Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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Richard Cronin (essay date April 1986)

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SOURCE: “The Hill of Devi and Heat and Dust,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 2, April, 1986, pp. 142-59.

[In the following essay, Cronin discusses the relationship between Jhabvala and her literary predecessors, whom Cronin describes as “the Englishmen who described life in Indian princely states in the 1920s.”]

In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust (1975) two stories alternate, the story of a young English girl who goes to India in search of her family history, and the story of her grandfather's first wife, Olivia. The two stories approach each other, and drift apart. They coincide just once, at Baba Firdaus's shrine, where both women conceive a child, Olivia by the Nawab of Khatm, the modern girl by Inder Lal, a clerk. After aborting the child Olivia retreats to the mountains, and lives out her life silently, brooding, one supposes, on the past. The other girl goes to the Himalayas too, but she goes there to bear her child. The two stories—one of them takes place in the months from February to September in 1923, the other in those same months fifty years later—act as distorted reflections of each other. Through their likeness and their difference Jhabvala explores how independent India is connected with, and severed from, its imperial past. But modern India she knows, whereas the Nawab of Khatm, an Indian prince ruling his tiny state surrounded and dominated by British India, is a figure from a past that she has only read about. Heat and Dust is concerned not only with the relationship between two Indias, but with Ruth Jhabvala's relationship with her literary predecessors, the Englishmen who described life in Indian princely states in the 1920s. Behind Ruth Jhabvala's Khatm lies Chhatarpur as it is presented in J. R. Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday, and Dewas as it is described by Malcolm Darling and by E. M. Forster.1

The Nawab of Khatm, proud, vicious, an adept in palace intrigue, who once a year orchestrates a ritual massacre of Hindus, seems quite different from Tukoji Rao III, Forster's gentle Hindu prince, and yet there are suggestive similarities. Both princes succeeded to the throne young; Tukoji Rao at the age of 11, the Nawab when he was 15. Both married the daughter of a powerful neighbouring prince, and both marriages mysteriously broke down, alienating the bride's family. ‘The Cabobpurs were absolutely furious with the Nawab’, and Forster's Maharajah had ‘made an implacable enemy of the leading Maratha power’, the Maharajah of Kohlapur. Both the Nawab and the Maharajah ruined their states' finances and fell deeply into debt. But family feuds, marriage difficulties, and financial maladministration might be reckoned complications too general in the lives of the Indian princes to suggest any peculiar bond between Jhabvala's Nawab and Forster's Maharajah. A trivial detail represents stronger evidence. Exploring the Nawab's palace, Olivia comes across the detritus of the Nawab's mindless extravagance; an immense store of rusting camera equipment, bathroom fitments still in their packing cases, the kit for a hockey team, and ‘not one piano but two, a grand and an upright’, both with their keys swollen and stuck. Forster finds in the Maharajah's palace a similar collection; ‘œ1,000 worth (figure accurate) of electric batteries’, dozens of clothes horses, a cupboard full of tea pots, and ‘two pianos, one a grand’, ‘their notes sticking and their frames cracked by dryness’. Both the Nawab and the Maharajah promise to summon a piano tuner from Bombay.

But the most striking similarity is also the most obvious: the Nawab and the Maharajah both retain in their...

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service an English homosexual. Harry, the Nawab's secretary, as some say, ‘hanger-on’, as the British prefer to have it, entered the Nawab's service in 1920, the year before Forster arrived at Dewas. He hates the British in India: ‘They're the sort of people who've made life hell for me ever since I can remember. At school and everywhere’. He has been three years in Khatm, trapped in a love for the Nawab that is painfully entangled with self-contempt. He is worried about his mother:

She's on her own you see, in a little flat in South Ken. Of course she wants me to come home. But whenever I mention it, all he does is send her some marvelous present.

Only after Olivia runs away from her husband and the disgrace of her abortion to join the Nawab, does he allow Harry to return to England ‘to lead his quiet life with his mother in their flat in Kensington’. When his mother dies, his friend Ferdie moves in with him. Forster, whose schooldays at Uppingham and Tonbridge were the most wretched of his life, and whose pleasure in traveling was alloyed until her death only by the worry of leaving his mother alone, was, for all that, not much like Harry. For one thing Harry is utterly without genius. He is a talentless Forster, an Ackerley without wit or social grace, but on that account, Ruth Jhabvala suggests, he is the more trustworthy witness. Heat and Dust implies that Forster, Ackerley, and their like got India wrong: they were deflected from it by their literary sophistication. The English girl whose diary entries make up the modern section of Heat and Dust—is Olivia's story a biographical novel written by her?—is the product of a meager culture. But her gauche, unimaginative prose gropes, however clumsily, in an effort to reach out to her experience. Forster and Ackerley are never clumsy, never grope. Their experience never seems to lie outside the language in which they record it. Which is to say, of course, that they are accomplished writers, but which may suggest also that writers are not wholly to be trusted.

Forster was introduced to the Maharajah of Dewas by his friend, Malcolm Darling, who had served for two years as the Maharajah's tutor and guardian. Forster and Darling had been undergraduates together at King's, and both were Apostles. Forster first met the Maharajah when he visited India in 1912-13, and then in 1921, he returned to take up a temporary appointment as his private secretary. The Hill of Devi is Forster's account of his relationship with the Maharajah.

Near the beginning of his book Forster quotes Darling's description of Dewas as ‘the oddest corner in the world outside Alice in Wonderland’: it has ‘no parallel except in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera’. These are crucial literary references: they control the account of Dewas that follows. Lewis Carroll and Gilbert and Sullivan are at once fantastic and quintessentially English. By invoking them Forster contrives to present his liking for Dewas and its ruler as a properly English relish for eccentricity, and to impute to the English officials who in 1933 stripped Tukoji Rao of ruling powers, and forced him to flee from Dewas and take refuge in French India, a humourless and self-righteous rectitude that Forster's readers would be happy to accept as a less congenial expression of the English national character. But it is a tactic that has consequences.

The fantastic and the eccentric are lovable only so long as they are not threatening. Tukoji Rao was an autocratic monarch who had power of life and death over his subjects. His wife left him, pleading that his behaviour towards her was intolerable, his son believed that his father had tried to murder him,2 the citizens of Dewas were impoverished by the taxation inflicted to pay for the Maharajah's extravagances. This is the man whose behaviour Forster consistently describes as something between that of a playful puppy and a five year old child. He is a ‘dear creature’. After intimidating British guests had left, he ‘sported like a kitten’. His ‘clever merry little face peeped out of a large turban’. When Forster arrived, he was ‘so sweet’: he ‘darted up from behind and put his hands over my eyes’. He is given to ‘capering’. When he visits Delhi he has to make some official calls. Afterwards, he is ‘like a boy loose from school’: he ‘bounced up and down among the cushions’ in his carriage.

The second consequence is more serious. Dewas comes to have a necessary place not in the Indian sub-continent but in the English imagination. Like nonsense, like comic operetta, it offers relaxation from the pressures of moral and social responsibility. The British administrators who destroyed the Maharajah are resented in much the same way that Leavisite critics once were, as threats to the harmless pleasures of unserious, immature, irresponsible imaginative play. Forster beautifully describes Indian music as ‘like Western music reflected in trembling water’. It supplements Western music while remaining subordinate to it. The pleasure Forster feels as he listens is available only to a man aware of how the firm clarity of Western music is dissolved into lines of charming elusiveness. The pleasure he takes in Indian music is a Western pleasure, and so is the pleasure he takes in India.

Forster's first and greatest Indian friend once accused him of measuring his emotions ‘as if they were potatoes’3. The remark struck Forster with the force of a revelation. It was the lesson that England, and particularly its ruling classes, were in need of—educated as they were in public schools that equipped them with ‘well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts’. Before he ever went to India he thought of it as pre-eminently a school for the heart. In The Hill of Devi the Maharajah is India, and so when Forster looks at him he sees what he heard when he listened to Indian music, the rugged contours of British character dissolved into a shifting, ungraspable play of emotion: ‘the Maharajah was all moods. They played over his face, they agitated his delicate feet and hands’. If he is ‘shifty and cunning’, it is because shiftiness, a perpetual quivering, is of his essence, and because it establishes him the more completely as the ideal antitype of the public school head boy.

India, and Tukoji Rao, its representative, is not to be argued with, it is only to be loved. ‘Affection, all through his chequered life, was the only force to which Bapu Sahib responded’, writes Forster. It is a judgement that united Forster and his friends. The great lesson that Malcolm Darling learned at Dewas was that ‘no people are more responsive to kindness that the Indians’4, and Ackerley begins his account of his stay with a quite different Maharajah with the sentence—so casual, so calculated, so English—‘He wanted someone to love him—His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think’.

A conversation recorded by Darling with the commander of the Dewas army helps to explain this surprising unanimity. The Commander tells Darling that he suspects him of liking Indians better than Europeans. Darling does not deny it:

‘And Mr Goodall (another of us from King's whom he had met at Dewas) likes Indians too. He is very nice gentleman, very nice. How many more (he asked) are there in this country from the same College?’ I mentioned two more whom he had met. E. M. Forster he had not yet met. ‘I don't know how it is,’ he continued, ‘but you all like Indians. I wish I could understand this.’ ‘We are very well educated there,’ I said. ‘Ah, that is it; and it must, I think, be (as he shrewdly added) some form of the climate when you went there,’ meaning no doubt the atmosphere in the College.5

That was certainly shrewd. Forster, Darling and Ackerley are all of them exponents of the cult of personal relations that dominated Cambridge when they were undergraduates, and that centred on King's. They went to India predisposed to find in another country what they could not find in Britain, somewhere where understanding took second place to affection, judgement was subordinate to sympathy, and people were bound to one another not by political and economic interdependence but by bonds of love. As late as 1940 Forster, in a broadcast to India said: ‘you cannot imagine how much we over here are in need of inspiration, of spirituality, of something which will deliver us from the tyranny of the body politic’6. In 1940 Forster must have been one of a rather small elite who recognized that the country's real need was to free itself from the body politic rather than to preserve it, but, in any case, he is confident that such freedom is to be found in India.

The Maharajah sent a message to Forster when he was back in England: ‘tell him from me to follow his heart and his mind will see everything clear’. The advice is ‘too facile; doors open into silliness at once’, but, re-phrased by Forster in a more cautious, more sophisticated English, it becomes the lesson that India offers to the West: ‘But to remember and respect and prefer the heart; to have the instinct which follows it whenever possible—what surer help than that could one have through life?’. The better to liberate the heart, India assaults the intellect. Perfectly ordinary mistakes become symptomatic of the fallibility of the understanding. Walking with Darling Forster comes across a shrine: ‘A shrine of Durga, Malcolm thought, but he was wrong, it was Moslem; one was always going to be wrong’. A ‘small dead tree’ is mistaken for a snake, an ‘exciting and typical adventure’, so typical that Forster included it in A Passage to India. ‘Everything that happens is said to be one thing and proves to be another’, so that Forster lives ‘in a haze’. His mind must become foggy so that he is forced to trust his heart, so that he may realize: ‘It doesn't do to think. To follow the promptings of the eye and imagination is quite enough’. Presiding over all this, as its ideal embodiment, is the Maharajah, ‘an unknown and possibly unknowable character’. With him Forster touches the full ecstasy of freedom from the intellect: ‘Quite often I did not understand him—he was too incalculable—but it was possible with him to reach a platform where calculations were unnecessary. It would not be possible with an Englishman’.

It is precisely because it is not possible with an Englishman that for Forster, Darling, and Ackerley it must be possible with an Indian. They found in India what they needed to find. In the wake of Edward Said rather too much fuss has been made about this sort of thing. It is not to be wondered at that Englishmen traveling in India should ask themselves what India means to them, and it is unsurprising that they should form an English view of India. What they may properly be held to account for is not whether their view of India is English, but whether it is intelligent.

Forster, Darling and Ackerley describe a personal relationship with a Maharajah. That their friend is a king adds piquancy to the narrative, but is not crucial to it. Darling once confessed to Tukoji Rao that when he first arrived in Dewas he ‘instinctively’ regarded the Maharajah as his ‘inferior’7. The Maharajah responds charmingly, admitting to ‘a feeling that the English in this country do not belong to the most aristocratic class’, acknowledging that he regards himself as Darling's ‘superior’, but only ‘on official occasions’, ‘Not when we are in a house like this’. What the English writers celebrate is the possibility of a friendship that can transcend barriers of race and class. Darling, as an Englishman, instinctively feels superior to a member of a race that England rules: the Maharajah, as a King, instinctively feels superior to a commoner. But the point is that friendship can survive these instincts. Political and social differences cannot separate men prepared to trust the instincts of the heart that draw them together. The failure of Forster, Darling and Ackerley to do more than note in passing their Maharajah's political circumstances is a deliberate omission, central to their whole endeavour.

The Indian princes ruled approximately one third of the Indian sub-continent. Their relationship with the British monarch was feudal. They acknowledged their loyalty to the crown, and, in return, their sovereignty within their own states was ratified. Effectively, they were allowed independent control of the internal affairs of their territories, but were prohibited from pursuing any foreign policy. Nevertheless, even within the native states, British interests were paramount, and an Indian prince who threatened those interests, by, for example, abusing his powers so grossly that he provoked popular unrest, might find his ruling powers suspended. British interests within the native states were looked after by political agents, whose role was uncomfortably between that of an adviser and that of a watchdog. Until about 1920 the policy of the Indian princes was clear. Their business was to preserve their power from further erosion by the British. After 1920 it became more complex, for by then their sovereignty was threatened not only by the Government of British India but by the Indian Congress party, which saw no place in an independent India for the princely states. In that they were now faced by two threats to their rule the position of the Indian princes after 1920 was more uncomfortable, but there were compensations. The princes became increasingly important to the British as allies in the struggle against Congress, and it was possible for them to use their new status to encourage the British to show them a greater respect.

Malcolm Darling was posted to Dewas in 1907. Forster records the event in a daringly naive sentence designed to mime the bursting of warm, loving emotion through dry political arrangements: ‘The Government of India appointed Malcolm Darling, I.C.S., to be his [the Maharajah's] tutor and guardian, and the great friendship of his life began’. The Maharajah was then 18. He had succeeded to the throne at the age of 11, but had yet to be granted ruling powers. A letter from the Government of India to Darling describes the role that was envisaged for him: ‘The Raja has actually completed his literary education and the object of the Tutor would be to teach him the principles of administration preparatory to his being granted ruling powers which would probably be in about two years time’8. It seems safe to assume that Darling's appointment served two purposes. He was to teach the young man the principles of administration, and he was to acquire a knowledge of Tukoji Rao's character on which the Government might base its decision as to when, and if, to grant him ruling powers. Darling's arrival in Dewas could only have been a tense moment for the Maharajah. He could not but have suspected that Darling would have a decisive influence on the Indian Government's attitude towards him.

He responded to this tricky situation with a maturity beyond his years. He made Darling his friend, and he did this so successfully that even at the very end, when the Maharajah fled from his bankrupt state and took refuge in French India, taking with him, it seems, what was left of the crown jewels, Darling anxiously interceded with the Government on his behalf. It is hardly going too far to say that the Maharajah succeeded in instilling a loyalty in Darling that took precedence over Darling's loyalty to the Government9. He did so by using to the full what seem to have been great powers of personal charm, but his task was easier than it might have been. He was peculiarly fortunate that the Government appointed as his guardian a Kingsman, a man brought up in an atmosphere in which men prided themselves on holding the claims of personal friendship higher than those of mere political loyalty. I find this the easiest explanation of the curious naivety that overcomes Darling—clearly an able and intelligent man—when he describes his function in Dewas:

‘I am really H. H.'s friend, and the friend of his friends. I have so little to get out of them, and they have even less to get out of me. So our relationship is almost natural, which is most rare in India.’10

Others were not so trusting. Some of the Maharajah's fellow princes warned him against Darling: ‘It was a shock to find myself regarded as a Government spy. Throughout my time at Dewas no attempt was made to use me in that way’. It seems never to have struck Darling that the Princes' suspicions might not have been aroused by his behaviour but by his function. He seems never to have accepted that in his role as the Maharajah's guardian a personal and a political relationship were inextricably entangled. He became the Maharajah's accomplice in allowing the personal to obscure the political.

By the time Forster arrived in Dewas, the Maharajah was an older, more experienced man, and his political situation, too, had changed. His marriage had broken up, enraging the bride's father, the powerful Maharajah of Kohlapur. On the other hand, Gandhi's emergence strengthened his position with the British as it did that of all the other Princes. Forster notes how followers of Gandi were in the habit of alighting at the local railway station to ‘shout subversive slogans over the border’. Such demonstrations were a lively reminder to the British of how useful the princely states were as a bulwark against the rise of nationalism. Forster was entering a complex political world, but he gives little impression of understanding it.

To begin with a simple incident. Forster's Maharajah paid elaborate court to a neighbouring prince, the Maharajah of Gwalior, a man that Forster considered a boor. Forster is nonplussed: ‘What he wanted from a person so inferior to himself, I do not know. He had a craving to be liked, and perhaps the very inferiority of the other person stimulated it’. The Maharajahs of Gwalior and of Kohlapur were the two most powerful of the Maratha princes. In comparison with them Tukoji Rao was weak and vulnerable. Once he had alienated Kohlapur, it became a matter of great political importance to him to maintain good relations with Gwalior. Forster, apparently not understanding this, falls back on the preferred Cambridge diagnosis—the Maharajah ‘had a craving to be liked’.

While Forster was at Dewas the Maharajah was visited by the Agent to the Governor-General, a powerful British official. In recognition of his status the Maharajah had to call on the A.G.G. at the Guest House before the A.G.G. called at the palace. At the Guest House a ceremony was to be performed at which attar and pan (perfume and an edible leaf) would be distributed by the A.G.G.'s staff to their Indian guests. Forster's presence in the Maharajah's service raised a question of protocol. Should he be given his offering by the A.G.G.'s Chief of Staff, an Englishman, or by his attaché, an Indian. The Maharajah let it be known that he would prefer the former, but accept the latter. In the event Forster was not given his attar and pan at all. The Maharajah was furious, and took the matter up with the viceroy. Forster seems to understand the importance of the episode. The Maharajah ‘grew livid with passion—partly, and I know largely, for my sake, but partly for his own, because the omission implied that the A.G.G. would not recognize his right to have Europeans under him’. Apart from the absurd suggestion that Tukoji Rao was likely to be more enraged by a trivial embarrassment to Forster than by a serious affront to his prestige as a monarch, Forster offers here a reasonable explanation of the event's significance. But he can do so only in passing, because his principal concern is to establish that the episode is nonsensical, a chapter from Alice in Wonderland: ‘I have been Insulted, but you are not going to be as angry as you expect, for it was an official insult’. He fails to learn from it what he might have done—that his appointment as the Maharajah's temporary private secretary was a political act.

The appointment of Europeans to posts in native states could only be made with the permission of the Government of India. Forster's appointment had been approved, but it is unlikely even so that the Government would have been happy about it. There had been talk about Forster accepting an appointment in Dewas in 1916. The postal censor in Bombay, knowing of this, intercepted a letter from Forster to his friend Masood, and forwarded it to the political department with the comment that, on the evidence of this letter and another that the censor had intercepted a year before, Forster was ‘a decadent coward and apparently a sexual pervert’. The letter and the censor's comments were then sent to the A.G.G. who five years later officially insulted Forster with the suggestion that he give the Maharajah ‘a hint that Forster is not altogether a suitable person’11. It seems likely that when Tukoji Rao renewed his invitation to Forster some years later, it was a calculated gesture of independence. In the changed political situation, the Maharajah felt strong enough to assert himself by deliberately flouting the advice of a senior British official. That the Government eventually approved Forster's appointment suggests that his judgement was right.

The Hill of Devi glows with an admiration for the Maharajah that Forster is never able to explain. This is, of course, his point, that affection can flourish independent of understanding. All the same it is disquieting to read that the Maharajah was ‘certainly a genius and possibly a saint, and he had to be king’, when, on the evidence Forster offers, the reader would scarcely be prepared to allow him ordinary common sense. Judgement of character comes to seem too much a matter of irrational intuition. But Forster has a better reason for his high opinion of the Maharajah than he is prepared to make public. It is implied in a manuscript not published until after Forster's death. The manuscript, titled ‘Kanaya’, contains Forster's account of his homosexual experiences at the Maharajah's court12. It is a strange and distressing story.

