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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927–
British novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.
Born in Germany of Polish parents, educated in England, and living in India since 1951, Jhabvala writes from her experiences as both an "insider" and an "outsider" to present highly acclaimed fiction about life in India. Her characters, whether Indian or European residents, are minutely drawn, as she focuses on their relationships, families, and culture. Critics often discuss her work in terms of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India for her insights into Indian and European contrasts and Jane Austen's novels of manners for her gently understated satire. Jhabvala received the Booker McConnell Prize for Heat and Dust (1973), a novel about European residents of India who come to question their Western assumptions. She has also written several screenplays, including Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Autobiography of a Princess (1975), and it has been suggested that her experience with cinematic devices has influenced the narrative structure of her later novels, especially A New Dominion (1972).
Jhabvala's fiction is often based on her characters' conflicting desires for both Western comfort and the spiritual satisfaction offered by Hinduism and Indian tradition. In Esmond in India (1958) an upwardly mobile Indian unwittingly initiates the demise of his traditionally religious family structure, while an Indian in The Householder (1960) tries to use Hinduism as an escape from his marital obligations. Hans, in The Householder, and the young women in A New Dominion are Westerners in search of oriental spiritual wisdom who misinterpret Hindu philosophy. Some critics find these and other characters of Jhabvala's clichéd and oversimplified. Nonetheless, critics generally agree that her most prominent theme, the conflict between East and West which Jhabvala portrays through her characters, is well developed.
In her recent novel, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Jhabvala again explores the theme of expatriation. This work depicts a group of German refugees living in America who pursue unobtainable goals. Several critics find her characters less successfully drawn than those in her Indian novels. Jhabvala's most highly acclaimed works remain those in which she combines her unassuming style and satiric tone with her unique cultural perspective to depict the complexities of India and its confrontations with Western values. She is ranked by some critics with R. K. Narayan as the most important English-language writers of fiction in India.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
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The author of "Amrita," R. Prawer Jhabvala, who has been widely compared in the British press to Jane Austen, has written a fresh and witty novel about modern India. It is not necessary to know anything about the customs and habits of the mixed population of India's capital city, New Delhi—the setting of Mrs. Jhabvala's lively comedy of manners—to enjoy her ironic social commentary. The book's characters, however, including the heroine, Amrita, are lent a special fillip by their geographic and historic setting. They have been created in part by the yeasty paradoxes of post-independence, post-partition, post-war India.
"Amrita" tells the story of a star-crossed romance between a girl from a local Anglicized Hindu family of proud lineage and Hart, a transplanted Punjabi Hindu from Lahore….
The families of Hari and Amrita provide Mrs. Jhabvala with her opportunity for deft portrayal of a number of modern Indian types….
The entire social atmosphere, in spite of the presence of glaring inequalities, fatalism, family feuds, envy and greed, is enclosed in that indescribable Indian climate of lovableness and emotional prodigality which so touches and puzzles the Western visitor. This novel of acute observation and literary distinction is a better guide to modern urban India than any guidebook.
Nancy Wilson Ross, "A Fresh and Lively Comedy of Love in Modern India," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1956, p. 2.
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R. Prawer Jhabvala's first novel, "Amrita" [published in Britain as "To Whom She Will"], is an amusing, slightly caustic comedy, as genuinely Indian as any tale of village suffering, but dealing with aspects of Indian society that have received little attention.
Mrs. Jhabvala sets her story in post-independence New Delhi, and this gives her an excellent opportunity to describe some of the many levels of Indian urban life and to explore with an entertaining detachment some of the pretensions, maladjustments, successes and charms of modern life in an Indian city. Her central character, Amrita, is the daughter of a respectable, fairly rich family.
She has managed to get a job as an announcer in the local radio station, and there has met and fallen in love with Hari, a most unsuitable young man….
Both families set briskly to work to break up the attachment by various stratagems. (p. 4)
From time to time Mrs. Jhabvala's writing achieves a sharp irony. There is, for example, a very funny description of a fashionable lunch party complete with those readily recognizable Delhi characters—the foreign professor who insists on lecturing about ancient Indian art, a Lady Ram Prashad with her determined cultivation, the aggressively simple Dr. Mukherji who makes a virtue of her crumpled cotton saris and the fact that she eats boiled vegetables with her fingers, the Indian host who is proud of his ability to serve a Western meal as fine as any you could get in Paris.
If Mrs. Jhabvala's writing hasn't quite enough authority to maintain this standard of satire, the reader is considerably compensated by her gentler treatment of the young couple, their own confusions, their misunderstandings of each other, their rather pathetic searchings in an unfamiliar emotional world. (p. 28)
Santha Rama Rau, "A Conflict of Loyalties," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1956, pp. 4, 28.
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[Mrs. Jhabvala, in A Backward Place,] has not the sustained brilliance that Jane Austen often rises to; and she cannot quite manage that astonishing bite and attack. All the same her many excellent qualities are nearly all Austenish ones, and they make her a most interesting and satisfactory writer.
