of Indian poetry or ancient monuments or sacred texts, the less genuine his understanding of India and her people will be. It is not through the intellect or the will that India can be understood, she would seem to be suggesting at this point, but through intuition, rather as if what is at stake is a faith, not a continent, to be affirmed in declaring 'I believe because it is absurd.'…
Where in Esmond in India it looks as though the author were trying to suppress the promptings of her critical spirit through her open dislike of Esmond himself, later on criticism of India will become more insistent and will be conveyed through a woman who, while foolish, affected, absurd in her vehement exaggeration, is also pitiful and portrayed with considerable sympathy: Etta in A Backward Place (1965). In that fine novel, the dialectic of love and loathing for India, or of submission versus resistance to its power, assumes a far more subtle form. It is no longer shaped by the author's struggle against one of her characters, but is embodied in two women, Judy and Etta, who may be taken to represent in some degree the conflicting inner responses of the novelist….
Through Etta, the novelist is able to project all the European's exasperation with Indian immovability, incarnate in Mr. Gupta….
Although as a novelist Mrs. Jhabvala's primary concern is naturally with personal relationships, nevertheless the larger political and social scene is by no means neglected. In her work, we find that the noble and disinterested leaders who went to prison and sacrificed everything in the struggle for independence, are now outpaced by the smooth, busy, self-interested political talkers, who guiltily suppress twinges of social conscience when their own comfort and position are at stake. Nor does the author forget those courageous and gifted young men, like Narayan in Esmond in India or Sudhir in A Backward Place, who leave the fleshpots of Delhi in order to work as doctors in the jungle or as teachers in remote outposts. For such rare spirits as these (acclaimed in word but secretly despised by the status-seekers and the social and political climbers), and for the devoted doctors and social workers among the foreign missionaries, her admiration is manifest….
The novelist's satire does not spare the charitable female do-gooders who are prepared to resettle a colony of slum-dwellers further out of town, whence they will have a longer journey to work, just as elsewhere her satire does not spare the self-important ladies who promote performances of Ibsen in Hindi. Such culture-mongering is seen as maddeningly irrelevant in the face of India's vast problems. And these problems are so overwhelming that there is a perfectly natural tendency for some to lapse into apathy, indifference or sensuous self-indulgence; while others engage in abstract or high-flown talk that commits them and their hearers to nothing, but makes them all feel better….
With the publication of two impressive collections of short stories, A Stronger Climate in 1968, and An Experience of India in 1971, to be followed in 1973 by a novel of high accomplishment, Travelers (known in England as A New Dominion), Mrs. Jhabvala's tone perceptibly darkens. One of her ways of conveying the increasingly oppressive weight of India is through contact with its spiritual or religious manifestations….
Images of violence, fear, servitude, isolation, imprisonment and disgust, recur in Mrs. Jhabvala's later fiction:—the respectable woman among the beggars on the Bombay waterfront who "spoke English and hadn't eaten for three days"; the woman who looks like an ordinary housewife, imprisoned behind the iron bars of the nursing home opposite; the English wives like birds trapped in the cage of Indian family custom. Now it is an Indian lady who, with ill-concealed distaste, wipes her hand on her sari after a European gentleman has kissed it. To the mutual incomprehension of Indian and European is added mutual recrimination or revulsion.
It is no longer her European characters like Esmond or the elderly Boekelman in the story, The Man with the Dog, who let fall the insulting cry, "Monkeys! Animals!" but Mrs. Jhabvala herself who can speak of living "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness," in the shattering candor of her confession entitled Myself in India….
[What] is involved here is the confrontation between two of the strongest spiritual impulses in the world. Sometimes Hinduism seems to be expressing just those wild primordial urges which the austere intelligence of Hebraism both feared and served to contain. At other moments it encourages extreme ascetic practices which Judaism has never favored. Only in Cabala, itself frowned upon by those who follow the mainstream of Judaism, may points of contact common to many diverse forms of mysticism be found. Yet how systematic even the secret doctrine appears when contrasted with Hindu mysticism!…
Unlike many of the European characters in her books, Mrs. Jhabvala did not come to India seeking spiritual solace or enlightenment. Such people she largely regards as self-deceivers. One has the impression, rightly or wrongly, that religion did not bother her very much until she came into contact with Indian spirituality….
[We] are left with the disturbing glimpse of Mrs. Jhabvala living as a near recluse in Delhi, reclining in her air-conditioned room with all the blinds drawn, like so many of her female characters whose nerves have been shattered by too long a stay on the continent of Circe. Dismayed by India, no longer at home in Europe, she envisages ultimate defeat.
Renee Winegarten, "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Jewish Passage to India," in Midstream, March, 1974, pp. 72-9.
Jhabvala brings to her work a sure sense of characterization and dialogue, and to this she adds a zest for getting down just the right detail that will reveal in miniature the larger world to which her prose only alludes. [Travelers] is a series of short sketches—perhaps impressions would be more accurate—of the sort of people that have been thrown to the surface as a result of the social and political upheavals of the Independence era. We are presented with marvellous cameo studies….
The dramatis personae move within the framework of a plot that is like a slow train in India: there is the noise and confusion of the departure, the appalling heat and monotony of the countryside, and the fatigue of a midnight arrival, all of which provide illusion of a journey. But it is only an illusion for all that. And this I think is what Jhabvala is trying to tell us: we are all travellers on a train going nowhere. We come, we go and only India remains.
Laurence S. Fallis, in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1974, p. 419.