Two palace servants began to make homosexual advances to Forster soon after he arrived at Dewas—one of them, a groom, none too subtly, by ‘bunching up his garments to simulate an erection’ when in Forster's presence. But Forster prefers the other, and makes an assignation with him. Ten minutes later Forster overheard him telling some other servants what had happened. Forster ‘melted with terror and shame’. That same day the Maharajah announced that he was determined to expel catamites from his court. This convinced Forster that his worst fears were confirmed, that the gossip had reached the Maharajah's ears. For four days Forster waited, feeling sure that he was mocked and despised by the whole court. Then he confessed the whole story to the Maharajah. ‘You know about it’, Forster said, ‘and if you agree I think I ought to resign’. The Maharajah replied, ‘But Morgan—I know nothing about it—this is the first I've heard of it’. He advises Forster not to masturbate—‘that's awful’—, and promises, if Forster gives the word, to find him a partner. This is how Forster came to meet ‘Kanaya’. His services were arranged and paid for by the Maharajah. After some time the Maharajah warned Forster that Kanaya had been boasting of his relationship with the Sahib to Forster's assistant. The whole court soon become aware of Forster's habits, and he has to put up with ‘a good deal of impertinence and ill-breeding’: ‘They weren't openly rude but there was an air of rollicking equality’. Then the Maharajah tells Forster that Kanaya has come to him begging a better position on the ground that ‘Sahib goes to bed with me’. The Maharajah advised Forster against dismissing the boy, and their sexual relationship continued until Forster left Dewas, allowing Forster to learn something of himself that he would rather not have known: ‘I resumed sexual intercourse with him, but it was now mixed with the desire to inflict pain’.

Forster's feeling of obligation to the Maharajah, his admiration of him, are surely founded very largely on the generosity and the delicacy with which the Maharajah received what Forster continued to think of as his betrayal of the Maharajah's trust. The Maharajah had to choose between a principle and a friend. He chose the friend, and Forster honoured him for it.

I find Forster's understanding of these events incredible. It seems wholly unlikely that so soon after Forster's arrival in Dewas two palace servants should make obvious or gross advances to him. The risk they ran, had Forster been offended, was too extreme. It is also improbable that the Maharajah would have remained ignorant for long of servants' gossip. Both Darling and Forster record as one of the Maharajah's foibles the maintenance of an elaborate spy system both within his own court and elsewhere13. The same evening that Forster made his assignation with the servant boy, the Maharajah introduced into the conversation his fierce objection to homosexuality. It is hard to accept this as coincidence. Forster's first reaction was surely right. The topic was raised because the Maharajah knew what had happened. The evidence seems to me to suggest that before Forster was appointed as his private secretary the Maharajah knew him to be a homosexual. That from his first arrival at Dewas the Maharajah orchestrated an elaborate series of maneouvres designed to tempt Forster into active homosexual behaviour. It seems likely that Kanaya's indiscretions, if real, were also prompted by the Maharajah. It is hard to believe that, in an Indian princely state, a menial servant, a barber, would have dared attempt to blackmail his ruler in the manner that the Maharajah describes Kanaya as doing. This is to say that throughout the six months that Forster spent in Dewas he was the victim of a very unpleasant game devised by an accomplished sadist.

If this explanation is right, there remain two pressing questions. First, why was Forster not more suspicious? When the Maharajah insisted, after Forster's confession, that he had known nothing of the matter, Forster immediately asked himself, ‘was he lying?’, and admits, ‘For a time I thought so’. Only later did he come to feel that this was ‘complete illusion on my part’, and that if the Maharajah had known, he could only have known ‘subconsciously’. In a more normal mood he would not have preferred to invoke extra-sensory perception when a perfectly rational alternative was available. ‘Pert and meager word’, Fielding thinks to himself, when Miss Quested raises the possibility of telepathy. I can offer three possible explanations. Forster in India was predisposed to trust his heart rather than his head. Second, the decision whether or not to believe the Maharajah presented itself to him as a crucial act of faith, a test of his capacity for love and friendship, and a test he had to take at a time when he was at his most vulnerable, just after he had acted in a manner that seemed to him to betray the trust that the Maharajah had placed in him. Lastly, I think Forster believed Tukoji Rao because the alternative was too horrible for him to contemplate. Vicious behaviour in Forster's fiction results almost always from lack of imagination and lack of sympathy. In order to understand the Maharajah's behaviour in the way that I have suggested it ought to be understood, he would have been forced to contemplate something quite different, something that finds no place in his novels, and that he was perhaps temperamentally incapable of receiving, an idea of evil. For all that, I doubt whether Forster ever quite convinced himself that his suspicions were a ‘complete illusion’. I suspect that they continued to reverberate deep in his mind, where they added something to that echo in a cave that Mrs Moore heard, and that threatened ‘in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life’.

The second question I cannot answer. Why did Tukoji Rao do it? But an answer may be indirectly suggested by returning at this point to Heat and Dust. Harry is the Nawab of Khatm's pet Englishman, alternatively fondled and insulted, and Harry responds to his master with a dog-like devotion:

‘I do want to do everything I can to make him—happier. Goodness knows I try. Not only because I like him very much but because he's been fantastically kind to me. You can have no idea of his generosity, Olivia. He wants his friends to have everything. Everything he can give them. It's his nature.’

As he says this his face is full of pain, and Olivia comforts him. The Nawab is generous to Harry, she says, because he likes him:

‘Who knows? With him you can't tell. One moment you think: Yes he cares—but next moment you might as well be some … object.’

Forster's prose, unlike Harry's, is wittily self-aware: ‘I think he was fond of me, though one can never be certain of saints’. But one can sometimes hear Harry's painful yearning peep through:

I never feel certain what he likes, or even whether he likes me: consideration for others so often stimulates affection in him. I only know that he is one of the sweetest and saintliest men I have ever known …

To move others while remaining oneself, if not as stone, then at any rate unreadable, is perhaps an activity that might appeal to a connoisseur of the more delicate stratagems of power.

Unlike Forster Harry cannot deny that there is another side to the Nawab. He witnesses it once a year at the festival known as the Husband's Wedding Day when Hindus go on pilgrimage into the Nawab's dominions, and the Nawab presides over a murderous communal riot. Then Harry sees him as strange. He becomes ‘terribly excited’, his eyes ‘burn’, he looks ‘devastatingly handsome’. As for what goes on, Harry does not know. During the days of the festival he shuts himself in a room in the palace. He would rather remain ignorant of a side of the Nawab's character that would make his love for him unbearable.

Olivia's husband, Douglas, is a magistrate. He and his colleagues are perfect exemplars of slow-witted public school rectitude. They embody all that is best in the British Government of India, and hence all that is a threat to the Nawab's unrestrained enjoyment of his power. For this the Nawab hates them. He seeks to establish himself as the ideal antithesis of all that the British in India stand for, responding with cunning to their affection of frankness, with style to their stolidity, with triumphant malice to their protestations of even-handed justice. He prizes Harry as a parody of all those English virtues from which he suffers. He looks at Harry, puffed out and recumbent after a short walk:

The Nawab laughed: ‘What a state he is in. He is a very weak person. Because he is so flabby in his body I think. He is not a proper Englishman at all. No—shall I tell you—I think he is a very improper Englishman.’

The British officials, he knows, are made uncomfortable by Harry's presence under his roof. He retains as his court buffoon a homosexual Englishman of weak character, a living exemplar of all the possibilities of Englishness that the British in India would rather deny existed. His patronage of Harry is a delicate racial affront. Racial hatred is the motive of much of his behaviour.

Olivia becomes pregnant. It might be by the Nawab or by her husband, but both she and the Nawab are convinced that it is his child. The Nawab is under pressure from the Government who are threatening an enquiry into his administration. He ‘sat up all night composing telegrams’ (The Maharajah of Dewas was famous, as both Darling and Forster note, for the extravagantly long telegrams in which he expressed his protests and appeals to British officials). ‘“You should have heard him last night”’, Harry tells Olivia: ‘“Wait till my son is born, he said, then they'll laugh from the other side of their mouths.”’ The Nawab, like Forster's Maharajah, is the successor to a long line of warrior princes. But under British rule his sword has become merely ceremonial. There remains to him only one weapon with which he can inflict pain on his enemies, his ‘devastating’ personal charm. Like Forster, Darling and Ackerley he is an exponent of ‘personal relations’, but for him they are the last available weapon of war.

The Hill of Devi is a warm and charming book. It tells how two men, if they will only trust their hearts, can set aside differences of race. It shows how a relationship based on power may be superseded by a relationship founded on love. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala responds with a picture of a princely state in which love, power, and race are inextricably entwined, in which personal relations can never triumph because no relations are simply personal. She lived in India much longer than did Forster. It may be that she knows it better.

Or is it so? For after all the most significant product of Forster's Indian travels was not The Hill of Devi, but A Passage to India, and it may be that the full meaning of his Indian experience was unavailable in his Indian letters and journals, and could be approached only within the bewildering duplicities of fiction. It was a meaning that Forster could find only by assuming multiple disguises—as the bluff, almost parodically manly Fielding; as Mrs Moore, who responds to Aziz with an affection that is disinfected of sexuality by her age as Adela Quested, who, just for a moment, is struck by the contrast between Aziz's brown lissomness and her ruddy-cheeked stiff fiancé; and as Ralph Moore, so tremblingly sensitive to the pressure of the doctor's hands. In fiction the plot is at Forster's mercy. It is an Indian, not an Englishman, who is suspected of succumbing to physical desire and so betraying a position of trust, and no Indian—not the Nawab, not Aziz even in the Temple section where he is more self-confident and has lost his girlishness, and certainly not Godbole—is allowed to exercise the power that the Maharajah of Dewas wielded. Most remarkably, the hole in The Hill of Devi, the episode omitted because it was, as Gertrude Stein would have said, inaccrochable, could be transformed into a cave, and either consecrated as a mystery or shrugged off as a muddle. Perhaps it was only from behind such elaborate fictional defences that Forster found it possible to strain to breaking point his belief in the efficacy of personal relations. Mrs Moore takes ship for England, tired of a life spent caring for others, Adela returns to a life of unattached spinsterhood, and Fielding and Aziz meet again in an Indian princely state only to realize that an Englishman and an Indian could not be friends, at any rate ‘not yet’ and ‘not there’.


  1. Ackerley discreetly alters the name of the state and its ruler to Chokrapur. It is possibly significant that Ackerley and Forster were both employed as private secretaries by their Maharajahs for six months, Forster from March to October, 1921, Ackerley from December to May, 1923-4.

  2. On December 21, 1927, the Maharajah's son fled from Dewas and sought the protection of the Assistant Governor General. He claimed that his father had been trying to poison him. Forster disbelieves the story, but there were bullet holes in the car in which the young man made his escape.

  3. Forster recounts the anecdote in ‘Notes on the English Character’, in Abinger Harvest.

  4. Malcolm Darling, Apprentice to Power India 1904-1908 (1966), p. 180.

  5. Darling, p. 242.

  6. The text of the broadcast is given in vol. 14 of the Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi and other Indian writings, ed. Elizabeth Heine (1983), pp. 237-240.

  7. Darling, p. 253.

  8. Darling, p. 131.

  9. I find it significant that not long after Darling came to Dewas he wrote letters to The Times of India and The Tribune of Lahore protesting against the deportation to Burma of two anti-British agitators. The letters are honourable, but could only have been understood by Darling's fellow civil servants as a betrayal. His comment on the political agent responsible for Dewas is also illuminating: ‘neither I nor H. H. had any doubts about Spence: we both felt at home with him from the start’. It is as if he and the Maharajah are at one in what they want in a political agent.

  10. Darling, p. 183.

  11. The story is told by P. N. Furbank, E. M. Forster A Life, vol. 2 (1978), pp. 28-29. Furbank's conclusion is more cautious than my own: ‘Whether a word was spoken to the Maharajah is not clear; if it was, it had no effect’.

  12. The manuscript is published in The Hill of Devi and other Indian writings, pp. 310-324.

  13. Typical, apparently, of Indian princes. Ackerley, speaking to the Maharajah of Chhatarpur's prime minister is told, ‘You may be sure, for instance, that he knows very well that you are walking with Babaji Rao and me at this moment’.


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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927-

German-born English novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Jhabvala's work through 1998. For further information on Jhabvala's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29, and 94.

Frequently utilizing her vantage point as an outsider among India's bourgeoisie, Jhabvala typically creates characters, both Indian and European, who have an uneasy relationship with their cultural heritage. Critics have compared Jhabvala's novels to those of Jane Austen, citing her propensity for creating middle-class characters overly concerned with social status and tradition—thematic points that have given her a reputation, like Austen, as a social satirist. Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, adapting both her own novels as well as those of others into elaborate costume dramas and comedies of manners for the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Her screenplay for A Room with a View (1986), adapted from E. M. Forster's novel, won her an Academy Award in 1986, as well as wider recognition in the United States.

Biographical Information

Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Cologne, Germany, to Jewish Polish parents. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, members of Jhabvala's extended family moved to various countries in Europe; she and her parents escaped to England in 1939. Jhabvala and her family first lived in Coventry and later moved to a Jewish suburb of London. She earned a master's degree in English literature from Queen Mary College at London University in 1951. Upon her graduation, she married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect whom she had met in London, and moved with him to Delhi, India, to raise their three daughters. In India, she began writing novels and had little trouble getting published; her first work, To Whom She Will (1955), was accepted by the fourth publisher to read the manuscript. Independent filmmakers Merchant and Ivory approached her following the publication of The Householder (1960) to ask if she would write the screenplay for their film adaptation, thus beginning a long and prosperous, as well as exclusive, partnership.

Major Works

Jhabvala's novels frequently examine the social milieu of middle-class Indians who have profited from India's increasing urbanization and industrialization, and European expatriates who have married into Indian families. The Householder, for example, concerns the comic adventures of Prem, a young, recently married man facing the second in the four traditional Hindu stages of human life: the householder stage. Prem becomes enamored of the life of the swami, Hindu religious teachers whom he sees as free of the stresses of being husbands, providers, and fathers. In Hans, a young, carefree German traveling through India in search of a teacher, Prem finds a role model. Eventually, Prem capitulates to his traditional role and returns to his exotic, sybaritic wife, Indu, realizing that his desire to be a holy man was driven by his desire to avoid responsibility. In Esmond in India (1957), the title character is a womanizing British civil servant with an Indian wife and an English mistress. On assignment in India, Esmond befriends a number of social-climbing, middle-class Indian women, all of whom are beguiled by his boorish nature. As the characters engage in social and political intercourse, Esmond's long-suffering wife deserts him. A Backward Place (1965) concerns the plights of several expatriate European women whose reasons for remaining in India vary. Etta, a Hungarian woman whose marriage to an Indian crumbled years before, lives as the mistress of a hotel tycoon whose dalliance with his “niece” and their impending departure for Europe cause Etta to attempt suicide. In contrast, Judy, a British woman, admires her extended Hindi family whose laughter and closeness are a stark contrast to her strict English upbringing. Heat and Dust (1975), for which Jhabvala won the Booker Prize, tells two stories: that of Olivia, a young English bride taken to live in India in the 1920s, whose seduction by an Indian prince ends in disgrace; and that of her granddaughter, who, guided by the elder woman's diary, traces Olivia's path through India and ultimately meets the same unfortunate fate. In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), written after Jhabvala left India for New York, is her first novel to take place primarily in the United States, though the main character, a guru, entices women to ruin just as in her previous works.

Jhabvala's most popular screenplays are adaptations of other writers' works. With The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), both adapted from novels by Henry James, Jhabvala gained a reputation for scripting witty period dialogue. Her recognition among moviegoers increased with A Room with a View,The Remains of the Day (1993), and Jefferson in Paris (1995). She has also published several collections of short stories, including How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (1975), Out of India: Selected Stories (1986), and, most recently, East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998).

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Jhabvala's works has been mixed. While reviewers have praised her screenplays, some have found her novels and short stories uneven and thematically limited. Often lauded for her depictions of India from a detached viewpoint, her use of irony and satire, and her explorations of such themes as isolation, rebellion, and cultural assimilation, Jhabvala is nonetheless occasionally faulted for her continued focus on middle-class Indian life and what some critics have called her “simple plots” and “unconvincing characterizations.” Some critics have also disparaged Jhabvala's seeming lack of concern over the extreme poverty and wretched living conditions of India's lower classes. Critics do, however, frequently remark on the literary nature and quality of her screenplays, particularly Howard's End (1992) and A Room with a View, and note how her cinematic works have influenced her novels. Others compliment the tone and mood evoked by her filmic renditions of Edwardian life. Vincent Canby has called the screenplay for A Room with a View, for example, a “faithful, ebullient screen equivalent to a literary work that lesser talents would embalm” and observes that the film's voice is “not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story … with as much genuine concern as astonished amusement.” Concerning Jhabvala's literary accomplishments as a whole, Francine du Plessix Gray has observed “With the exception of E. M. Forster, no 20th-century writer has more eloquently described Westerners' attempts to grasp the ambiguities of Indian culture than [Jhabvala].”

Shirley Chew (essay date July 1986)

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SOURCE: “Fictions of Princely States and Empire,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 103-17.

[In the following essay, Chew examines a number of works, including Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, that concern the princely states of India as the subject of historical fiction and “fiction-about-history.”]

India became independent on 15 August 1947, and by mid-century the princely states no longer existed. Nevertheless, they continued to tease and to draw the literary imagination, as they had done throughout the period of British rule. The perspective, however, was altered and, with it, the highlights and depths, appearances and relationships. In Forster's A Passage to India, for example, the spiritual life of a princely state was viewed as a living part of the rich inheritance of India. When his The Hill of Devi appeared in 1953, it was to be “a record of a vanished civilization,” salvaging “something precious” which might otherwise have been thrown away with the rubbish.1

Forster's purpose was historical. In her fine study, The Storyteller Retrieves the Past, Mary Lascelles reminds us that wholly imaginative writers can also share in the historical activity, that is, the task of recreating the experiences of the past and of discovering thereby its relationship with the present. This paper will be concerned with the princely states as the subject of historical fiction and fiction-about-history. The works it will examine include Mulk Raj Anand's Private Life of an Indian Prince which, as it happened, was published in the same year as The Hill of Devi, Manohar Malgonkar's The Princes (1963), and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975).2

A question we are interested in must be the ways by which these novelists gained access to the past. Of the various ways which might be taken, it is that disclosed by the literary works of Englishmen about the empire which this paper will concentrate upon. For, to turn to Mary Lascelles again, “By the nature of his undertaking, the story-teller who draws on history impels us to ask what he has been reading … when he reached backwards beyond memory—his own or his elders—and outside family tradition.”3 The literature of empire, both fictional and nonfictional, set out to entertain and to inform the British public. It also pointed to a way of looking. Kipling's remark on the princely states summed up the general view: “They are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Harunal-Raschid.”4 The second question this paper takes up concerns the manner in which these novelists have appropriated the literature of empire, and reworked it to suit their purposes. “Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change,” as Frank Kermode has observed.5 To know the past is to be, above all, engaged with its relevance to the present.

Literary indebtedness can take many forms. It may be a broad, initial contact following which the new work plunges off on its own course. Such, I would suggest, is the connection between Anand's novel and William Knighton's The Private Life of an Eastern King, which appeared in 1855 and consists of the reminiscences of an Englishman who served at the court of Lucknow in the reign of Nasir-ud-din (1827-1837). To these, Knighton added a selection of reports on the condition of Oudh published by the Calcutta newspapers. The evidence pointed to a longstanding record of caprice, extravagance, licence, and neglect. Originating in the palace, they had repercussions throughout the countryside, and the King's private life was the reason “that Oudh is one of the most miserably governed countries under heaven.”6 At a time when the fate of the kingdom was under discussion, The Private Life of an Eastern King lent support to those in favour of annexation.

Nearly a hundred years later, Private Life of an Indian Prince also concerns itself with the conduct of a ruler and the destiny of his state. The parallels with Knighton's study are marked. The narrator, Dr. Shankar, is again a member of the court, one of four people close to Victor, Maharajah of Sham Pur. His accounts of Victor's background and career reiterate the familiar courses of misrule and malpractice which despotism promotes and which, in this case, are intensified by Victor's obsession with his faithless mistress. Again the private life and the public are inexorably linked. Victor's sexual scandals, his extravagance and illegal exactions, his quarrels with his noblemen relations are responsible for strikes, revolts, and armed conflict in his state. Time runs out for him as it did for the King of Oudh, and Sham Pur passes into the control of the central government.

Some sections of Anand's novel might give the impression that nothing has changed in a hundred years, and with justification. History has its ironies. Because a contributing cause of the Mutiny was the annexation of Oudh, when the Crown assumed control of the government of India in 1858 it pledged to honour the treaties the Company had made with the princes. In consequence, the system which had been deplored as unworkable for Oudh, became, with minor variations, the means of governing the 562 princely states of India. As the rest of India moved into the modern age, and towards self-determination, they became more and more of an anachronism.

What has changed after 1947 is of course the political reality. Victor is being asked to accede to the Indian Union, a step he failed to take at the time of the transfer of power. What also has changed in this novel is the governing historical idea. Knighton assumed that Victorian civilization was superior and permanent. Anand's view is that British rule, and even the new freedom, are “part of a historical transition that was by no means finished and would bring still more shocks and surprises to all in the next few years” (p. 242). For him, the distance between The Private Life of an Eastern King and his own novel might be summed up in Lukác's words exactly: “Progress is no longer seen as an essentially unhistorical struggle between humanist reason and feudal absolutist unreason. According to the new interpretation the reasonableness of human progress develops ever increasingly out of the inner conflict of social forces in history itself.”7

Private Life of an Indian Prince was a bold attempt at reinterpreting the past, and in such a manner as would make sense of the difficult years following Independence. More debatable is whether it succeeds entirely as an imaginative realization of a historical idea and situation. Perhaps the events were too recent. No doubt Anand had trouble distancing himself from his personal and emotional problems. Whatever the reason, thesis is too often a substitute for insight, and the narrator, in spite of Anand's assurances to the contrary, too much the author's mouthpiece. The Maharajah never quite manages to escape from Dr. Shankar's grid of ideas to become something more than a historical case and a case history.

For contrast, we think of Forster's Maharajah of Dewas Senior in The Hill of Devi who, living, defied public inquiry into his affairs, and, after death, resisted being too efficiently explained, even by those who loved him. Forster's intention was to offset the official accounts of Tukoji Puar III and to recall the individual who was “lovable and brilliant and witty and charming, and … complex.”8 But perhaps his best tribute lay in the recognition that the character was “possibly unknowable.”9 In this manner, he set his Maharajah free to be evoked as a subject for study by other writers.

And so it happened that ten years later Forster perceived in Malgonkar's The Princes “numerous and heart-rending” parallels between its fictional version of a princely state and the historical Dewas Senior.10 I do not think he was alluding to the obvious correspondences; for example, that both his Tukoji Puar and Hiroji IV, Maharajah of Begwad, were deeply religious, estranged from their Maharanis, embarrassed by their heirs-apparent, and considered by the British to be irresponsible rulers. After all, Malgonkar's method was to create composite portraits, and clear differences were also incorporated: the ruling house of Dewas claimed descent from the Marathas and the Rajputs, while the Bedars were originally casteless, professional robbers; Tukoji Puar abhorred blood sport while Hiroji IV was an excellent sportsman whose tiger hunts recalled those of “the greatest tiger impresario of all time,” the Maharajah Sindia of Gwalior.11

The parallels Forster referred to run at a deeper level and have their origin in the dominant part Dewas played in shaping Malgonkar's historical imagination:

“My grandfather was the prime minister of one of the bigger states in India and I grew up … knowing the princely ways … But that contact grew when I started my profession as a big game hunter … and my clients were the most monied one could think of, were American millionaires or Indian princes and one of them invited me to write the history of his family. …”12

The prince who was responsible for immersing the novelist in Maratha history was none other than the son of Forster's Maharajah. The commissioned work, The Puars of Dewas State Senior, appeared in 1963, the same year as The Princes.

James Dayananda remarked of Malgonkar's historical writings that they are heavily indebted to the research and scholarship of others and, moreover, lean towards propaganda for the vanishing princes.13 To which might be added that, too often, they read like chronicles rather than history, with the author, one feels, at the mercy of the endless wars, treaties, and succession disputes which make up his material.

The real achievement fell to him as novelist. The combined influences of personal background, contemporary events, and Maratha history produced tragic insight. From one point of view, the story of the princely rulers over two centuries tells of survival, often against great odds, and of continuity. From another, it tells of loss and a precarious destiny. Yearly, the Maratha armies set out upon conquests which had, yearly, to be recovered. If they enjoyed the glories of empire, they also knew its brevity. Afterwards, they gave up their wars for treaties with the British and their power struggles for quarrels over precedence, but the sense of uncertainty remained and was exacerbated by the contradictions inherent in their political position. Finally, with independent India becoming a reality, the princes found themselves fighting for their existence yet once more.

When the Maharajah of Dewas Senior fled into exile in 1933, Forster could wish him “to compromise, to give in to the inevitable, and so save something out of the wreck.”14 But Forster was writing as a friend, and as an onlooker upon the rise and fall of kings. Malgonkar concentrates upon a more inward view of what might have impelled a prince like Tukoji Puar to take that “fatal,” “fantastic” step. In his novel, the Maharajah of Begwad goes out unarmed to meet a man-eating tiger, preferring death to giving up the integrity of his little state. What he shares with Forster's Maharajah is the conviction that, after all, nothing will be the same again. Anand called his novel a tragi-comedy. A longer view of the past, and possibly some disenchantment with the present, led Malgonkar to focus on the tragedy of the princes.

The story of the Maharajah of Begwad and his son, Abhayraj, is played out within the broad current of events leading up to the transfer of power and the merger of the princely states. By the time Abhayraj, who also narrates the story, is ready to assume the position of Bedar, the integrity of the state has been lost. His rule lasts forty-nine days, after which Begwad is absorbed in “the vast totality of India” (p. 25). Because we know the historical facts, Begwad's fate cannot surprise us. The novelist's task is to convince us of its inner necessity and to draw us into the human drama. He achieves this by showing, first, the corrupting effects of absolute power; and second, the linked destinies of princely state and empire. It is the second of these strands of interest that I wish to dwell on here.

So much that is intrinsic to the history and life of Begwad and of its ruler is sealed off from the youthful Abhayraj. As critics have pointed out,15 the novel delineates the stages by which forbidden and concealed territories are gradually opened up to him, until at the end his identification with his father and heritage is complete. The prince's progress from onlooker to participant means that perspective is sacrificed for intensity, and discoveries made in some areas produce concealments in others. The full significance, for example, of the part the British play in his development continues to escape him. Yet, from his English tutor to Chelmsford, the Princes' College at Agra, to the military Academy, and finally the army serving in Burma, his formal training is designed to reinforce the values and code of conduct implanted in him by the Maharajah, and to prepare him to serve both Begwad and the empire, a role which, as it turns out, he is not to fulfil. The larger movement of the novel underlines the ironies of such an education. In their turn, the smallest details, such as the literary works alluded to, are also made to tell.

Abhayraj's going-away present from his tutor is a copy of Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Chelmsford College is the English public school transplanted to India. “I know I'd sooner win two Schoolhouse matches running than get the Balliol scholarship any day,” says a character in Thomas Hughes's novel. So, at Chelmsford, games, team-spirit, and manliness count for more than intellectual attainments. Character is moulded and life reduced to a few simple rules. Not surprisingly, “Kipling's ‘If’ was our daily prayer, the college motto ‘Never Give In’ our guiding principle” (p. 82).

Looking back upon his life, Abhayraj believes, “If I had my days all over again, the period of my life I would unhesitatingly choose to live exactly as I had, would be the years at the Chelmsford College at Agra” (p. 84). What he cannot see, even at so late a stage, is that by the 1930's the empire was fast disintegrating, and the Princes’ College, its head and pupils were a dying order. The Second World War was to deal the deathblow. In some senses the decline had begun in 1857, the year Thomas Hughes published his optimistic statement of faith in “the great army of Browns” who upheld the empire. Kipling was the prophet of empire, but he also foresaw its doom. “If” was published in 1910, and bearing in mind the Great War and its aftermath, the sentiments in the poem were not so premature. Literary indebtedness operates as a structural device here, sustaining the tensions between the narrator's limited perception and the author's longer view of history.

It might be said that Kipling also serves to epitomize the distinctive consciousness of the novel:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve you long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ …

That burdened spirit would have found a response in Hiroji IV who knows too well from his own experience and family history what it entails “to lose, and start again.” However, private sufferings are of little account compared to the integrity of the state. “There will always be a Begwad, and there will always be a Bedar ruling it—so long as the sun and moon go round” (p. 14), he says early in the novel, and though the world changes all around him, it is a belief he refuses to yield up.

There is a curious overlap of disillusion and bravado both in the poem and Hiroji's behaviour in the novel. It calls to mind T. S. Eliot's statement: “Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile universe too big for him; it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up.”16 Eliot was speaking of various cases of self-dramatization in Elizabethan tragedy. A character like Hiroji IV may be expected, too, to play out his part whatever the situation. The greater the catastrophe, the more important it becomes that he should fill the little space and moment available to him. Only thus can the full measure of what is lost be contemplated by the tragic consciousness.

History, political reality, the destinies of princely states and empire coalesce in the very fine scene recreating the meeting between the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and the Chamber of Princes three weeks before the transfer of power. The princes, taking a cue from Lewis Carroll, are inclined to regard themselves as oysters lured to their destruction by the Walrus and the Carpenter, that is, the British Government and Congress. But this sardonic note is quickly absorbed and becomes part of a complex total effect.

The scene is observed from a number of different perspectives. The princes have eyes only for the Viceroy who is making out an eloquent case for signing the Instrument of Accession: “What the Ministry had been telling them again and again for the past few weeks and what they had never wholly believed now gained their implicit trust because of the man behind the words: Mountbatten” (p. 279). The psychological insight cannot be faulted. As absolute rulers who know how to command the attention and loyalty of their people, the princes rally instinctively to the living image of authority, to the figure who in the context of the whole of India corresponds to what each of them is in his own state.

Watching the scene from the gallery, Abhayraj is chiefly occupied with his father, “the alert figure in the chair with the crest of the double axe, wearing the purple cap and the dead white achkan.” Nevertheless, he too has taken in “the Viceroy in his dazzling white uniform, his almost theatrical good looks. I counted the eleven rows of decoration on his chest. He spoke, without notes, confidently, serenely, almost disdainfully unaware that he was the central figure on the stage of history” (p. 278). These two images, of the Maharajah and the Viceroy, open and close the one paragraph, and they highlight for us, if not for Abhayraj, certain similarities between the two men, their appearance, status, and bearing. Above all, they are self-conscious performers with an acute sense of occasion. Here is an instance of what Avrom Fleishman, though some might not agree with him, considers essential to historical fiction—“a point of dramatic intersection of the fictional and the actual, best created when a fictitious and a historical personage are represented in the same scene.”17 Here, fictional character and historical personage comment on one another in a remarkable feat of seeing on Malgonkar's part. For a brief moment, the Viceroy and the Maharajah are perceived under the same light of loss, for the Viceroy's speech exhorting the princes to accede to the Indian Union is in effect testimony to the end of British rule in India.

Hiroji IV commits suicide rather than agree to a merger. A year later, his successor, Abhayraj, abdicates his title, having been found guilty of several items of misconduct. The most glaring of these is his horse-whipping of his childhood friend, and now Education Minister, Kanakchand. Malgonkar has been criticized for his narrow treatment of the untouchable who as a boy was whipped by Hiroji IV and ends up a twisted demagogue. Perhaps life has been sacrificed to some extent to artistic neatness in this case, but one cannot deny the impact of the final confrontation. It expresses irrefutably Abhayraj's identification with his father, not simply because he acts like Hiroji IV and takes revenge on his behalf, but, insofar as Kanakchand was his first contact with progressive ideas, the second incident of horse-whipping may be read as signifying Abhayraj's rejection of the new political and social reality which those ideas have since brought about. It shows the extent to which, politically futile and psychologically frustrated, Abhayraj is trapped, like Anand's Indian Prince, by the past.

If in contrast the narrator of Heat and Dust is able to negotiate a fluent passage between the past and her own age, part of the reason must be that she is an outsider, free to a very large extent from the weight of tradition, whether Indian or British Raj, and freer therefore to exercise her imagination in a supple manner. She arrives in India in February 1973, her curiosity stimulated by a packet of old letters written in 1923 by Olivia, her grandfather's first wife. For her, the princely states and empire do not have the personal intimacy they had for Anand's narrator and Malgonkar's. The separation of fifty years and two generations means that the configurations of the past are less cluttered and its demands less pressing.

Another difference between Heat and Dust and the earlier novels is that the princely ruler, in this case the Nawab of Khatm, and his relations with the British administration are, in themselves, no longer of central significance. One symptom of this is the note of parody which runs through the letters, in particular the echoes of Forster. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's indebtedness to A Passage to India has frequently been remarked. The borrowings from The Hill of Devi are also considerable and range from isolated details to concerted groupings. Though the Nawab is a composite portrait, many of the particulars relating to his domestic and political problems chime with what we know of the Maharajah of Dewas Senior:

Harry said, ‘I know he's in all sorts of trouble. It's been going on for years. Financial troubles—Khatm is bankrupt—and then all that business with Sandy and the Cabobpurs who've been complaining right and left and trying to bring a case about her dowry. And of course that makes him more stubborn to fight back though he can't really afford to. Simla has been getting very acrimonious lately … You see, the truth is he's only a very little prince and they don't have to be all that careful with him the way they'd have to be for instance with the Cabobpur family. And he feels it terribly. He knows what he is compared with the others. You should see Old Cabobpur: he's just a gross swine, there's nothing royal about him. Whereas of course he is—’


They heard his voice, his unmistakable step on the stairs. (pp. 143-44)

Two points need to be made. First, Jhabvala's indebtedness to Forster is not straightforward. Though she gives the impression of echoing his works, she always maintains an ironical distance. Here, for example, the familiar piece of information we are given is set askew by the voice of Harry, the Nawab's homosexual house-guest, and, I would suggest, Jhabvala's sly take-off of Forster himself. Second, because the information is familiar, the effect is to disengage our attention from the Nawab, and to focus it upon how Olivia and Harry saw him. But we are never to know what insight they shared on this occasion. Nor are the divergent and conflicting images of the Nawab which Olivia assembled from her own observations, and from the gossip, complaints, and reports of others ever resolved—at least, not in the letters.

Just as Olivia was fascinated by the Nawab, so the narrator seeks, in a rather dogged way, to “know” the enigmatic writer of the letters. She edits them (though “translates” may be a more appropriate word), cutting past the surfaces of personality, the merry, mocking, exuberant style to what may be the bare reality. She arranges to bring her life into closer correspondence to the dead woman's. At the end of the novel, we leave her in the house in the mountains trying to read its concrete particulars as clues to what Olivia “thought about all those years, or how she became” (p. 180).

Olivia beckons and, like Forster's Maharajah, is “possibly unknowable.” The problem of knowing, however, is central to the novel. It distinguishes between the knowing, for example, which is consciously pursued and may, in the end, turn out to be spurious, and that which is an act of the imagination and is of value. At the same time, they are not mutually exclusive, and on the occasions when the narrator is fully receptive the one has led up to the other. Then the relationship between past and present is truly apprehended, and what she takes away from the experience in each case is a strengthened faith in her own capacity for living. It is the delicate figuring in the novel of the complicated and imperceptible process by which memory and reliving, insight and hindsight, history and the present moment, are fused and transformed into illumination, that I wish to examine in the following example.

The episodes I am concerned with are included in the narrator's journal entry for 20 March, Olivia's letter following, and the entry for 15 June. The first recounts the visit the narrator makes with Inder Lal's mother to the suttee shrines; the second, Anglo-Indian reactions to the case of widow-burning in the district in 1923; and the last concerns the beggar woman, Leelavati. The pivotal image upon which these episodes rest is W. H. Sleeman's voluntary suttee, whom he encountered in 1829 on the banks of the Nerbudda. At a time when the practice of widow-burning was becoming prohibited, this old woman threatened to starve to death unless she was allowed to make the sacrifice and have her ashes mixed with her husband's.

Sleeman's account appears in Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official (1844). In Olivia's letter, it was Major Minnies who recalled the incident, “not something that happened to him personally but a hundred years earlier to Colonel Sleeman” (p. 60). While the other Anglo-Indians condemned suttee as a barbaric custom designed to get rid of unwanted widows, the major supported Olivia's suggestion that some wives might genuinely have wished to die with their husbands. For a brief moment, it seemed possible that the terrible practice was informed with a noble idea, a paradox reflected, as it were, in “the crude figures scratched hair-thin into the stone” of the suttee shrines (p. 55).

Looking back from Olivia's letter to the journal entry, it comes as a surprise that the narrator's reactions to the shrines are negative. They give her an eerie feeling, are prosaic like mile-stones, the one dating back to 1923 looking as old as the rest. The devotion of her companion, “this merry widow” incongruously moved by “the highest sacrifice” (p. 55), merely amuses her. Knowing Olivia's thoughts on the subject has failed, it would seem, to revivify the past in any significant way.

The next time the narrator returns to the shrines, it is to look for Leelavati, the old beggar whom nobody in Satipur apart from Maji is prepared to own or help. They find her very close to death and attend her passing. Gradually the narrator's imagination is kindled. The beggar is not simply an object of charity but a person with a name and a history, and one who is loved. Maji's tenderness and vigorous approval, Leelavati's peace, and the narrator's restored faith in her own humanity transform what was once a bleak and disagreeable scene:

It was pleasant sitting here—cool by the water—and we were ready to stay many hours. But she did not keep us waiting long. As the glow faded and sky and air and water turned pale silver and the birds fell asleep in the dark trees and now only soundless bats flitted black across the silver sky; at that lovely hour she died. I would not have noticed, for she had not moved for a long time. There was no death rattle or convulsion. It was as if everything had already been squeezed out of her and there was nothing left for her to do except to pass over. Maji was very pleased: she said Leelavati had done well and had been rewarded with a good, blessed end. (p. 115)

The level of percipience draws towards vision and is shadowed forth in the lyrical, assimilating simplicity of the prose. Jhabvala's writing is succinct like Forster's but without Forster's resonance. It is capable of ambiguity but not of mystery. However, within its middle ranges, it can achieve its kind of harmony, so that the phrase “as if everything had already been squeezed out of her” embraces thoughts of Leelavati's approaching immateriality, her exhausting life of hardships, and her physical incontinence referred to earlier in the scene.

Leelavati was driven from her husband's family home when he died. But she has acquitted herself well and can claim the right to die among those who performed the highest sacrifice. Although no overt connections are made with the earlier scenes, the narrator's sense of fittingness, and ours, will surely not be complete if we do not remember Sleeman's account of the other widow on the banks of the Nerbudda who also chose, in her own way, to do well:

As she rose up fire was set to the pile, and it was instantly in a blaze … she walked once round the pit, paused a moment, and, while muttering a prayer, threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked up deliberately and steadily to the brink, stepped into the centre of the flame, sat down, and leaning back in the midst as if reposing upon a couch, was consumed without uttering a shriek or betraying one sign of agony.18

One of Sleeman's informants pointed out that “after they (the dead husband and the suttee) pass through the flames upon earth, both become young in paradise.”19 In Jhabvala's novel, transfiguration of another kind takes place when the past is renewed by the heat of the imagination.

At a time when the narrator is in danger of slipping into a passive, resigned frame of mind, the total impact of the Leelavati incident is important to her development. It is after this that she goes to Baba Firdaus's shrine with Inder Lal, as if she too has decided to take an active part in shaping her destiny and to acquit herself well.

In seeking access to the past, the novelists I have discussed found in the literature of the past a rich storehouse of memories, both abundant and varied. It led them to ideas and doctrines which are very different from their own, many of which have long since been challenged and discarded. In this sense, to know the past is to recognize its remoteness. However, this literature also led them to the experiences of men and women who lived the ideas and doctrines. These experiences they have imaginatively appropriated, and by so doing they have given concrete realization to the relationship between past and present. What together these novelists have also demonstrated is the continuing and vital nature of the relationship, for writing about the princely states and empire, not only have they resorted to the same storehouse of memories, but each has, in turn, built consciously upon his or her predecessor's treatment of the subject. The fiction-making and sense-making go on, and (to borrow Shakespeare's phrase) from “the baseless fabric of this vision,” we catch, at moments, and fleetingly, the idea of a Commonwealth tradition.


  1. E. M. Forster, The Hill of Devi and Other Indian Writings, Abinger Edition (London: Edward Arnold, 1983), p. 4.

  2. Mulk Raj Anand, Private Life of an Indian Prince (London: Bodley Head, 1970); Manohar Malgonkar, The Princes (New York: Viking, 1963); Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (London: John Murray, 1975). Page references are to these editions.

  3. Mary Lascelles, The Story-teller Retrieves the Past (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 20-21.

  4. Rudyard Kipling, “The Man Who Would Be King,” in Wee Willie Winkie (London: Macmillan, 1895).

  5. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1967; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 39.

  6. William Knighton, The Private Life of an Eastern King (1855; London: Oxford University Press, 1921), p. 4.

  7. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (1937; London: Merlin, 1978), p. 27.

  8. Forster, p. 112.

  9. Forster, p. 3.

  10. Letter to Malgonkar, dated 27 August 1963, quoted in G.S. Amur, Manohar Malgonkar (New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1973), p. 78.

  11. John Lord, The Maharajahs (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 112.

  12. Quoted in James Y. Dayananda, Manohar Malgonkar (Boston: Twayne, 1974), p. 95.

  13. Dayananda, p. 88.

  14. Forster, p. 109.

  15. For example, G. S. Amur, p. 78.

  16. T. S. Eliot, “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1966), p. 131.

  17. Avrom Fleishman, Fiction and the Ways of Knowing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), p. 53.

  18. W. H. Sleeman, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official (1844; London: Oxford University Press, 1915), pp. 22-23.

  19. Sleeman, p. 27.

Principal Works

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To Whom She Will [also published as Amrita, 1956] (novel) 1955

The Nature of Passion (novel) 1956

Esmond in India (novel) 1957

The Householder (novel) 1960

Get Ready for Battle (novel) 1962

*The Householder (screenplay) 1963

Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

A Backward Place (novel) 1965

*Shakespeare Wallah (screenplay) 1965

*The Guru [with James Ivory] (screenplay) 1968

A Stronger Climate (short stories) 1968

*Bombay Talkie (screenplay) 1970

An Experience of India (short stories) 1971

A New Dominion [also published as Travelers, 1973] (novel) 1971

Autobiography of a Princess (novel) 1975

*Autobiography of a Princess (screenplay) 1975

Heat and Dust (novel) 1975

How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (short stories) 1975

*Roseland (screenplay) 1977

*Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (screenplay) 1978

*The Europeans [adaptor, with Ivory; from the novel by Henry James] (screenplay) 1979

*Jane Austen in Manhattan (screenplays) 1980

*Quartet [adaptor, with Ivory; from the novel by Jean Rhys] (screenplay) 1981

*Heat and Dust (screenplay) 1983

In Search of Love and Beauty (novel) 1983

*The Bostonians [adaptor; from the novel by Henry James] (screenplay) 1984

Out of India: Selected Stories (short stories) 1986

*A Room with a View [adaptor; from the novel by E. M. Forster] (screenplay) 1986

Three Continents (novel) 1987

Madame Sousatzka [with John Schlesinger] (screenplay) 1988

*Mr. and Mrs. Bridge [adaptor; from the novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell] (screenplay) 1990

*Howard's End [adaptor; from the novel by E. M. Forster] (screenplay) 1992

Poet and Dancer (novel) 1993

*The Remains of the Day [adaptor; from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro] (screenplay) 1993

*Jefferson in Paris (screenplay) 1995

Shards of Memory (novel) 1995

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (short stories) 1998

*The film versions of these screenplays were directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant.

Margaret Lenta (essay date July 1989)

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SOURCE: “Narrators and Readers: 1902 and 1975,” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 19-36.

[In the following essay, Lenta compares and contrasts Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jhabvala's Heat and Dust in an effort to expound Michael Echeruo's notion of “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal contexts that have now become international and cross-cultural.”]

In his book The Conditioned Imagination from Shakespeare to Conrad Michael Echeruo discusses the idea that “literatures which were originally conceived of in tribal (ie. national) contexts have now become international and cross-cultural” (10). He is writing of the spread of the English language; once the language of England, it has become the mother tongue of many other groups and the literary dialect of still more. Echeruo claims that writers who conceived of their readers as members of their own group characteristically demanded of them, as well as what structuralists call “literary competence,” a second area of awareness which may be called cultural competence; that is, a knowledge of the beliefs and attitudes common to the tribe, which is regarded by such writers as their primary audience.

In the present essay I have chosen to discuss two works: one, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, published in 1902, and conceived of as “tribal” in Echeruo's sense; that is, addressing itself primarily to a group of readers with similar beliefs and attitudes; the second, Heat and Dust, published in 1975, when literature, as Echeruo suggests, had become international and cross-cultural.

The position of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the author of Heat and Dust, is unusual: Polish born, educated in England, married to an Indian and resident for most of her adult life in India, she writes in English. Her awareness of vast cultural differences in her readership must prevent any possibility of conceiving, in the way that Echeruo suggests, of a primary audience. But her case is only an extreme example of that of all novelists who write in English outside of England and America: even those who seem to address their own “tribe” must be aware that their actual readers will be of many different cultural backgrounds and have little cultural competence in common.

The different assumptions of Conrad and Jhabvala about their readers' willingness to assent to particular cultural assumptions have deeply affected the way in which they have conceived of their narrators. Conrad's narrator, Marlow, seems to feel reasonably sure that his readers will at least feel at home with his approach to the world: Jhabvala knows that no one set of attitudes can be taken as typical of or acceptable to her readers. Heat and Dust has two narrators: a minor one, Olivia Rivers, whose letters, either quoted or summarized, describe her life in Satipur and Khatm in 1923, and a major one, Olivia's stepgranddaughter, who is unnamed. She comes to India, to Satipur, presumably in the seventies, to try to understand her relative, and India. Both the major narrator and Olivia are English, but they are alienated and deliberately alienating to the reader. Olivia leaves her husband and the Anglo-Indian community for the Nawab, a local ruler. She knows she cannot and in fact does not wish to become part of a palace life which is on the point of disappearing. The union into which she enters, however partial and interrupted by the Nawab's obligations elsewhere, is truly a union with an individual and she herself, having left the Anglo-Indians, the group to which she could have belonged, exists outside of any group.

The major narrator, Olivia's stepgranddaughter, appears to have found life in her own country unsatisfactory: on a visit to a shrine, she cannot make a wish:

Not that my life is so fulfilled that there is nothing left to ask; but on the contrary, that it is too lacking in essentials for me to fill up the gaps with any one request. (127)

Although she says little about her life in Europe, she appears to feel that the value of its comparative comfort and order (her dismay at areas of life in Satipur, like the hospital, suggest that her life in England has had these characteristics) has not been sufficient to compensate for spiritual or emotional inadequacies. In India, her friendship with Maji, the wise woman, and other contacts allow her some sense of the different ethos which informs life there, and which she wishes to understand, sufficiently to decide to bear her child in India.

Bruce King, in his book The New English Literatures, asks:

Is the narrator simply another of the neurotic English women, often found in Jhabvala's novels, who have sought in the myths of India a solution to their own emotional disturbances? … Indeed, by any commonsense standards she has been driven to India by failure and inadequacy and the novel shows her disintegration as she confuses romantic myths with the poverty, indifference and cruelty of actual Indian life. (227)

King clearly finds disconcerting the implied verdict on his own culture which her willingness to value India suggests. Without necessarily agreeing with him that she is neurotic, the reader cannot but perceive that the major narrator is a very cool fish, especially in the area of sexual experience. The spirit of enquiry which brought her to India controls her choice of sexual partners; she is neutral and observant in a way which makes it clear that she has severed any earlier group loyalties and for most of the novel is unwilling, or unready to take on any others.

In Heart of Darkness there are also two narrators: the first, a member of a group of friends on the deck of a yawl on the Thames, observes Marlow and records the story which he tells. The assumption of both narrators is that it can properly and fully be told from where they sit, and it is an assumption which validates the subject matter of the novel as Conrad defined it and as many critics have been willing to accept it. Lionel Trilling may be taken as representative of them: for him, Heart of Darkness is a story about “a hero of the spirit,”

… the man who goes down into that hell which is the historical beginning of the human soul, a beginning not outgrown but established in humanity as we know it now, preferring the reality of this hell to the bland lies of the civilization which has overlaid it. (33)

To write of the novel in this way is to assume that “civilization” can be taken as synonymous with western civilization, an assumption familiar and acceptable to British readers in 1902, the primary audience of the novel. The second assumption, that the black inhabitants of the Congo are at “the historical beginning of the human soul” is certainly made by Marlow and offered to the reader for his acceptance. Whether readers in 1902 would have been equally willing to accept this idea may be questioned. In 1883, when Olive Schreiner published The Story of an African Farm, she believed Bushmen, Hottentots and Xhosa (Kaffirs as she called them) to be at an earlier stage of evolution than white men. By the 1890s, when she was working on Thoughts on South Africa, she had not revised her opinion of the Bushmen (whom she called “a race caught in the very act of evolving into human form” [107]), because by that time they had almost died out in South Africa, but her opinion of the Xhosa was then very different. She writes from observation of their skills, their social organization and their “aptitude for abstract study” (112). In her day, Schreiner was regarded as dangerously liberal in her views and she was of course obliged by her residence in South Africa to grapple with questions about the innate capacities of the black peoples of Africa in a way that Conrad and Marlow, both merely visitors, were not. It is at least possible that Conrad believed black men to be at an earlier stage of evolution, since he certainly allows Marlow to make use of the idea.

Patrick Brantlinger has discussed nineteenth-century views of Africans and reminded us that these views generally served the interests of the perceivers. The anti-slavery campaigners presented Africa as an Eden from which the innocent inhabitants were dragged by slavers:

explorers usually portray them as amusing or dangerous obstacles or as objects of curiosity, while missionaries usually portray Africans as weak, pitiable, inferior mortals who need to be shown the light. Center stage is occupied not by Africa or Africans, but by a Livingstone or a Stanley, a Baker or a Burton. (177-78)

Both Conrad and Marlow are aware of the limitations in the explorer's and missionary's sense of Africa: it is clear that when Kurtz first arrived in the Congo, he was strongly influenced by both, but the realities of life there have seduced him into abandoning such views and he has allowed himself instead the dangerous “knowing” of the Congolese which implies an indulgence of terrible areas of himself. In the 1923 sections of Heat and Dust, the Anglo-Indians, and especially Douglas Rivers, Olivia's husband, are determined, like the missionaries, to see the Indians as children who will need the benevolent rule of the British for a long time to come. In the seventies, however, although the modern narrator registers strongly what disconcerts her in India, she knows that there is no alternative into which she can move: the British have gone, and the institutions which they established have either disappeared or altered. All that is left of them is “British cemeteries everywhere! they have turned out to be the most lasting monument” (127). Even in 1923, it is apparent that the Anglo-Indians are finding it difficult to believe in their superior role; their fears and self-doubt appear in their characteristic aggression, the women's refusals really to “know” anything Indian and their angry fear of imagined disrespect amongst their servants. Comparable difficulties can be assumed from the equally aggressive and determinedly ignorant behaviour of Fresleven, in Heart of Darkness, who tries to administer a severe beating to an old chief surrounded by his people, because he believes himself cheated in the purchase of two hens, and in the fat man who after being dropped by his bearers has skinned his nose and is, says Marlow, “very anxious for me to kill someone” (49).

Marlow's manner of reporting both incidents suggests that Conrad is as aware as Jhabvala of the absurdity of this kind of egocentricity. He is equally aware of and much less amused by another kind, also described by Brantlinger, who claims that both explorers and later, would-be entrepreneurs were attracted to the view of “Africans as a natural labouring class, suited only for performing the dirty work of civilization.” Brantlinger relates this view to

a nostalgia for lost authority and for a pliable, completely subordinate proletariat that is one of the central fantasies of imperialism. For opposite reasons, that fantasy also appealed to explorers from working class backgrounds like Livingstone and Stanley: their subordinate status at home was reversed in Africa. (181)

Not only Kurtz himself, but all the employees of the Company, with the possible exception of Marlow, are determined to acquire wealth and status from their activities in the Congo, and are equally determined that the African inhabitants must serve them docilely. Marlow can see that the “white man in new clothes and tan shoes” on the donkey, “bowing from that elevation right and left to the impressed pilgrims” is followed by “footsore sulky niggers” who loath what they are compelled to do (61); he records the fact that the immaculate linen of the chief accountant is kept in that condition by a black woman who “had a distaste for the work” (46); indeed all his perceptions of the labour of blacks are conditioned by the fact that on his arrival in the country he has passed through the Grove of Death, where the exhausted black employees of the Company are dying of disease and starvation.

But although Conrad and Marlow are consciously critical of the typical assumptions of Europeans in Africa, they are not completely free of them. Abdul R. JanMohamed touches a vital spot when he says:

Since the object of representation—the native—does not have access to these texts (because of linguistic barriers) and since the European audience has no direct contact with the native, imperialist fiction tends to be unconcerned with the truth-value of its representation. (63)

Whether or not Conrad believed that the Congolese were at the beginning of the evolution of conscience does not matter so much as the fact that he felt that for a European readership, they could be presented in this way. Though he was aware that views of Africans held by Europeans were far from disinterested, yet he availed himself of the habit of perception that JanMohamed records: “That world is … perceived as uncontrollable, chaotic, unattainable and ultimately evil” (64). Although in the main Marlow is a neutral perceiver, perfectly willing to be critical of members of his own group, he is determined not to know the dancers on the riverbank, as determined as are the English ladies of Satipur not to know the Begum of Khatm and her court, and he has no doubt that the beautiful woman on the riverbank who stretches out her arms towards Kurtz represents a sinister possibility for which Kurtz has opted. He admires the restraint of the crew members who refrain from killing and eating the pilgrim, though they are very hungry, yet he has no doubt that the wilderness (a term in the novel for a type of human life, though it is related to its forest setting) is unspeakably dangerous.

It is because Marlow is determined to limit his analysis to the lives of Whites that when Blacks appear before him as individuals they are virtually incomprehensible. When he encounters the dying man in the grove of death, the beaten labourer of the Central Station, the fireman on the riverboat—he refuses to probe into their reactions, though he does not ignore them. In the case of the helmsman, in whose dying glance he recognizes “a kind of partnership” (87), what he is touched by is a man who appears to have moved, however briefly, from his own lifestyle into Marlow's ethos of work. Marlow's commitment to this ethos is, he admits, non-moral: he admits that he does not join the “savages” on the bank because he has accepted the task of keeping the riverboat and its cargo of Pilgrims afloat, although he recognizes that they and their projects are evil. But although he calls his work “surface truth” the assumption which permeates his narrative is that for him, as for Kurtz, involvement in the life of the Congolese would be base. It is in his commitment to an ethos that Marlow differs from the unnamed narrator of Heat and Dust who is nevertheless aware of the difference between her norms and those of the people of Satipur. The Indian whom she knows best is Inder Lal, her landlord, and though she is quite willing to recognize that her own English appearance and manners are disconcerting to him as an Indian, her perceptions of him also relate to expectations she has formed in England. He and his family live in “poky rooms crammed at the back of a yard,” his relationship with his colleagues is one of mutual dislike and suspicion, he regards his wife as feeble and stupid and feels, at least at times, a sense of angry inferiority to Westerners. She sees Karim and Kitty, the Nawab's heirs, as pretty parasites, thinks that the troupe of singing and dancing eunuchs look sad, though everyone laughs at them, and that the hospital is a nightmare of overcrowding and inefficiency. For most of the novel, in fact, the norms of British culture shape the narrative; powerful over the consciousness of the narrator, they therefore control what we see and how we see it. Her pity for the eunuchs who earn their livings by displaying themselves in public is eventually counterbalanced by a perception of the town of Satipur which reveals that Indian society can accommodate and value all kinds of people, including the insane, mentally retarded and physically deformed. She sees that though it cannot—or does not try to—relieve the poverty of the beggar woman Leelavati or save her from death, it places a value on her life of suffering. And though she does arrive at a value for India, it may be that the strongest influence on the narrator when she makes her decision to stay is her sense that her own life in England has been so empty

The fact that she differs crucially from Marlow in her relationship with the group into which she was born is all-important here: the change which takes place in her values may be—and the end of the novel invites us to believe that it is—the first step in a process by which she commits herself to India. Neither the narrator nor Jhabvala expects readers to understand fully, much less to undergo, such a process. Marlow on the other hand returns with new understanding to his own group; the understanding however is only of himself and his fellow Europeans.

The primary readership of 1902 has necessarily passed away, and in the last quarter of the twentieth century it has become difficult for a British or American reader and impossible for readers in the third world to respond exactly as Conrad intended us to. Chinua Achebe, an Ibo with a strong sense of his people's social and cultural achievements before the arrival of the white man, is deeply offended by the “dehumanization of Africa and Africans” which is undeniably a feature of Heart of Darkness. In his essay “An Image of Africa” he writes regretfully, even angrily, about the fact that

… it is today perhaps the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in our own English Department here.

The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely, that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected. Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. … Of course, there is a preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind. … The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. (9)

Ethnic sympathies notwithstanding, we must understand that Heart of Darkness's inability to sweep Achebe along with it relates to the techniques of the traditional novel as they are discussed by Jonathan Culler in Structuralist Poetics. The traditional novel, he reminds us, presents a world tied to the world which the reader himself knows, and recognizably so. Ironically enough, it is the ties between Achebe and the real world of West Africa, of which Heart of Darkness is in his eyes a fictional distortion, which create the problem. Whereas Conrad's point is that this world is unknowable, except to a man like Kurtz, who is prepared to die of his knowledge, Achebe's recognition is quite different—he sees and understands there the persons and actions of his own ancestors, or rather of his close relatives—he reminds us in his essay that Conrad sailed down the Congo in 1890 when his (Achebe's) own father was still a baby in arms. Culler has put his finger on the difficulty when he writes:

Precisely because the reader expects to be able to recognise a world, the novel he reads becomes a place in which models of intelligibility can be “deconstructed,” exposed and challenged. (190)

The “models of intelligibility” contained in Heart of Darkness depend heavily on the acceptance by the reader that the narrator, Marlow, has a right to tell the story.

In Structuralist Poetics Culler draws attention to a tactic common in the novel: the use of language which suggests that the world of narrator and reader are the same or similar, and that they have both experiences and attitudes in common. He comments that Balzac's novels insist

that the narrator is only a more knowledgeable version of the reader and that they share the same world to which the language of the novel refers. The demonstratives followed by relative clauses (she was one of those women who … ; on one of those days when … ; the fa‡ade is painted that yellow colour which gives Parisian houses … ) create categories while implying that the reader knows them already and can recognize the kind of person or object about which the narrator speaks. The hypostatized observers act as personae for the reader and suggest how he would have reacted to the spectacle which is being presented. (195-96)

Heart of Darkness is very clearly a novel which invites the reader into this kind of complicity with the narrator. The effect of Marlow's narrative is to make the reader one of the group of listeners on the deck of the yawl on the Thames. His language is full of appeals to experience and attitudes which, it is presumed, are common to the group: when he speaks of the fascination of savagery, he says, “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency” (31). It is the crucial attitude for the novel's view (which is to say, the view that the reader is persuaded to share with Marlow) both of the European employees of the Company and of the native inhabitants of the Congo; it keeps Marlow the irritated, alienated spectator of the one, and despite this fascination, resistant to the appeal of the other. The assumption of his language as he tells the story is that his hearers/readers will understand and agree that the obligation to gainful toil, however odious one's employers, will exclude the possibility of abandoning ship for an investigation of life on the river bank. His words, especially at crucial moments in the narrative, are full of “yous” and “ones” which involve his hearers/readers in the strange particularity of his own experience in the Congo and especially in his own reactions to that experience which we are to see as something which we might well have shared. Often the analogy between his work and that of the hearer/reader becomes explicit, as when he speaks of his own work on the ship and compares it to that of his hearers:

“I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks: I watched for sunken stones: I was learning to clap my teeth smartly, before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a look-out for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day's steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—”

“Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew that there was at least one listener awake besides myself.

“I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done?” (66-67)

This is a finely calculated piece of writing: it manages to imply that the everyday routines of Marlow's hearers (middle-class British professional men, as far as we are allowed to know them) are essentially similar to Marlow's demanding duties on the steamship, and that both are noble in their way, though they oblige one to ignore “the inner truth” which Kurtz, we gather, dared to contemplate. If the passage is to persuade the reader at the same time, he must be prepared to acknowledge in himself the existence of a similar work ethic and perhaps also that he is middle class and English. It is one of the subtleties of Conrad's strategy that he does not offer Kurtz, the “hero of the spirit,” to his reader as the figure with whom he is to feel affinity. It is Marlow, benevolent, dutiful but unheroic, whom we are to feel we resemble, and Marlow's attitudes are recognizably those of a man who has adjusted to the economic realities of the western world. Work is for him “monkey tricks” but he does not fail in it. Nor is he taken in by the propaganda of “the gang of virtue,” as the brickmaker of the Central Station calls them. Of his naïvely idealistic aunt, who is taken in by these ideas, he says:

“It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.” (39)

This last sentence has the purpose of manoeuvring his readers into agreement with him, though he will eventually admit that there is nothing queer about women's ignorant idealism, that it is deliberately preserved by men for their own purposes. When speaking of his lie to Kurtz's fiancé, he says:

“Oh, she is out of it—completely. They—the women I mean—are out of it—should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.” (84)

In fact this idealism is not confined to women; Kurtz himself when he arrives in the Congo shares it. But Marlow does not, because he is neither naïve nor wilfully ignorant, and nor, he ventures to presume, are we. The testing and breaking down of these ideas in Kurtz and his course after he has discarded them to investigate what Trilling calls “the primal, non-ethical energies” is a process we are persuaded to understand but never, even imaginatively, to participate in.

It would of course be absurd to suggest that Balzac or Conrad wrote only for readers whose historical and social placing was so similar to their own that the idea of the narrator as “a more knowledgeable version” of the reader was reasonable; rather, the persuasions that this is so, embedded in the text, work on the reader so as to make the narrator an acceptable guide for him. In Trilling's case, Marlow as narrator was easily acceptable, partly because the civilization to which he belonged was the immediate ancestor of Trilling's own. When Trilling writes of Kurtz as “going down into that hell which is the historical beginning of the human soul” he feels no reluctance to see the people of the nineteenth-century Congo as living at that beginning. Conrad has put them to such a use; unable, because of his historical placing, to know what the anthropologists of the twentieth century would tell laterborn men and women, he has seen them as without culture of any kind; pure, unmitigated and undisguised impulse. Achebe's position is very different: the narrator's efforts to generalize his attitudes and experience over his readers seem to him to point to a sinister tendency of Europeans which Conrad is both supporting and extending.

Writing about the difficulty of teaching “ancient or culturally removed material,” Jerome McGann comments that although the difficulties of such works can be avoided if they are dealt with in their present context only (that is to say, the context of the reader's own present) to do so is merely to recapitulate and objectify the reader's own ideological commitments. Achebe, writing energetically and persuasively against what he calls the “dehumanization” of Africans, is most certainly recapitulating his own ideological commitment. He knows that Conrad's historical placing made it unlikely that he would respond to the inhabitants of the Congo with anything more than “the liberalism” which “touched all the best minds of the age” but which “almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between black people and white people” (8). But an historical sense is, properly, I think, insufficient to reconcile him to the assumptions about the relative positions of the races implied in the novel. Forgiving Conrad, the man of the nineteenth century, for his views is not the question. It is the continued currency and influence of Heart of Darkness in the late twentieth century which is the problem. Achebe claims that “the image of Africa which we find in his book … was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination” (13). I should myself be willing to go further and say that despite the late twentieth-century movements which celebrate the capacities and achievements of Blacks, it is an image which still has a powerful and damaging hold on the minds of many Blacks.

Is it not possible that without rejecting the work, we can refuse to be co-opted into that complicity with Marlow which is necessary if we are to share his judgements on the Congolese? What happens if we become what Judith Fetterley has called a “resisting reader”? Fetterley recognizes as her first premise that “literature is political,” that is to say, that it has a design, often “impalpable” upon its reader. That design is to manoeuvre the reader into the acceptance of a vision of reality, as Culler might say, a world tied to the world which the reader himself knows. Fetterley's concern is with the fact that the vision of reality presented by American literature is male-affirming: “to read … classic American literature is perforce to identify as male,” she writes (xii). To read Heart of Darkness as Conrad intended it to be read, as I have shown, is to identify not only as male but as White and Western European, in a sense which precludes sympathy with or knowledge of other races. Fetterley suggests that the “political” designs of such literature may be resisted without its being necessary to discard the works: the problem, as she sees it, is that these designs tend to be “impalpable” to the reader, and the solution is to reveal them.

She writes of the “powerlessness which derives from not seeing one's experience articulated, clarified and legitimized in art” and “more significantly the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self, the consequence of the invocation to identify as male while being reminded that to be male—to be universal, to be American—is to be not female” (xiii). This kind of powerlessness is as well known to Third World readers as to White women, since much of the literature on the syllabuses of secondary and tertiary educational institutions has until recently been of the kind which invites one to see oneself as white.

Achebe's essay is not perhaps sufficiently aware of its own power: determined though it is by revealing the narrative strategy to create a new understanding of Heart of Darkness, it can only suggest that the proper fate of so offensive a work is to drop out of the canon. Fetterley, on the other hand, can find a value for works which offer “ideas and mythologies” (xx) which have become offensive to us. She can envisage the possibility that we might, by refusing to become complicitous with narrators, or even authors, identify and resist pervasive attitudes within the works, and finally become better able to change similar attitudes which we encounter in our daily life. There can be few works of the past to which a degree of resistance is not necessary; to resist is not to avoid the problems of an “ancient or culturally removed” text in the way which McGann condemns, though it contributes to a clearer understanding of our own present as well as of the world of the novel.

Novels of the Third World generally show awareness that they must allow for different kinds of reading: Heat and Dust, by insisting on the rootlessness of both its narrators, has refused to allow any reader the sense that he or she shares a cultural competence with them. The result, to judge from criticism of the novel, is a kind of freedom for the reader within the text. I have already quoted from Bruce King's discussion of it; what is remarkable in the assessment as a whole is that there is no acknowledgment by the critic that it is partial and focused on a single aspect of the work. For him, the subject of the novel is British culture, 1923 and 1975, made the more arresting by its positioning in front of the exotic backdrop formed by India. It is a reading of the novel which strikingly reassembles that desired by Conrad and given by Trilling to Heart of Darkness, in its assumption that what is knowable, that is, Western civilization, may constitute a subject, and may be the better judged by being seen against the unknowable, represented in the case of Heat and Dust by India and the Indians. And there is no doubt that Olivia Rivers, whose letters, sometimes quoted and at other times summarized, form our only source of information about life in Satipur and Khatm in 1923, knows almost nothing about Indians. She remains ignorant during the period of the novel not only about the unregarded Hindu masses who can indicate their wishes only by rioting but also to a great extent about the character and involvements of her lover the Nawab. And the present-day narrator, despite her will to see and know India and Indians, never systematizes her perceptions in order to arrive at a verdict.

Nissim Ezekiel, who might be described, at least in this example of his criticism as “Indian post-colonial” describes the novel as

… worthless as literature, contrived in its narrative structure, obtrusive in its authorial point of view, weak in style, stereotyped in its characters, and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene. … Is there not a demeaning motive in this characterising of a country and its culture in terms of its climate and the least valuable element lying on the physical territory designated? (138-39)

The anger felt by Ezekiel at what he sees as a partial and prejudiced portrait of India comes from an assumption which he makes earlier in the essay, that when two cultures are in contact, as portrayed in a literary work “the cultures cannot be ‘equal’—one is in some crucial ways more powerful, while the other is treated as confused, ineffective or unbalanced” (137). It seems evident that he believes that in this case British culture is offered, without qualifications relating to the differences between 1923 and 1975, as superior, and entitling the present-day narrator, and through her, Olivia, to offer perceptions of India to readers who would on this basis arrive at an unfavourable verdict on the country and its people. Although, as I have argued earlier, Jhabvala is at pains to indicate that neither narrator can be seen as representative of her culture, nor, presumably of Jhabvala's, yet both necessarily write from outside Indian culture and with a set of expectations formed by their English upbringing. Ezekiel has registered and resented the way in which the accounts of India both in 1923 and 1975 come from foreign consciousness. His is a “resisting” reading in something like the sense that Achebe's is, insofar as it insists on the inadequacy of the perceivers to give a fair and complete account of their subject, and in the second sense, that this inadequacy is produced by a wilful ignorance or unfairness on the part of the author, who was or could have been capable of knowing India as Indians know it, as well as it appears to visiting English.

A third reading, by a critic who may be described as a penitent colonist, sees the subject matter differently from King and the attitude of the author differently from Ezekiel:

Heat and Dust, or at least the 1923 areas of it, records the fading years of two coexisting régimes in India, the Muslim princes and the British Raj. The irony of the situation lies in the fact that neither the Nawab nor the British realise what will supplant both—they imagine that the danger to each comes from the other. The reader can see, with the help of the seventies areas of the novel, that the people, who were and are Hindu, must have lived their lives virtually unaffected by either. … Jhabvala does not weigh the Raj against Hindu India and decide that the one is better or worse than the other. Hindu India, in 1923, does not speak to its rulers except through riots which they ignore or misunderstand. In the seventies, the narrator, whose strongest impulse is to see and understand, can perceive what is to Olivia in 1923 invisible, but at the end of the novel she is still hoping for clear understanding of the whole pattern.

This discussion of the novel, my own, is taken from a lecture written some years ago, when I had no doubt that the principal subject of Heat and Dust was the continuance and survival of an indigenous culture through two waves of colonialism.

An easy verdict on these three readings would be that each critic has responded to the novel according to his own interests and sensitivities: in the words of Jerome McGann, each has recapitulated his or her own ideological commitment.1 The question must be asked, however, of whether, when a narrator offers no overt guidance as to the attitudes and judgements which a reader ought to bring to bear on the text, readers have been made intentionally “free” by the author. It is legitimate for them to turn to their own interests and inclinations, as the extracts offered show three critics in the process of doing?

It is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to find a reason for preferring one critic's reading to the others to the extent of discounting the others in favour of the reading preferred. The three critics have in fact picked their ways through the text, attracted strongly by certain areas of meaning and indifferent to others. Probably none of the three would deny the existence of the meanings which have not attracted them: the strange passivity of the modern narrator, for example, which so interested the “British” post-imperialist, was mildly intriguing to the penitent colonist. Nevertheless what is most significant is that the refusal of the novelist to provide within the novel a single or compelling ideology makes the activity of reading it into the arrangement and assessment of its content in terms of some scheme, moral or historical or what you will, but originating in the reader's self.

How different from the reading experience of Heart of Darkness, one might be tempted to say. The difference, however, as Achebe would argue, is less than it seems: the Heat and Dust narrator is aware and makes her readers feel her fallibility and the limits of her understanding, but although Conrad and Marlow seem to have made different assumptions, which readers of our own day may understand, those readers must know that their own positions vis-à-visHeart of Darkness are now to be defined by themselves. Third World readers may be especially conscious of this, since the position of “resisting” readers has so often been forced on them, but it must to an extent be an awareness common to all.


  1. I am aware that I have been somewhat unjust to Jerome McGann in representing his critical position by an essay published in 1981, on The Ancient Mariner, a text which was certainly directed at a “primary audience” whose cultural assumptions were familiar to Coleridge. McGann's words represent in my essay a position once seen proper for the reader of any text: that he or she ought, as far as possible, to achieve “cultural complicity” with its author for the duration of the reading.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa.” Research in African Literatures 9:1 (1978): 1-15.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent.” Critical Inquiry 12:1 (1985): 166-203.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Echeruo, Michael J. C. The Conditioned Imagination from Shakespeare to Conrad. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Ezekiel, Nissim. “Two Readers and Their Texts.” Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities. Ed. Guy Amirthanayagam. London: Macmillan, 1982. 137-141.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature.” Critical Inquiry 12:1 (1985): 59-87.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. Heat and Dust. 1975. London: Futura Publications, 1983.

King, Bruce. The New English Literatures. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Lenta, Margaret. “Heat and Dust and Cold and Fog”; unpublished lecture, 1985.

McGann, Jerome. “The Meaning of The Ancient Mariner.” Critical Inquiry 8:1 (1981): 35-67.

Schreiner, Olive. Thoughts on South Africa. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923.

Trilling, Lionel. Beyond Culture. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1967.

Further Reading

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Crane, Ralph J. “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature XX, No. 1 (1985): 171-203.

Bibliography of Jhabvala's books, articles, screenplays, and short stories, as well as an annotated list of reviews and essays on her work.


Agarwal, Ramlal G. “An Interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.” Quest 91 (September/October 1994): 33-6.

Discusses critics' comparisons of Jhabvala with Jane Austen, as well as complaints that her novels deal only with a small slice of Indian life.

———. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study of Her New Fiction. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1990, 126 p.

Discusses eight of Jhabvala's novels at length, as well as many of her short stories. Includes a bibliography.

Atlas, James. “A Cinematic Sensibility.” Vogue 183 (March 1993): 248, 254.

Article based on an interview with Jhabvala in which she discusses moving to New York. Atlas criticizes her books and screenplays as painting a world “faintly unreal.”

Belliappa, Meena. “A Study of Jhabvala's Fiction.” The Miscellany, No. 43 (January-February 1971): 24-40.

Analysis of several of Jhabvala's books, including The Householder, To Whom She Will, and The Nature of Passion,concentrating on how the characters conduct themselves in society.

Pym, John. The Wandering Company: Twenty-One Years of Merchant Ivory Films. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1983, 102 p.

Chronicles the collaborative film efforts of Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala, from The Householder through The Courtesans of Bombay.

Additional coverage of Jhabvala's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 29, 51, 74, 91; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 139, 194; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Merle Rubin (review date 19 June 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Stories from India Reissued,” in The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1990, p. A18.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a positive assessment of ten of Jhabvala's novels rereleased by Simon & Schuster.]

Talking about contemporary writers, Dame Rebecca West once mentioned that one of her favorites was “that Polish woman with the Indian name who lives in New York.”

Well, that in a nutshell pretty much describes Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose 10 novels Simon & Schuster has now finished reprinting in paperback. A more prolix biographer might also add that she was born in 1927 to Polish Jewish parents, came to England as a refugee in 1939, attended London University, and then moved in 1951 to India with her husband, the Indian architect C. S. H. Jhabvala, before heading for New York 24 years later.

Along the way she won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust and an Academy Award for A Room With a View, one of the numerous intelligent screen adaptations she's written for her good friends, the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

From her first novel, Amrita (1955), a tale of forbidden love, to her most recent, Three Continents (1987), a satiric look at wealthy Westerners and their guru, India has furnished the background and inspiration for all but one of Ms. Jhabvala's novels. (In Search of Love and Beauty was set in America.)

Unlike many other Westerners fascinated with India, however, Ms. Jhabvala claims she never was drawn there by its mysticism. “If I hadn't married an Indian,” she once wrote, “I don't think I would ever have come here.” A social realist in the tradition of Jane Austen, Thackeray and Henry James (whose The Bostonians she adapted for the screen), Ms. Jhabvala turns a cooly rational eye on mysticism and materialism alike, mocking the follies and pretensions of her characters while maintaining a strong undercurrent of empathy with their plights.

All this is evident in the last three novels now available in paperback: They fully display the characteristic strengths of her style and vision. The Nature of Passion (1956), her second novel, is a classic story of generational conflict. Lalaji, a rich New Delhi contractor, wants only the best for his children. Three of them are settled, and his docile middle daughter is content—nay, downright eager—to be married off in the traditional, parent-arranged fashion. But the youngest son and daughter are defiantly, petulantly modern. The rashness of youth, however, is no match for the wisdom and patience of maturity, and everything works out, perhaps a little too neatly, in this nonetheless satisfying novel.

The cultural and generational conflicts safely contained in The Nature of Passion take a more dangerous turn in Ms. Jhabvala's next novel, Esmond in India (1958). Two Indian families, bound by ties of friendship (and a shared history of participation in the civil-disobedience campaign that led to Indian independence) hope to repair the slight breach that occurred when the daughter of one refused to marry the son of the other. She chose instead to marry an Englishman, Esmond Stillwood. An expert on Indian literature, Stillwood has come to loathe his beautiful, uneducated Indian wife and almost everything about India, including the way that his little son seems more and more Indian every day.

But this does not diminish his appeal in the eyes of Shakuntala, sister of the man spurned by Esmond's unhappy wife. A modern, college-educated young woman, Shakuntala sees in Esmond all the romance and poetry of the West. This is a subtler, more disturbing novel than its predecessor. The characters are more carefully fleshed out, yet are all the more inexorably entrapped by their own strong emotions and powerful misconceptions.

In A Backward Place (1965), her sixth novel, Ms. Jhabvala focuses on European expatriates. Judy, the heroine, is a lower-middle-class Englishwoman whose marriage to Bal, a handsome unemployed Indian actor, has provided a way out of her drab background. She, Bal and their two children share cramped quarters with his extended family, and while she struggles to make ends meet, working as a secretary, he hangs out at coffeehouses, dreaming of stardom. Etta, an acid-tongued Hungarian, urges Judy to leave this “backward place,” while pseudo-artistic Clarissa enthuses mindlessly over all things Indian.

The contrasting pretensions of Judy's two friends make for delicious high (and occasionally broad) comedy that balances the pathos, not only of Judy's plight, but even of Etta's and Clarissa's: Being more self-deluded, they actually are more “trapped” in “a backward place” than the seemingly less fortunate Judy.

Writing in the tradition of British social comedy, Ms. Jhabvala—like Henry James—has expanded its range beyond the country village, the suburb, the drawing rooms of a clearly established social order, and demonstrated its continuing viability and vitality amid a larger, less stable world of crumbling social structures, displaced people, and the fairly constant human tendency to delude ourselves.

Philip T. Kitley (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Time and Scriptable Lives in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust,” in World Literature Written in English, Spring, 1992, pp. 55-65.

[In the following essay, Kitley examines a number of literary elements present in Heat and Dust, including intertextuality and narrative structure.]

In 1973 Ruth Jhabvala visited, with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, the palace at Jodhpur. This visit, though none of those involved knew it at the time, was to culminate two years later in the release of the film Autobiography of a Princess and in the publication of Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1975.

Autobiography of a Princess began with an idea Ivory had to produce a film about Indian palaces. As Ivory and his team toured various palaces they discovered that many of the former royal families had preserved in their private archives footage of all sorts of ceremonial and family events from years past. Ivory handed the archival material to Jhabvala and suggested that she write a screenplay that would allow them to integrate the documentary footage they had shot over the years with the archival film, to which would be added fictional sequences with Madhur Jaffrey playing an Indian princess. When Ivory and Merchant returned to New York, they had come to the view that the film should be set in London and should involve an English male character as well as the Princess.1

While writing the screenplay for Autobiography of a Princess, Jhabvala began work on a novel that she was to publish as Heat and Dust, the story of a young woman who travels to India to gain an understanding of the life of Olivia, her grandfather's first wife who lived in India in the 1920s. Olivia Rivers, married to Douglas, a district officer in the Indian Civil Service, scandalized the British community by eloping with an Indian Nawab and then remaining in India for the rest of her life. The narrator gains some insight into Olivia's life and feelings from an inherited collection of letters written by Olivia to her sister and from information provided by her family and by Harry “Something,” who had been the Nawab's house guest and a confidante of Olivia's. These letters and conversations are the literary equivalent of the documentary and archival footage that formed the basis of Autobiography of a Princess. The influence of the film extended even to the way Jhabvala wrote the text of her novel:

I wrote [Heat and Dust] rather differently from the others. I wrote great blocks of present time and then great blocks of 1923. Then afterwards I cut them up and put them together to set each other off. So I have learnt a lot technically from film. (Rutherford 377)

In Autobiography of a Princess, the raking over of old memories is an annual event centred on a memorial tea party held to celebrate the Princess's late father's birthday. One has the feeling that for the Princess, her nostalgia for the old days is more or less a permanent condition. For Cyril Sahib, the late Maharaja's tutor, remembering is painful, and even the once-a-year get-together, despite the Princess's charm, seems to fill him with fears and memories he would rather leave buried. It is only his constitutional weakness and inability to say “no” to the Princess that bring him up to London from Turton-on-Sea, where he labours diffidently on a historical study of a British district officer whom he admires for his energy and administrative ability!

For the Princess and Cyril Sahib, the past is lived at a distance, mediated through memories and stories, albums of faded photographs, films, garlanded portraits, and newspaper clippings, historical research, girlish reminiscence, and upper-class style supplied by Fortnum and Mason. But in Heat and Dust, the narrator's exploration of past time and place is direct and adventurous, not vicarious. Perhaps it is a reflection of the adventure Jhabvala herself took when she “blindly and fearlessly” left England with her husband to live in India (Jhabvala, “Disinheritance” 8). There still are distancing elements in the novel Heat and Dust (Olivia's letters and reported conversations with Harry, and the narrator's journal), but it seems that Jhabvala's understanding of the “presentness” of past fictive time in film, undoubtedly reinforced by working with the archival film, prompted her to use a montage technique in the verbal narrative and in this way to create two parallel plots that have an intense present, here-and-now quality about them.


Intertextuality, time, and the Barthesian concept of the scriptable text2 are complexly entwined in Heat and Dust, Jhabvala explores these interrelationships as a way of reflecting on the nature of individuality and dependence and on the freedom, the pleasures, and the risks that might be involved in taking charge of our own lives. In Barthes's concept of the scriptable text, the reader takes charge and produces the text in a way that gives the reader access to the pleasure of co-authorship and the realization of the unfixed, open, plural nature of the signification of the text.

The concept of intertextuality also recognizes the openness of the text. All texts are taken to be appropriations of prior texts, which are themselves open to being appropriated in as-yet-unwritten, future texts. This concept of the intertextuality of texts thus positions any text in a process of becoming. It recognizes the debt a text owes to other texts and assumes the debt will be repaid in the future. Understood in this way, the idea that a text is an “original” cannot be sustained, as intertextuality acknowledges an infinite regress to other texts that are the original of the original. But the impetus is not only backward; the play of difference in the given text sets up the conditions for further play, and thus the present text must be understood as being in the process of being inscribed in future texts. There is no sharp boundary that can be drawn to mark off this text from its antecedents nor its progeny, and thus the tendency to privilege the present form of the text and consider it as authoritative, as “correct,” as the definitive version, ignores the becoming nature of the text.

In Heat and Dust, intertextuality is explored in two principal ways. First, and most directly, Jhabvala draws on “the literature” of the Raj, and the impact of that literature on the structure and even on characterization will be taken up in detail below. Secondly, the narrator's response to Olivia's letters (themselves a personal and informal part of the literature of the Raj) and her impulse to live out the letters by traveling to India and writing about her experiences are extended illustrations of the appropriation of Olivia's text by the narrator's journal. But before the narrator can appropriate the letters as a writer, she must first read them. Her subsequent decision, not to put them aside but to take them back to India and explore their references and resonances in her own life, deftly links Barthes's concept of the scriptable text with the practice of intertextuality. The narrator as reader becomes, literally and figuratively, the writer. Then, as readers, we too are invited to share the narrator's fortunes and to have the freedom in the last phase of the novel to begin writing our own reflections. At the end of the novel, the narrator's climb up the mountain may be read as every person's journey into the unknown and as the challenge that faces the individual who chooses to live life in an uncompromisingly “writerly” way.

Time is used to connect the structural elements of intertextuality, articulated through the notion of a literary and cultural heritage, with the idea of the scriptable text, which is articulated through the choices characters and readers have open to them in the narrative. It is time that places one in the position of inheritor and also positions one as a shaper of the future. Like Barthes's concept of the “classical” text, which denies3 the reader the opportunity of rewriting, the past may constrain our response to the present and limit our future. But what I understand Jhabvala to say in the way both Olivia and the narrator make choices that are their own and are not simply imitative or conventional is that the past can be transcended by the fearless “writerly reader.”


The events related in the verbal narrative of Heat and Dust extend over a period of approximately seven months. The narrator's journal of her stay in Satipur begins on February 2, some time in the 1970s, and entries cease in September. On Page One we are told that it was in September 1923 that Olivia “went away with the Nawab.” The narrator and Olivia thus spent exactly the same amount of time in Satipur. Olivia's letters, most of them written while she was in Satipur, are echoed across time in the narrator's journal entries.

Jhabvala divides the narrative equally between the events of 1923 and the present and alternates the events of the two periods over 22 segments. The discourse time of the alternating segments becomes increasingly shorter as the narrative proceeds. Long, self-contained periods concerned with present or past fictive time give way to shorter segments that naturally shift the reader more quickly from one time frame to the other and suggest that the distinctiveness of the periods is lessening all the time as the narrator's experiences more closely resemble Olivia's. Towards the end of the narrative, the practice of differentiating diegetic time by writing either “1923” or a journal entry date such as “31 July-15 August,” which has been consistently used from Page Two onwards, lapses, and the shift from the events of 1923 to the present is marked by asterisks and a double paragraph space. From this point on, the past and the present blur and are not related separately, but are related by the narrator as a mixture of reported speech, reminiscence, and historical reporting.

Olivia's time and the narrator's time have merged; the present has assimilated the past, has made it its own, and is now preparing for the next phase—significantly, the birth of a new generation that will in turn have to assimilate its forbears' pasts. This cyclical (samsarik)4 interpretation of the entanglement of one generation's lives in those of the past is formally reinforced in the novel by the reference to Douglas's death on the first page and to the birth of the narrator's child on the last page, by the decreasing length of discourse time given to the different time frames that I have noted, and by the sense of merged time that extends for 13 pages from the point where time is no longer marked. This narrative time corresponds exactly to the space given to the 1970s fictive time in the beginning of the book, formally superimposes one cycle of time on another, and “rounds off” the narrative structure of the text.5

The cyclical interpretation of time is also a feature of Autobiography of a Princess, where it is articulated in ways that closely match the life-cycle imagery of Heat and Dust. The nostalgic, annual observance of the late Maharaja's birthday is itself an echo of other, seemingly endless, indulgent celebrations that the Princess's family staged at the height of its power. The birthday party for a father who has died re-creates the past as the present, compresses the span of one man's life into its beginning, and, through the jerky, flickering images, brings him and his era into the present. At one point, Cyril Sahib, trapped by the Princess into sitting through scene after scene of elaborate state anniversaries and ceremonies, says that, after a time, he found the events being celebrated blurred into an endless round and that what appeared to be a distinct moment in an individual's life could also be seen as part of other, more extended rhythms and cycles:

Although in the beginning I was excited by all the processions and ceremonies, after a time they all seemed the same. The weddings. The birthdays. The funerals. … One would have thought that, as the years went by, all these ceremonies would become more familiar to me. Not at all. They became more mystifying. More mysterious. I was able less and less to keep them apart, or to know what was going on. Somehow it all ran together—being married, dying—it was all part of the same process … (Ivory 148)

The implication of time in Heat and Dust is complex and may be analysed from three points of view. First, and most obviously, there is the interleaving or structural mapping of one historical period onto another, which we might interpret first as a textual or graphic metaphor of a cyclical interpretation of chronological time. Jhabvala's technical expertise is evident here as she manipulates discourse time as well as diegetic time and as she links the periods together, which will be discussed further.

The second issue is the way time is mediated, the way time is distanced from human beings: it is only accessible in letters and diaries, and even more abstractly, in places. The narrator's present-day experience in India is available to the reader only through her diaries, not directly. It is significant that for both Olivia and the narrator the shift away from Satipur to a way of life that is shaped more directly by them coincides with an end to writing about life, an end to a mediation of life through others' values and assumptions. Towards the end of the narrative the narrator says that the only way she can come to understand how time changed Olivia will be to put herself through the same process—that is, to stay on (160). Finally, we can understand time as a social construct, a network of values and attitudes and conventions, of relationships, of knowledge, of alliances, prejudices, and enmities that for individuals make up the historical context of their lives and shape their hopes and opportunities. This third concept of time is of central thematic importance in the novel, as it provides the context in which Jhabvala can explore the possibility of changes in patterns of dependence and individuality—particularly for women in their relationships with men, something that most critical discussion has not understood.

I will comment on this third concept of time first of all. The social construction of time in Heat and Dust is developed in the language and narrative events of the text itself, but is supported by direct and indirect reference to the English literature of the Raj, the only inheritance that Jhabvala stored up for the journey “she didn't know she had to make” (Jhabvala,“Disinheritance” 8). The direct references to the literature of the imperial period are obscure. On pages 58 and 59, Dr. Saunders makes reference to an English Member of Parliament who visited Satipur a year before and whose views had annoyed the old India hands. It is likely that Saunders was referring to A. E. W. Mason, who visited India as a Member of Parliament and later recorded his experiences in the novel The Broken Road, in which he questioned the wisdom of a western education for the Indian Princes. Jhabvala includes reference to another volume of English comment on Indian cultural life when her character Major Minnies refers to Colonel Sleeman's experience of a voluntary suttee in the early 1820s.6 The third explicit reference is not to a book but to a print, “Mrs Secombe in Flight from the Mutineers,” which Harry recalls in describing Olivia's flight from the British lines to Khatm. These texts are analogues of Olivia's (and the narrator's and Jhabvala's) writings about their experience in India and remind the reader that “literature,” more generally and more publicly than private letters and journals, contributes to our knowledge of ourselves and, in this case, of other times, cultures, and places. The choice of texts—one the locus classicus of the heroic myth of the Raj, the other two more sympathetic to Indian views—reminds us that literature is deeply penetrated by the values and attitudes of the culture that produced it. The imperial myth, with its inscribed values of dominance, superiority, and conventional wisdom, so well reflected in Douglas and his kind, may be read as denying the possibility, pleasure, and risks of choice and change—the two factors that are so significant in the narrator's and Olivia's lives. In choosing from the rich storehouse of British memories of the Raj two commentaries sympathetic to an Indian perspective, attention is focused on Olivia's, and by extension, the narrator's ideological position, alerting the reader to the possibility of a plurality of interpretations of the classical myth.

The structure of Heat and Dust owes a debt to Forster's record of his travels in India entitled The Hill of Devi. The Hill of Devi is based on a series of letters written by Forster while traveling in India, interspersed with commentary and essays also written by him, but considerably later. It is a patchwork of immediacy and reminiscence, of the past refracted through the present. It is also the record of a journey, and a record of Forster's experience as private secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas State Senior; as such, it may be read as a possible source for the character and situation of Harry in Heat and Dust and of Cyril in Autobiography of a Princess. The Maharaja may have been the model for Jhabvala's Nawab: R. Cronin has drawn attention to a passage in Forster's description of the Maharaja's jumbled treasure that is echoed by Jhabvala's inventory of the Nawab's extravagance, down to the detail of two pianos, one a grand, “with their notes sticking and their frames cracked by dryness” (Cronin 143). Both the Nawab and the Maharaja promise to summon a piano tuner from Bombay.7


We might turn now to consider how Jhabvala manages the montage effect of shifting from one time period to another. Jhabvala has noted that her strategy owed much to filmic practice, and the careful bracketing of fictive time in the novel suggests that she has fully absorbed the lessons of shifting time in a medium in which all events, past, present, and future, seem to be narrated in a “perpetual present,” to use Bluestone's apt phrase.8

It has already been noted that Jhabvala signifies temporal shifts in Heat and Dust by introducing the segments by dates—just “1923” in the case of segments of Olivia's story—and by noting days and months for the segments that are presented as extracts from the narrator's diary. The 1923 segments are narrated by Douglas's granddaughter, who, it seems, has thoroughly assimilated details of Olivia's life. This fiction, however, is not maintained beyond the introductory paragraphs of the 1923 sections. After the introductory paragraphs the temporal orientation of the section becomes that of 1923, and the narrator becomes an impersonal, omniscient narrator, a narrator whose privileged knowledge of not only Olivia but of Douglas, of the Nawab, and of the other characters makes it impossible for the reader to identify as Ms Rivers. These segments are thus literary equivalents of the flashback and have all the “present” quality of filmic action.

Jhabvala has used a variety of techniques to bridge the cuts from the events of one time frame to events in the other. I have identified five strategies that cue the reader for narrative events following. One device used throughout the text to link events across time is the setting of them in a common spatial location. This is the technique used in the first temporal shift in the narrative. The narrator and Inder Lal visit Khatm and tour the Nawab's palace, finding it an empty shell, neglected and lifeless. The opening line of the following section locates the past fictive action in the same place Inder Lal and the narrator were last seen: “Olivia first met the Nawab at a dinner party he gave in his palace at Khatm” (14). In addition to this spatial link there is also a metaphoric link. The narrator leaves the palace at Khatm clutching some rock sugar and a few sweet-smelling flowers that the palace watchman had given her when she visited his puja shrine in the palace.9 As she drives home, she throws away the offerings, but finds the petals and sugar leave “… the palm of my hand sticky with a lingering smell of sweetness and decay that is still there as I write” (14). The association of the decaying palace and the sweetness that Olivia once found there in her love for the Nawab is clear. The scent recalls, too, Olivia's letters, which, after more than 50 years, the narrator tells us, still hold a delicate scent of lilac.10

Spatial links are used in three other shifts from one time frame to another. When the narrator meets the would-be sadhu (‘religious mendicant’) Chid for the first time, it is on the verandah of the house that was once the Saunders's. She realizes while standing there that the house looked directly onto the cemetery. This reference is taken up in the following 1923 segment in the opening line—“Olivia had always been strongly affected by graveyards” (24)—and establishes the graveyard and its location, which will be returned to throughout the novel. The linking of space across time is used again on Page 55 to introduce the suttee shrines in Satipur and to introduce the annual pilgrimage of expatriate women to the hill stations for the summer.

The abruptness of the shift from one period to another is moderated in other sections of the text by the linking of the time periods with reference to events in common. Jhabvala does this skilfully when she makes an annual ritual, the Husband's Wedding Day procession to the shrine of Baba Firdaus, the common element linking the narrator's and Olivia's experience in Satipur. Later in the narrative, the linking across periods becomes more complex and is achieved by a dense entanglement of time and place. The narrator and Inder Lal return to Baba Firdaus's grove “shortly before the beginning of the monsoon” and make love in the cool shade. The next segment from 1923 provides the historical precedent for their dalliance. The segment ends with Olivia and the Nawab locked in each other's arms, thus repeating the pattern of the previous narrative segment. The outcome of the love-making in the grove rebounds across time in the sections that follow, as Jhabvala moves swiftly from period to period, grafting the experience of one woman onto the other. The segment following the love-making between the Nawab and Olivia begins with the news that the narrator is pregnant. In perfect symmetry, the shift to 1923 also records in the first line that Olivia is pregnant. The resolution of the shared experience is brought about by Olivia's abortion in the back lanes of Khatm and by the narrator's decision to not go ahead with an abortion but to keep the child, a decision that introduces the major break between the lives of the two women.

A qualitatively different link occurs when Jhabvala reveals parallel character traits between Olivia and the narrator and makes these traits the motivation for a shift from the fictive present to the fictive past. Through Maji, the narrator has met a beggar woman called Leelavati. One day she discovers that Leelavati is critically ill and rushes about trying to see what can be done. It seems that nothing can be done and the narrator comes to accept Leela's death with Maji in a very tender scene. Immediately following this moment, Jhabvala shifts the diegetic time to 1923 and introduces Olivia's concern about Harry's health, which she feels is deteriorating rapidly.

The final temporal-montage technique examined here reveals a very sure grasp of both filmic and literary technique. It is a remarkable example of a literary voice-over or a dissolve. At the end of the picnic that Olivia, the Nawab, and Harry enjoy out near Baba Firdaus's shrine, the Nawab manages to win the game of musical cushions in which he and Olivia had been the last contestants. In the journal entry that follows immediately after the usual asterisks and date, the narrator writes in a way that suggests that she is still in the 1923 time frame. The tense of the verbs used and the use of “this” in the opening line rather than “that,” which would have a greater distancing effect, combine to maintain for two paragraphs the narrator's voice as a voice-over from 1923. In the third paragraph the tense of the verbs brings us clearly into the present, and the narrator's comment, “I have laid Olivia's letters out on my little desk and work on them and this journal throughout the morning” (48), reminds us that Olivia's time is a mediated experience, something that happened long ago. The reference to the letters reminds us that the narrator is simultaneously reader and writer. For an instant, Olivia and the narrator have merged, and we seem to be present at the moment when the narrator appropriates Olivia's text and produces it as her own.

The alternating temporal structure Jhabvala has inscribed in Heat and Dust creates a textual artefact organized as layers of time. Taking up Michel Butor's comments about the spatial qualities of books, we can see that Jhabvala's text impresses one period upon another, binding them together and bringing them within our reach. Reading blurs the differences from page to page until the two periods seem to fuse together, almost in the same way that flip-card projectors blurred differences between individual illustrations into a smooth sweep of narrative action. This illusion is completed in the final 13 pages of the book, where the marks of the periods are erased. At the same time that the text builds its midden of memories layer upon layer, it superimposes one space upon another, an intriguing metaphor of the links between Satipur and Khatm in the 1920s and today. The shift from one time to another in the book also involves a concurrent displacement of the reader as we journey, shadowing the narrator, through the fictive spaces of the narrative. At the end of the journey we find that the paths of Olivia and the narrator have come together in space, high in the Himalayas, far from the heat and dust, at a point that affords a perspective on what has gone before, and is, at the same time, a starting point for further journeys:

I'm impatient for it to stop raining because I want to move on, go higher up. I keep looking up all the time, but everything remains hidden. Unable to see, I imagine mountain peaks higher than any I've ever dreamed of; the snow on them is also whiter than all other snow—so white it is luminous and shines against a sky which is of a deeper blue than any yet known to me. That is what I expect to see. Perhaps it is also what Olivia saw: the view—or vision—that filled her eyes all those years and suffused her soul. (180)

At the end of Olivia's story, as we know, Olivia wrote less and less. In the end, then, there is nothing for the narrator to write over; any record must now be her own addition to the album. Her life leads out and on from Olivia's. This must surely be the point of the narrator's comment on Page Two that “… this is not my story, it is Olivia's as far as I can follow it” (emphasis added). Having followed Olivia to the hills, the narrator makes a decision to go higher up the mountain and to prepare for the birth of her child.

The points above may be linked to Jhabvala's theme of inheritance and heritage, which she explored in her unusually personal and revealing Neil Gunn lecture delivered in April 1979. The lecture, entitled “Disinheritance,” is an account of an absence, of a lack of heritage, of her feeling of a lack of rootedness in place, a lack of ancestry, language, and artefacts, which, Jhabvala explains, the circumstances of her life denied her. Jhabvala describes how as a student she absorbed the world and landscape of writers such as Eliot, Hardy, and Dickens because she did not have a world of her own. Olivia's husband Douglas is proud of his family's long association with India. But Olivia did not share Douglas's Anglo-Indian background and left no children whom she might have seen as adding something of herself to the British tradition in India. Olivia did leave something of herself for later generations, however, in her letters, which the narrator has come to treasure as her inheritance. The narrator orders and protects the memories and brings them to life in her trip to Satipur.

In the Neil Gunn lecture Jhabvala talks enviously of Neil Gunn's inheritance, which she describes as “… his rootedness in tradition, landscape and that inexplicable region where childhood and ancestral memories merge …” (4). Perhaps the merging of Olivia's and the narrator's time at the end of Heat and Dust, high up in the Himalayas in an unnamed town, is the “inexplicable region” where the generations and heritage of Olivia, the narrator, and the child come together; the lack that Olivia felt so keenly is eliminated in a place where time and space seem to have become one.

Aesthetically, then, the temporal structure of Jhabvala's novel may be read as an exploration of the concept of heritage and inheritance, of time in the culture of individuals, and of the way time shapes our decisions. An individual's heritage, like a scriptable text, is both a constraint and an opportunity for change. The implication of a shared history or an emotional bonding shapes our values and guides our actions, but never totally, for the opportunity for individuals to “rewrite” their heritage is always available.


  1. See James Ivory, comp., Autobiography of a Princess.

  2. The concept of a scriptable or writerly text is from Roland Barthes's S/Z. The reader of a writerly text produces the text. The reader is invited, as T. Hawkes has noted, “… to join in, and be aware of the interrelationship of the writing and the reading, and which accordingly offers [the reader] the joys of co-operation, co-authorship (and even, at its intensest moments, of copulation)” (Hawkes 114). See Hawkes and Barthes's S/Z.

  3. The denial is never absolute. Barthes suggests “classical” or “readerly” texts are best thought of as more parsimonious in the plurality of their signification than scriptable texts. If this were not so, Barthes could not have performed his inventive re-writing of Sarasine in S/Z.

  4. Samsara is the Hindu concept of the bondage of life, death, and rebirth. Connected with this concept is the concept of karma, which, in Max Weber's words, proposed that “… man was bound in an endless sequence of ever new lives and deaths and he determines his own fate solely by his deeds …” (Weber 120). R. C. Zaehner defines karma as “… the law according to which any action whatsoever is the effect of a cause and is in its turn the cause of an effect” (Zaehner 4).

  5. See Gooneratne for a similar analysis of the segments in the verbal narrative (218f).

  6. See W. H. Sleeman's Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official (60).

  7. Forster's influence may be more pervasive still. In Autobiography of a Princess Cyril tells the Princess that the British administration had not been pleased with the late Maharaja's decision to appoint him as his tutor, but that the Maharaja had demanded it and in the end got his way. This story prompts the Princess to accuse Cyril of a lack of loyalty to his late benefactor and friend when he had fallen foul of the law in London. These two issues—one, a matter of fact, and the other, a question of values—tie in closely with Forster's own experience and value system. Forster's appointment as tutor in Dewas was resisted by the British, who considered that he was a coward and a sexual pervert. In his 1938 essay “What I Believe,” Forster presents his credo that in turbulent and violent times it is personal relationships and the values of loyalty and love that ultimately matter. In Heat and Dust these same issues are revived. The British in Satipur disapprove of Harry, describing him as a “hanger-on,” and do all they can to arrange for his return to England. The Nawab also accuses his friend of a lack of loyalty:

    He turned on Harry: “You can take them back to him. You can fling them in his face and say here is your answer. But I suppose you would not like to do it.” He turned his fierce gaze on Harry who looked down. Olivia also did not like to look at the Nawab just then.

    “I suppose you are afraid to do it. You are afraid of Major Minnies and other creatures of that nature. … Oh both of you are the same, you and Major Minnies. I don't know why you stay here with me. You want to be with him and other English people. You only feel for them, nothing for me at all.” (144)

    Finally, we note that Forster's essay concludes with the view that as humans, we all share the memory of birth and the expectation of death, and it is these existential realities that provide the only sure ground for understanding between different individuals, a view that would find nothing strange in the narrator trying to discover from the life and letters of Olivia some insight that would be of value in her own life.

  8. Note that Barthes argues that the scriptable text involves the reader in producing the text as “a perpetual present” (5).

  9. Puja means worship. Many Hindus maintain shrines for daily devotions in their homes.

  10. Gooneratne draws attention to this same passage, but draws a different point from it (286).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Butor, Michel. “The Book as Object.” Inventory, Essays by Michel Butor. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Johnathan Cape, 1970: 38-56.

———. “The Space of the Novel.” Inventory, Essays by Michel Butor. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970: 31-38.

Cronin, E. R. “The Hill of Devi and Heat and Dust.” Essays in Criticism 36.2 (1986): 142-59.

Gooneratne, Yasmine. Silence, Exile and Cunning. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1983.

Hawkes, T. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Ivory, James. Comp. Autobiography of a Princess by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. “Disinheritance.” Blackwoods Magazine 326 (1979): 4-14.

———. Heat and Dust. London: Futura, 1976. All references are to the Futura edition.

Mason, A. E. W. The Broken Road. London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1907.

Rutherford, A., and K. H. Petersen, “Heat and Dust: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Experience of India.” World Literature Written in English 15.2 (1976): 373-78.

Sleeman, W. H. Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official. London: Oxford University Press, 1915.

Weber, Max. The Religion of India. Trans. H. Gerth and D. Martindale. New York: The Free Press, 1958.

Zaehner, R. C. Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

V. T. Usha (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘The Widow’: Reading the Subtext,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, June 1992, pp. 133-37.

[In the following essay, Usha provides an in-depth analysis of Jhabvala's short story “The Widow.”]

Born in Germany, of Jewish-Polish parentage and educated in England, R. P. Jhabvala came to India in 1951 as the wife of a Parsi architect. The 24 years she spent in India—“most of my adult life”—gave her abundant time and opportunity to study India and write about it. But her approach is that of an “initiated outsider” (in the words of John Updike in his review of Heat and Dust). Her relationship with India vacillates between extremes, ranging from intense love to active loathing. To describe it in her own words:

There is a cycle that Europeans—by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans—tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm—everything Indian is marvelous, second stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself as strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down.

As Jhabvala herself confesses, she can “concentrate only on modern Westernised India, and on modern, well-off, cultured, Westernised Indians”, for her exposure to India is limited to these individuals. And she is full of contempt for these persons, for. … “though they themselves are modern India, they don't look at themselves, they are not conditioned to look at themselves except with the eyes of foreign experts whom they have been taught to respect” (p. 17). In her view these women are shallow intellectuals with a “synthetic social life”, and in them as well as in other Indians “There is no attempt at exercising the mind or testing one's wits against those of others” (p. 18). She finds their passive contentment and lassitude revolting and fights to get out of that mood of stagnant inertia. Therefore it is not unnatural for the female personae in her stories and novels to be coloured by these prejudices.

In the short story “The Widow” (which appears in the collection Out of India (John Murray, 1987, Penguin 1989) the central character is Durga the Widow. Apparently she was independent both intellectually and financially, for no one, not even her relatives could “talk her into anything” (p. 39). She did not allow herself to be treated as a conventional widow would have been, which meant being deprived of her luxurious living conditions. She lived like a queen with servants to pamper her and her fawning relatives were forced to take a secondary role pandering to her whims and fancies despite their reluctance to do so.

The theme of the story seems to deal with the efforts of Durga to break away from the conventional mould and lead an independent life. She was able to put up a brave front and counter all traditional opposition effectively to establish her rights as an individual. Yet the story culminates with the widow having to surrender herself to continuously unfavourable conditions. She is portrayed as a powerful individual ultimately breaking up under rigid social restraints, so much so that her (Jhabvala's) critics have chosen to highlight this as notable and praiseworthy.

The foregrounding of her prejudices towards India which she sees from the viewpoint of a foreigner is quite evident. In this context multi-angled possibilities of reading the work surface, of which, the most probable alternative, I believe, could be this. In place of the widow, Bhuaji—another woman who appears in the story-could be focused upon. Then the entire story re-arranges itself to read differently.

Bhuaji was an old aunt, who constantly made her presence felt. Though small and frail in appearance, she was in actuality, a tough, shrewd, old woman, incessantly in pursuit of her personal advantage. Endearing herself to Durga by constantly attending on her, pampering her, adjusting to her varying moods, Bhuaji quickly makes herself a permanent fixture in Durga's household. Wheedling herself gradually into the role of confidante, she studies Durga's problems carefully and uses subtle psychological techniques to soothe her and thereby win her favour.

Bhuaji encourages her to unburden herself and begins to talk to her of God. But her ideas of divinity are quite different from the traditional one. Her God seems more real than the stone one that Durga was familiar with: “She talked about Him as if He were a person whom one could get to know, like someone who would come and visit in the house and sit and talk and drink tea” (p. 42). She describes Krishna not merely as a child but more vividly as a lover, giving her detailed accounts of His physical beauty and His erotic relationships with His devotees. Thus she subverts conventional religion cleverly in order to gain her personal ends. She is able to defamiliarise the conventional Krishna legend and make her victim identify herself with the conceptual heroine, sometimes as beloved and sometimes as mother. She studies Durga's changes of mood and insidiously maneuvers her notions regarding the neighbours for whom she had a special affinity. When the evolving situation begins to threaten Bhuaji's selfish interests, she acts quickly and astutely to prevent it. She is quite unscrupulous and proceeds to falsify the actual situation cunningly so that the developing relationship is nipped in the bud. Bhuaji engineers the events cleverly so that the love and affection Durga showed the tenant's son Govind is diverted and she now thinks only of Krishna “as a son and as a lover”.

Even without Durga's conscious knowledge the transfer of affections from Govind to Krishna, however heartrending, has taken place within her intimate self and she begins to see Krishna in concrete terms.

The story terminates with Durga giving away her precious finery to Bhuaji for distribution and opting to deny herself of all pleasures and enjoyments while Bhuaji murmurs approvingly in the background; “That is the way—to give up everything. Only if we give up everything will He come to us. … as a son and as a lover”.

Durga finally chooses to accept her lot as a widow and lead a humble life, as she was informed “that it was all for her own good”. Her avaricious relatives deemed it necessary for her to lead an ascetic life and suggested that any other way of life would only lead a widow like her astray:

They were glad for her sake. There was no other way for widows but to lead, humble, bare lives: it was for their own good. For if they were allowed to feed themselves on the pleasures of the world, then they fed their own passions too, and that which should have died in them with the deaths of their husbands would fester and boil and overflow into sinful channels (p. 56).

Although Bhuaji and the other relatives adhere to this conventional view of orthodox widowhood, their interests are obviously centered around the widow's material possessions rather than the woman's spiritual well-being. They make it clear that they only want to dispossess her of her valuables and not her hair as custom would require.

In my reading of the story, Durga has never been an independent person all along. She had been consistently acted upon by more powerful forces throughout the story. Dragged into a marriage with an old man against her will, she had initially hated both the old man and her family for creating such an intolerable situation, and cursed them for her misery. Gradually she had learned to like the strange old man who had been extremely kind to her. It was he who taught her to be independent, “to have a mind, be strong” (p. 32). In fact, “his last energies has been poured into training her, making her strong” (p. 39). Her final decision to deny herself and distribute her material possessions is in actuality one of rebellion against her former husband's will and wishes:

She was thinking of her husband and of his anger, his impotent anger, at thus seeing everything given away at last. The more she thought of him, the more vigorously she emptied her almira (p. 55).

She is, in a sense, passive and acted upon, rather than concertedly acting. The old aunt is the one who acts, thinking cleverly and deviously, making subtle suggestions, and planning meticulously in order to further her mean purpose.

She not only exercises her mind pitting her wits against those of Durga and the other fawning relatives, but also cleverly devises a unique way of parting Durga from her money. Though the character of Bhuaji was created by Jhabvala, she fails to adhere to her own theory that an Indian makes no attempt to exercise her mind or test her wits against these of others.

From her own writing, we can see how her highlighting of the Indian situation is tangential and inexact. “Writing”, in Levi-Strauss's sense is a merely derivative activity which always supervenes upon a culture already “written” through the forms of social existence. It is a means of colonising the Primitive mind through its oppressive powers. When applied to the post-colonial situation, writing thus attempts either to highlight a cultural problem or underplay its implications. By oversimplifying a complex situation and trying to generalise, Jhabvala seems to have missed its socio-cultural implications completely. Here the text writes itself and thus prevents the writer's prejudices from upholding themselves.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 23 March 1993)

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SOURCE: “Immigrant Families, at Home and Yet Alienated,” in The New York Times, March 23, 1993.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers a mixed assessment of Poet and Dancer, praising Jhabvala's ability to write with “fluency and poise” but noting a vague dissatisfaction in the “predictable” ending.]

Both the themes and the characters of Poet and Dancer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 11th novel, uncannily echo those of In Search of Love and Beauty, a novel she published exactly 10 years ago. Both novels concern the fragmentation of family life experienced by immigrants in New York. Both novels feature a similar cast of people, including gurulike charlatans who seduce wealthy women with their promises of salvation; older matrons who end up leading lonely, desperate lives, and the offspring of these people, who drift aimlessly through life in search of love and connection.

This time the reader is introduced to Anna and Siegfried Manarr, wealthy German immigrants who have made a home for themselves in Manhattan. Assiduously devoted to each other, Anna and Siegfried spend their free time going to concerts and art exhibits. Having come from families who have prospered in business for generations, they dream of having children with artistic talent.

Instead, their son, Hugo, becomes a sort of new-age guru who dreams of “fashioning a new humanity.” He marries a flighty woman named Alice, one of those familiar Jhabvala characters who travel the third world looking for meaning, and they have a pretty, high-strung daughter named Lara. Hugo's sister, Helena, meanwhile marries a wealthy businessman named Peter, and raises a shy, introspective daughter called Angel.

Angel and her cousin Lara meet briefly as young girls, and both vow to pursue artistic careers: Lara will become a dancer; Angel, a poet.

Years pass in which the girls do not see each other. Angel grows up to be a shy, serious girl, unhealthily dependent on her mother. Lara grows up to be a world-class neurotic and flirt.

Beautiful, vivacious and emotionally needy, Lara collects admirers and hangers-on the way a lepidopterist collects butterflies. One of her chief admirers is Angel, who quickly transfers on to her all her needs to be needed. Her other big admirer is Angel's father, Peter, who soon sets her up in a hotel room as his mistress.

Intercut with the incestuous tale of Lara, Angel and Peter are other stories of love and loneliness in Manhattan. Mrs. Jhabvala shows Helena compensating for her daughter's absence by befriending a superstitious widow from India named Mrs. Arora, who has lost her eldest son in a bloody fight in prison. Peter's mother, Mrs. Koenig, meanwhile, tries to compensate for her son's absence by befriending Rose, her new maid. Each of these friendships is supposed to make up for more conventional family ties, but as in so much of Mrs. Jhabvala's fiction, love breeds disappointment and regret, not solace and safety.

When Peter grows sick of paying hotel bills for Lara, he comes up with another plan: he decides to install her in an apartment with his daughter, Angel. Despite the protestations of her mother, Angel jumps at the idea, and she and Lara soon become inseparable pals. It's hardly a friendship of equals. In fact, the two women quickly come to resemble one of those infernal pairings found in so many of Anita Brookner's novels: Lara is the imperious, bossy, selfish one, constantly making importunate demands on Angel's time and attention; Angel is the meek, passive one, always eager to please.

Their hermetic relationship seems meant to protect the two women from the realities of the outside world, and it leads, predictably enough, to a dangerous mutual dependency. Angel abandons her poetry-writing; Lara abandons her dance. Lara actively tries to turn Angel against her old friends, and she begins demanding that Angel spend all her time at home. As Lara's behavior grows more and more erratic—she starts stealing things from stores, and baiting Peter's wife—Angel begins giving her large doses of tranquilizers. Confusion and hostility soon take over their daily routines and gradually infect the rest of the Manarr clan as well.

Mrs. Jhabvala writes with such fluency and poise that Poet and Dancer flies by with almost no effort from the reader. Her subsidiary characters, as usual, are delineated with deft, ironic strokes, and together they leave the reader with the pleasant sense of being immersed in a convincing fictional world. We are made to see the ways in which emotional needs and scars are handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and we are made to appreciate the difficulty of erasing these patterns.

Still, the reader finishes Poet and Dancer vaguely dissatisfied and filled with a lingering sense of deja vu. The story of Angel and Lara feels mechanistic and predictable in the end: as young girls and later as women, they are almost completely defined by a single personality trait or two, traits that practically condemn them to their unhappy fates. Halfway through the book, we know where these characters are headed, and sure enough, we are given no surprises—or further emotional revelations—by the novel's end.

Mrs. Jhabvala has written similar stories before, and done so with considerably more complexity and insight.

Richard Alleva (review date 19 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Foundering Father?: Jefferson in Paris,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 10, May 19, 1995.

[In the following review, Alleva criticizes Jhabvala's screenplay Jefferson in Paris, claiming that the film is “buried under research.”]

In thirty years of collaboration, producer Ismael Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have created twenty-odd films, the best of which (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,Shakespeare Wallah, their three E. M. Forster adaptations, and, best of the best, The Remains of the Day) have worked on the viewer like cinematic concentrates. Tightly structured, emotionally low-keyed, handsome but without spectacle or special effects, they linger in the mind long after viewing, expand, provoke discussion, become satisfying memories. Now, working with a much bigger budget (courtesy of Touchstone Pictures), they have produced Jefferson in Paris. And they have foundered. The money hasn't been spent on enriching a story but on stuffing it full of unassimilated research.

You can see what attracted the filmmaking team to this project. Jefferson, the Mona Lisa of American history, is, in their view, a man who deliberately repressed his deeper emotions and fit his life to a precise pattern. Drawn to an attractive and emotionally free-spending woman, he struggles to express his own emotions until circumstances and his own limitations drive him back into his shell. Whether or not this characterization captures the real Jefferson, it is certainly a reprise of Stevens, the butler-hero of The Remains of the Day. The inner journey of each is essentially the same.

But, of course, Merchant-Ivory's Thomas Jefferson, anyone's Thomas Jefferson, is not a servant of a rigid social order but a statesman, an architect, a political theorist, a future president, a landowner and slaveholder, and—in the period dealt with here—a diplomat to a France teetering on the brink of Europe's most momentous revolution. To succeed, the movie had to show Jefferson's emotional travails interacting decisively with the traumas of history.

It doesn't. For one thing, Jhabvala's script is primarily concerned with the widowed slaveowner's relationship with Sally Hemings, the black girl (not yet sixteen when she reputedly became pregnant by Jefferson) who was certainly his property and perhaps the mother of several of his children. (Historians haven't reached agreement.) In fact, the film opens with a journalist's visit (in 1873) to the Ohio homestead of Sally's son to investigate that man's claim to be the third president's son. The script then flashes back to the French court and Sally doesn't show up till midway in the movie. Though the theme of slave-holding reality vs. Jeffersonian idealism is announced by giving Sally's brother a few restive moments, the bulk of Jefferson's first half treats of the ambassador's affair-of-the-heart with Maria Cosway, the wife of a homosexual artist and herself a skilled painter. This romance is aborted by Jefferson's promise to his daughter, Patsy, not to remarry. Jhabvala seems to share the view of historian Page Smith that Jefferson's break with Maria led him to Sally as an outlet for his sexual and emotional neediness. Thus, Jefferson in Paris works out the destiny that will lead him back to Monticello's isolated, slavery-serviced splendor on a hill.

So there is a certain unity and logic to this story, but the story itself is buried under research. After all, since it all takes place at the doomed French court, how could the moviemakers bypass the time-tourist opportunities? We glimpse Marie Antoinette's unpopularity with her people, the inability of the American Congress to repay French veterans, Camille. Desmoulins's rabble-rousing, Louis XVI's political and sexual impotence, Mesmer's hypnotic experiments on noble women, the assembly of the third estate, the events leading up to the Tennis Court Oath. None of which has anything to do with Jefferson's troubles with American slavery and Sally Hemings.

Worse still, Jefferson, mostly a mere observer of the French uprisings, must narrate them in letters to his secretary (home in the States). So the designated protagonist becomes a voice on the soundtrack; the center of the story drifts to the periphery. It's dramatically ruinous.

Jhabvala sometimes incorporates passages from Jefferson's letters into the dialogue. She even lifts Jefferson's thoughts to Madison about “earth belongs always to the living …” and plants them in a love exchange between Maria and our hero. The transplant doesn't work. Neither does changing Jefferson's formal and witty “Dialogue between the Head and the Heart” into a improvised exchange among courtiers. The epistolary voice doesn't lend itself to dialogue.

And for all the bustle on screen, there is really very little to please the eye of the viewer. The photography is dark and dingy. Jefferson, though morally disapproving of court life, was sensually entranced by it. But the movie doesn't make us feel this because our senses remain unravished throughout.

Only in the very last scenes does the movie begin to focus on something: the pathetic absurdity of Sally Hemings's place in the Jefferson household. For some mild familiarity her face is slapped by Patsy Jefferson. It's one teen-aged girl slapping another, a mistress slapping her slave, and a girl slapping her own aunt: for Sally is the illegitimate daughter of Patsy's grandfather, Thomas's father-in-law. Not only do we know this but both girls know it, too.

And the final moment is poignant: Sally, offered her freedom, bursts into tears because she is bewildered, even terrified, by the possibility of freedom in a land that has no use for free blacks. But, by this time, it is too late to make this movie be about Sally. The last close-up of her tear-stained face is moving but frustrating. It's a fragment of a movie we haven't seen.

Nick Nolte's portrayal of Jefferson is a rough sketch of what might have been a good performance. He never got to the stage where he understood how this eighteenth-century genius moved and talked. His restraint isn't the character's restraint but the diffidence of an actor still finding his way. Greta Scacchi, always underrated as an actress just because she is a sexy-looking woman, makes Marie understandable and attractive, in so far as the script allows her. The same goes for Thandie Newton's Sally. Newton adroitly reveals that “dashing Sally” had to put on an act for her owners in order to ensure her position as a sort of mascot. But the script doesn't allow this promising actress enough opportunities to counterpoint the cuteness with the calculation manufacturing the cuteness.

There are successful biographical films that play fast and loose with facts in order to transform history into myth or romance (Young Mr. Lincoln, Lawrence of Arabia). There are also movies that by scrupulously mixing facts with tactful invention seem to transport us into a very real, profoundly felt past (Passolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the uneven but stirring Gettysburg.) Jefferson in Paris belongs to neither group. It is a well-dressed, well-researched corpse.

Tonc Sundt Urstad (essay date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: “Projecting One's Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ‘Rose Petals’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 43-9.

[In the following essay, Urstad examines Jhabvala's short story “Rose Petals,” focusing on Jhabvala's creation of sympathetically drawn characters who live isolated, privileged lives.]

There is an exploring quality about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's work—both as a novelist and as a writer of screenplays—that has often been noted by critics (Gooneratne; Bailur; Crane). It probably stems from the fact that she was—in her own words—“practically born a displaced person” (Gooneratne 1) and so has always had to make an effort to understand a world not quite her own. Born of Jewish parents in Germany before the second World War, she became a permanent foreigner, first in England, then in India, now in America. Looking back at the years she spent living with her Indian husband in his country, she once wrote:

Sometimes I wrote about Europeans in India, sometimes about Indians in India, sometimes about both, but always attempting to present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of foothold … I described the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine. (Hayman 37)

In her short story “Rose Petals” she seems to have set out to explore how sympathetically drawn characters can be seen to be living isolated, privileged lives surrounded by poverty on all sides, do absolutely nothing to try to rectify obvious wrongs, and yet still retain their basic humanity. And in so doing she has raised the issue that worried her most while she lived in India and that slowly changed her attitude toward her adopted country from one of initial wonder and excitement into a battle that she knew she could not win (“Myself in India” 16).

In her article “Myself and India” Prawer Jhabvala has outlined certain ways of dealing with the proximity of overwhelming poverty: “The first and best is to be a strong person who plunges in and does what he can as a doctor or social worker.” The second is quite simply to accept the situation as it is. In this connection—she comments wryly—a belief in reincarnation helps:

It appears to be a consoling thought for both rich and poor. The rich man stuffing himself on pilao can do so with an easy conscience because he knows that he has earned this privilege by his good conduct in previous lives; and the poor man can watch him with some degree of equanimity for he knows that next time round it may be he who will be digging into the pilao while the other will be crouching outside the door with an empty stomach.

The third way consists in trying to escape from it all by retreating into one's own isolated world. Most of us choose the third solution, which is also Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's way of dealing with the problem, since she is in her own words “not a doctor, nor a social worker nor a saint nor at all a good person”:

I do my best to live in an agreeable way. I shut all my windows, I let down the blinds, I turn on the air-conditioner; I read a lot of books, with a special preference for the great masters of the novel. All the time I know myself to be on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. (10-11)

It is precisely this question of a leisured, privileged private life in the midst of terrible poverty that is raised in “Rose Petals,” in which diametrically opposed attitudes toward social problems and life in general, are expressed in terms of a basic opposition in lifestyle between two pairs of characters. On the one hand we have the Minister, who has chosen an active life in politics, and his daughter Mina who is following in his energetic footsteps. On the other hand we have the Minister's wife, who is the narrator, and the Minister's cousin Biju, both of whom lead intensely private, self-indulgent lives of leisure.

Surrounding the Minister's family—but at a safe distance—is an outer world of poverty and injustice. Through their repeated references to the underprivileged, the characters create an uneasy consciousness of this threatening world, of which we get only one short glimpse. The car gets stuck, and safely cocooned inside, Biju and the narrator witness the demolition of some slum dwellings:

Out of the car window we could see a squad of demolition workers knocking down the hovels made of old tins and sticks and rags, and the people who lived in the hovels picking up what they could from among the debris. They didn't look angry, just sad, except for one old woman who was shaking her fist and shouting something that we couldn't hear. She ran around and got in the way of the workers till someone gave her a push and she fell over. When she got up, she was holding her knee and limping but she had stopped shouting and she too began to dig among the debris. (61)

Their reaction to the scene is an indirect one: Biju “didn't say anything that time, but later in the day he was making a lot of jokes about the Revolution and how we would all be strung up on lamp-posts or perhaps, if we were lucky, sent to work in the salt-mines” (61-62).

There is more than a touch of Chekhov about Biju and the Minister's wife, two aristocratic people without the will or the wish to change their way of life, who sit around joking uneasily about the Revolution (“I don't know whether we really thought it would come. I think often we felt it ought to come, but when we talked about it it was only to laugh and joke” [61]). With no occupation in life, Biju and the Minister's wife spend much of their time together, largely cut off from the rest of the world. Significantly, Biju only reads the restaurant and cinema advertisements in the newspapers, together with the local news (54). He shies away from long and difficult plays, preferring lightweight musicals like My Fair Lady and Funny Girl (56). Both characters are subject to occasional bouts of melancholy, they both need pills to be able to sleep, and Biju has terrible nightmares about sudden personal catastrophes.

Although the Minister and Mina are extremely active members of society, they are not allowed to monopolize the moral high ground, because all of their actions are seen through the clear-sighted eyes of the narrator, who is not blind to her husband's pomposity and who recognizes in her daughter the earnestness of youth. Through her comments on her own life and the lives of the people whom she loves she comes across as a sympathetic character: unpretentious, observant and with an ironic sense of humor.

All through her story there are good-natured little digs at the Minister. To start with there is the way in which she never refers to him by name. All of the other characters—except the Minister's wife—have names, but, as she is the narrator, this is quite natural. Even Bobo Oberoi, who is only mentioned in passing as playing God the father in a play, gets a name, but not the Minister: to his daughter he is “daddy,” to her friends he is “Sir,” to Biju and even to his wife he is simply “the Minister” (with a capital letter), an indication that to them he has ceased to be a private individual and has become the public figure. This distinction ties in with his own view of himself: “When I think of my old age … I think mainly: what will I have achieved? That means, what sort of person will I be? Because a person can only be judged by his achievements” (62). By that token, his wife and his cousin can hardly be said to exist at all.

There is also the question of why the Minister is serving his country—for self-sacrificing or for selfish reasons. We are told that he likes being a Minister, that he starts the morning by making “an important face” and that he keeps up his air of pomposity for the rest of the day. It is true that he is very energetic. Exploiting two separate meanings of the verb “to serve,” Prawer Jhabvala turns the scene in which the Minister serves imaginary tennis balls across an imaginary net into a metaphor for how he “serves” his country. When Biju proclaims the ball “Out,” the Minister snaps “Absolutely in” (62); but in this case Biju is likely to be metaphorically correct, because it is more than hinted that the Minister, for all his activity, is perhaps not accomplishing a whole lot. His wife relates how even before he entered politics “doors banged behind him, his voice was loud and urgent like a king in battle even when he was only calling the servant for his shoes” (57). Temperamentally he is simply a very restless man who brings to politics the kind of energy he wasted in his youth on trips to Japan to study hotel management, or to Russia to observe the process of manufacturing steel; he never converted any of his houses into a hotel, never built the intended factory, and only introduced a new fertilizer to find that it killed off most of the crop (57). The scene in which he and Biju throw paper planes describes him well: he throws one “into the air with a great swing of his body like a discus thrower; but it falls down on the carpet very lamely” (68).

As a politician he is “keen to move with the times” (56), a kind way of saying that his opinions change with the newest fashions. One day the most important thing for India is doctors, the next day it is economists and political scientists. In the mornings his wife watches how he “struggles into his cotton tights; he still has not quite got used to these Indian clothes but he wears nothing else now. There was a time when only suits made in London were good enough for him. Now they hang in the closet, and no one ever wears them” (53). At a given point in his career, the Minister has clearly adopted a more Nationalistic stance as reflected in his substitution of traditional Indian clothes for the European garb associated with British colonialism. As so often in Prawer Jhabvala's works, clothes are important metaphors: although the Minister has changed his political spots his new political opinions are not entirely congenial since he still has to “struggle” into the new clothes every morning. And Mina, for all her patriotic views, still smells of Palmolive soap when she bends over to kiss her mother (53).

The Minister thinks in slogans and theories. Everything becomes an issue with him. He is not at all sensitive to people, either individually or collectively. To his mind the Revolution will not come simply because the Indian Parliamentary system is “the best mode of government” (61). Like his wife and Biju, he has no religious beliefs, but, unlike them, he makes a big noise about his views, lecturing his wife's aunt on how religion is “retarding the progress of the people” (66).

The contrast between the lifestyles of Mina and the Minister on the one hand and Biju and the Minister's wife on the other is suggested by the descriptions of what we might call their body language. The Minister, for example, is always active, on his feet, serving imaginary tennis-balls, throwing paper planes. His wife, on the other hand, always describes herself as sitting in chairs, reclining on sofas, lying in bed, details that underline the sedentary, uneventful life she leads. The same is true of Biju, except for the scene in which he dances a modern dance all alone in the garden and when he throws paper planes, although with far less energy than the Minister. Biju also enjoys mingling with the guests. However, none of these pursuits are what Mina would call “constructive” (55).

In terms of the three solutions to the problem of living in close proximity to mass poverty set forward by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Biju and the narrator have clearly chosen the third: they have withdrawn into a world of their own (that neither character is religious is specifically mentioned). Their withdrawal is emphasized by the imagery associated with them. Practically all the scenes take place within the confines of a room (“like two fish in an aquarium”) or a private garden at night. Mina and her father are forever coming into or leaving these enclosed areas. The scene with the music box, for instance, takes place in their shooting box (a word with connotations of restriction):

He [Biju] wound the music box again, and the sad little tune played. The thought of being together like this for ever—always in some beautiful room with a view from its long windows of water or a lawn or hot summer nights in a garden full of scents and overlaid with moonlight so white that it looked like snow—the thought of it was sad and yet also quite nice. (61)

In this description we find another element that helps to underline the secluded and protected quality of their lives—the association of subdued light with Biju and the Minister's wife. When she stays in bed in the morning the light streams into her bedroom filtered through the golden-yellow silk curtains, so that the light itself is honey-coloured. When they are in the garden the moon shines “with a silver light.” The clear light of day is never allowed to reach them, except when the narrator, as the wife of a Minister, is forced out into the world to give speeches, and when she wants to tease herself and lifts the yellow silk curtain to let the sharp light—and the truth—into the room. For the disarming thing about this character is that she sees clearly that the beauty of her existence, within the confines of her little world, is artificially created. Looking back to her days as a beauty she says:

If I don't look too closely and with the curtains drawn and the room all honey coloured, I don't appear so very different from what I used to be. But sometimes I'm in a mischievous mood with myself. I stretch out my hand and lift the yellow silk curtain. The light comes streaming in straight on to the mirror, and now yes I can see that I look very different from the way I used to. (54)

The minister on the other hand is associated with bright light. It is he who energetically draws the curtains apart when his wife is ill, thereby “dispelling the soothing honey-coloured light in which Biju and I have been all day,” and it is “a great harsh beam” from the Minister's car that breaks into the scene when Biju dances alone in the garden, in an elegant imitation of the newest dance of the young (67, 64). This is not the bright light of truth but of rationality, for the Minister has no redeeming quality of introspection; he has far too shallow a personality for that. When he looks in the mirror he likes what he sees, and his wife comments, “I wonder—doesn't he remember what he was? How can he like that fat old man that now looks back at him?” (60).

The opposition between the two poles within “Rose Petals” is not just a question of a private versus a public life. It is also an opposition between profundity and superficiality, between feeling and rationality. When Biju plays the music box again and again, in a beautiful room of red and gold full of images that suggest the passing of time and even death—the ormolu clock, the light reflected from the lake that made the walls appear to be “swaying and rippling as if waves were passing over them,” the prints of Venice—both Biju and the narrator think about time, aging, and death. The Minister refers to the tune made by the music box as “that damned noise” (60). He sees old age as something you face “head-on … a challenge that, like everything else, has to be faced and won” (62), as if he thought he had a chance of winning a battle against time and death.

It is this capacity for deep feeling and appreciation for what is beautiful that makes the Minister's wife and Biju see what the Minister can never see. When they accidentally witness the eviction of the poverty-stricken from their homes the Minister, who makes so many political speeches about serving India, is completely oblivious to what is going on and is only interested in the car. For him the suffering of the poor has become reduced to political slogans about “the changing times and building up India and everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel” (56).

What tones down the opposition between the two poles, and what holds this little world together is the all-pervading love—but not in any sense a blind love—that the narrator brings to all the members of her family: her daughter, Biju and even her husband. Her tolerance toward them all is akin to her tolerance toward herself:

There is a Persian poem. It says human life is like the petals that fall from the rose and lie soft and withering by the side of the vase. Whenever I think of this poem, I think of Biju and myself. But it is not possible to think of the Minister and Mina as rose petals. No, they are something much stronger. I'm glad! They are what I have to turn to, and it is enough for me. (68)

This passage appears at the very end of the short story, but the title “Rose Petals” has, of course, been there right from the start. Rose petals are of no obvious practical use, but they are things of great beauty and sophistication, associated with exclusiveness, fragrance, fragility and an airy lightness. They are also—like all things—transient, and when they “lie soft and withering by the side of the vase” their hour of dissolution is near. All these associations suit the lives led by the narrator and Biju, so that long before we reach the ending we have already made the connection between them and the central metaphor of the short story.

That this early realization does not detract from the enjoyment of the rest of the narrative, is due to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's restrained prose style, which is more subtle than it would appear to be on the surface. In the following passage, for example, she achieves two things simultaneously: she changes the direction of the story, and at the same time brings out the difference in character between Mina and her mother and Biju when she asks them whether they have no wish to do something constructive. Biju answers in the negative, and so Mina goes on to say,

“Well you ought to. Everybody ought to. There's such a lot to do! In every conceivable field.” She licks crumbs off the ends of her fingers—I murmur automatically, “Darling use the napkin”—and when she has got them clean she uses them to tick off with: “Social. Educational. Cultural—that reminds me: are you coming to the play?” (55)

The charm and delicacy of this moment of social comedy—affectionate, ironic and forgiving—is typical of Prawer Jhabvala. In such vignettes she achieves, momentarily, that accepting synthesis of vision that in her own person she could not achieve, when faced with what she has called “the horrors” of daily life in India (“Myself in India” 10).

Works Cited

Bailur, Jayanti. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Fiction and Film. New Delhi: Arnold, 1992.

Crane, Ralph J. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Twayne's English Authors Series 494. New York: Twayne, 1992.

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

Hayman, Ronald. The Novel Today. 1967-1975. Harlow: Longman, 1976.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.

———. “Introduction: Myself in India.” Jhabvala, How I Became … 9-16.

———. “Rose Petals.” Jhabvala, How I Became … 53-68.

Publishers Weekly (review date 31 August 1998)

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Publishers Weekly (review date 31 August 1998)

SOURCE: A review of East into Upper East, in Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1998, p. 48.

[The following review offers a positive assessment of East into Upper East, claiming Jhabvala's collection is “rich in character, observation, and insight.”]

The author is too modest. Written over a span of 20 years, the 13 stories gathered here [in East into Upper East] (five of which have appeared in the New Yorker) are not “plain” at all. Rather, they're rich in character, observation and insight. The “Upper East” of the title refers to the Manhattan neighborhood; the title itself may echo Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills. Novelist (Out of India) and screenwriter (A Room with a View) Jhabvala depicts characters struggling to reconcile dependency and accommodation in their relationships. Enmeshed by financial and emotional need, her upper class Indians and New Yorkers go to extremes to oblige companions, families and lovers. In the opening story, “Expiation,” a New Delhi man reflects guiltily on his responsibility toward his youngest brother, executed for murder. In one powerful New York story, “A Summer by the Sea,” a woman with inherited wealth supports her husband's family while tolerating his infidelity with young men. The New York real estate agent in “Great Expectations” allows a family of strangers to take over her life, and the wife in “Fidelity” would rather die than let her unfaithful and criminally conniving husband return to jail. Acute as the New York narratives are, the New Delhi stories are both broader and deeper, perhaps because they are set against, and in part describe, the dramatic changes that have occurred in India over the last 60 years. Jhabvala deftly captures the dilemmas of people who straddle cultural divides: occidental and oriental, colonized and “free,” traditional fealties and market capitalism. Her stories are “plain” finally because they are never flashy or postmodern. Instead, they study the wellsprings of character and the pressures of society that make people behave in often self-destructive or hurtful ways.

Sarah Curtis (review date 2 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Antique Furnishings,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4983, October 2, 1998, p. 26.

[In the following review, Curtis offers a lukewarm assessment of Jhabvala's East into Upper East,claiming that “no new ground” is covered.]

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of those writers whose name immediately conjures up an image, in her case a double image. We see the heat and dust of India, particle by particle, usually through sympathetic and sometimes sentimental Western eyes. Almost simultaneously, we remember the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster and the other films she has scripted with their heavy period detail. This collection of fourteen short stories, [East into Upper East] six set mostly in India, seven in wealthier enclaves of America and one in London, shows how easy it is to think the settings are the dominant feature of her work and how misleading such a judgment is. The exotic or familiar backgrounds, lovingly depicted, are a hallmark of her novels and of the work of Merchant—Ivory, but what matters in her books is the intensity of the emotions that she transmits.

Five of the Indian stories and two of the best of those set in America were first published in the New Yorker or other magazines. There is no new ground in these or the other stories. As in her eleven novels, Jhabvala sticks to what she is interested in—the personal rather than the public, the small picture rather than the wide screen—and she draws from the whole of her heritage, her childhood in Germany as the daughter of Polish Jews, her marriage since 1951 to an Indian architect and her residence in New York as well as Delhi since the 1970s. She writes about the intricacies of relationships in families and between friends or lovers, about possessive love and about alienation: her people are nearly always trying to discover where they belong.

In “Two Muses”, for example, a young woman recalls her grandfather Max (shades of the narrator of Heat and Dust tracing the history of her step-grandmother) and the two women who underpinned his life. He is an appallingly egotistical German refugee writer of alleged genius who settled in Hampstead. His wife, Lilo, is his beauteous, grand, distant inspiration, and his dashing mistress, Netta, is the practical force who makes their existence in exile possible, organizing his work, taking a job as a dentist's receptionist to pay the bills. To illustrate the difference between the women, their complementary natures and two aspects of Germany, Lilo's furniture in their Hampstead flat is solidly Biedermeier and Netta's in her nearby flat in St John's Wood is tubular Bauhaus. In Jhabvala's novel In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Regi had that same tubular furniture in the smart Park Avenue flat where she entertained her circle of fellow refugees from Austria and Germany. The characters surround themselves with the past from which they have been displaced. The background indicates where they stand but is not central to the argument.

The stifling feel of the past is also important in “Fidelity”, symbolized by Sophie's heavily curtained apartment which she inherited from her parents, including fixtures and fittings from her German grandparents. Sophie grew up with the idea that you had to keep the sunlight out to stop the upholstery from fading. She is long separated from her philandering husband, Dave, but he still telephones almost daily. In some ways Sophie is like an Anita Brookner heroine. She is rich, buys a lot of clothes, likes cakes and is essentially a quiet person. By contrast, Dave is a vital force, full of charm and tricks. To underline their difference, he and his sister are Sephardic Jews, to Ahkenazic Sophie, “exotic, semi-oriental”. Michael, her nephew, like many Jhabvala characters, asserts his identity and shows his confusion by heading East and then spending time with Sufis in upstate New York and Hasidim in Brooklyn. The story is about the ties that bind them all as Sophie is secretly dying of cancer, and about the way they continue to manipulate and depend on each other until death parts them. It escapes being mawkish because the observation is acute and it is funny.

The welcome element of humour often has an ironic tinge. Jhabvala is a storyteller who does not take sides, but does expose her characters' weaknesses. This works well in “Broken Promises”, where she explores the confrontation of values between a mother and daughter. Donna, the rich mother, has lunch parties with Tarot readings and suffers from a weak heart. Reba, the daughter, is a strong young woman, a vegetarian conservationist living in a woodland cabin. She is a lesbian, and her lover works in her mother's neighbourhood gourmet cheese shop. “Reba's more the intellectual type”, Donna tells her friends when they are discussing their daughters. The contrasts between the generations are schematic, and both women are daft, but their dilemmas and the interaction between them, Reba's struggle for freedom and Donna's dazed acceptance of what happens, are credible.

Less successful is her study, in “Bobby”, of a lesbian relationship torn apart by the psychotic son of one of the women. Once again, the details of the story are beguiling, with everyone's lifestyle carefully delineated, but what is important is the ties that bind the characters. Claire is more attached to Bobby than Madeleine, who has to take him, too, if she wants to keep Claire. The reasons why otherwise sane people stick to untenable situations are dissected more subtly in “A Summer by the Sea”, when a wife says of her bisexual husband: “No one ever tells me that it's wrong for me to love Mother for the way she is and not for how she is supposed to be.”

Such themes are perhaps more obvious in the Western stories, but if the ethnic (and sometimes too folksy) settings of the East are stripped away, the preoccupations of Jhabvala are the same. Sinister intruders who attach themselves to unaccountably gullible people are the subject of “Parasites”, “Temptress” and “Great Expectations” in the American stories. Similarly, it is a stranger who is the catalyst in the opening (and perhaps most memorable) story of the collection, “Expiation”, which is about the seduction into crime and murder of the youngest boy in a simple merchant family. There is nothing crude about the deadpan narration by Bablu's older brother, wondering why the boy was different from the start and why he chafed at the normal bonds of attachment, as if waiting to be taken away to another life. The story could be transposed to the Upper East Side or Islington, despite the particularities of Indian life which give it poignancy. This universality is perhaps why Jhabvala's Indian stories, moving as they usually are, seem the product of an observer rather than an insider.

Can the contrasts between the old and the new, whether in changing India or the rushing world of America, the mutual dependence of husband and wife in any culture, the universal anger of adolescence and the disappointments of age, be fully explored in the short story? Jhabvala is concerned with stating emotional dilemmas rather than developing arguments, so the form has always suited her well. In many stories of this collection, a stream of incidents brings the initial situation to a breathless but satisfactory conclusion. In others which are quieter and more reflective a resolution is not the point.

Philip Glazebrook (review date 10 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Intruders in the Dusk and Elsewhere,” in The Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8879, October 10, 1998, p. 43.

[In the following review, Glazebrook presents a positive appraisal of East into Upper East.]

These complex and delicate stories, [in East into Upper East] which I should hate to have missed reading, are the outcome of clear intentions expressed with controlled precision. The stories are not emotional, not lyrical, but they are extraordinarily deft, each one filling its 20-odd pages with sharp pictures of people busying themselves with living lives modified by shortcomings plainly visible to their creator. Half the stories take place around Delhi, half round New York, and it is a measure of Ruth Jhabvala's accuracy of observation that in no case could one of the American stories have happened in India, or vice versa; they are not stories about humanity, applicable like the parables to mankind anywhere, but accurate reports resulting from close scrutiny of individuals busy in their setting.

Yet there is a general theme, so it seemed to me. At the heart of many of the stories, the event which tightens their mainspring is the invasion of one person's space by another, and the consequent struggle of the host either to rid himself (or herself) of this incubus, or to tolerate it. A dying woman's New York apartment fills up with parasites; a New York estate agent has her business bankrupted by two clients who invade her own flat; two women live in terror of a maniacal son always pressing in on them; an Indian woman, leaving commercial failure in London to become a holy woman in north India, does not escape her husband, who follows her to settle anew to an idle life under her banyan tree. She accommodates him; the Indian women in these stories accept what is imposed on them, putting up, for instance, with a son's evil guest living in the best quarters of the family house while he brings down the son with him to execution in a Delhi jail.

The New York women, though more likely to go bananas, also accept that fate's burdens must be shouldered, that the victim, indeed, may be dependent upon the interloper's vitality, and that divorce is only one move in an ongoing relationship. Donna's husband Si ‘conformed to type … had moved out of the apartment and in with his latest girl friend’, but carries on dropping in on Donna to look at his picture collection left on her walls, whilst she reacts gamely, ‘constantly buying quality goods [so that she takes on] something of their aura’, and ‘keeping herself nice with a new hair shade’.

There is plenty of this quiet malice for her New York characters (and for Bombay wives ‘closeted with their spiritual advisers’), but the harsh language in the book is directed against the second generation of post-Independence Indian politicians. With regret, and with pity for their etiolated lives, she writes of the inaction of the British-educated first generation who gave up power and responsibility in the face of challenge from those like ‘the Milkman’ of one of these stories, ‘Minister of Defence’,

a peasant who had worked his way up from his village council, who had been allotted one of the stately requisitioned mansions [in New Delhi], but who had no idea how to live in it.

These ‘local politicians from backward states, some of whom can hardly read or write’ are concerned not about the usefulness of their ministry, but about their continuance in power at any cost. In the shade snigger the Harrys and Dickoos of British-ruled India with their Gollys and their Oh My Goodnesses, useful only as tutors in protocol and manners to the men in power, watching servants drive marauding kites off the buffet by flapping starched white dinner napkins at them. Modern India, the sprawl of Delhi, and the extinction of the large old Indian mansions which held together the members of a family, the corrupt politics, seem to sadden, even anger, Jhabvala's usually neutral voice.

I have said that the stories are not lyrical or passionate, due to this neutrality of tone, but the brief flame of the short story, like that of the poem, can suggest the ineffable in a way that the novel cannot. The family house pulled down and replaced by flats, the kites driven off with starched napkins—both of these images, and other hints besides, strike a resonant chord. Many times, reading these stories, parallels with India's imposed-upon history, and with her independence and what she has done with it, came into my head. Again, into my mind's eye with one of her images would come the likeness of her creation to the figure of a god:

She continued to sit rigid, with her big knees planted wide apart as if made of stone … Suddenly she rose and her arms flailed as she beat him about the head and shoulders.

The stony immobility, followed by flailing arms, suggest a being larger than human.

These qualities fill the stories. When the lights went up at the end of each one, I regretted that I would see no more of its participants through the eyes of their creator, and no longer hear her dry voice illuminating the peculiarities of America, or revealing to me more of the fantastic hampering paraphernalia of Indian life.


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala World Literature Analysis


Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 29)