Mrs. Jhabvala can supply one ingredient quite outside Jane Austen's repertoire: an exotic, colourful background which she touches in with swift, sure strokes….
[The] scenery of the novel is never allowed to be more than the discreetest, most unobtrusive of backgrounds. Always well to the fore are the little groups of characters. Bal, the aspirant film-actor with a gift for unemployment, his English wife Judy, his brother and sister-in-law and his devout aunt Bhuaji form one cluster. Then there are the expatriates….
Mrs. Jhabvala examines her various little character-groups, in a quiet, well-behaved, observant way. She works through the medium of many short scenes. There is no sweep, no undertow. Her effects are achieved by piecemeal accumulation. Gradually they mount up into something impressive—lucid, controlled, eschewing commentary, unsparing in delineation of human foible and yet understanding.
The story is about Bal's yearning for the cinematic fleshpots of Bombay, and about how, after Etta has taunted him about his willingness to live on Judy's earnings, he stiffens his resolution and goes there, taking the family with him and using Judy's savings to pay the train-fare; but the narrative itself is of little importance. It is a tenuous thing, strong enough to give the shrewd social comedy enough momentum to carry it through to a conclusion—none the less satisfactory because muted questions are left like vultures in an Indian sky.
"Indian Austen," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3299, May 20, 1965, p. 385.
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A Backward Place is very professional light comedy. After Independence, the Europeans have descended on India, investigating, enthusing, simply finding that the country suits them to live in. The author … keeps a tone of affectionate irritation, but keeps it with difficulty. Novels about Asia concentrate too much on invertebrate charm, like novels about college girls married to actors. The over-optimistic, childish, feckless, family-ridden side of the male population can't be the only side there is…. The English wife, who works in a flyblown cultural outfit in Delhi to support her husband while he dreams of astounding his café friends by, say, making a success in films, accepts a world not too different from her lower-class English home, but her ghastly friends do not. Gentle, sadly amusing, this picture of the greatest of all ex-colonial territories makes it seem a picturesque backwater.
R.G.G. Price, in a review of "A Backward Place," in Punch (© 1965 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. CCXLVII, No. 6511, June 23, 1965, p. 942.
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Mr. Khushwant Singh in bracketing Mrs. R. Prawer Jhabvala with Mr. R. K. Narayan as the leading Indian novelists now writing in English has suggested that she writes in the main about the "Babbitts" of Delhi. It would be a gross generalization to speak of "Babbittry" as Jhabvala's preoccupation although at least two of her six novels (Get Ready for Battle and The Nature of Passion) explore in depth the lives of the rich and corrupt bourgeoisie of present-day India, while several others have rich bourgeois characters in less central positions. The original Babbitt of Sinclair Lewis was a satirical exposure of American bourgeois society, told not without some ultimate sympathy for the hero caught in the trap of social climbing and conformism, a sympathy which Jhabvala sometimes imitates towards her Babbitts. As a novelist Jhabvala is highly delicate and ambiguous in tone and her satire is only an element (though an important one) in her work. An examination of her Babbitts in fact shows how the Indian tradition and context and related cultural differences have complicated the picture. In this essay therefore the word "Babbitt" will be used to cover a range of Indian bourgeois types, some of which have only a tenuous connection with the Sinclair Lewis prototype. Jhabvala is more essentially a novelist of manners rather than a novelist of ideas; and notions of class and economic conflict are subordinated to her study of family life, marriage and expatriation. Nevertheless I intend to show how the notions of heroic virtue and religious non-attachment in the Hindu context are embodied in key characters in her novels in such a way as to suggest the futility and self-defeat of the Babbitt's pursuit of wealth and power as ends.
The rich bourgeois head-of-family appears centrally in two novels: her second one in order of publication, The Nature of Passion  …, and her fifth, Get Ready for Battle …. Lal Narayan Dass Verma (Lalaji, as he is called) is a striking and powerful figure, head of a large and turbulent family whose activities provide the story of The Nature of Passion. In some ways he is the crudest kind of Babbitt. He and his eldest son Om are rich, greedy and corrupt; neither, however, aspires to any culture or sophistication. Both are conformist to the Indian tradition without showing any marked piety or awareness of their duties to any principles beyond money and family. Sometimes, as in this novel, money and family loyalties may conflict. Their business ethics are of the most dubious, and at the beginning of the novel Lalaji is in imminent danger of being exposed, prosecuted and ruined for offering bribes in exchange for government contracts for his firm. But Lalaji is first displayed as a family man, the emperor-like head of an "undivided family."… The opening scene of the novel shows the hilarity, excitement and chaos which results when Lalaji, Om and the women of the family pay a visit to Om's wife after the birth of her baby. Jhabvala stresses the tenderness and infectious boyish pleasure with which the old capitalist greets this latest arrival to the clan. Lalaji's role as father of a large and growing family colours the whole of the novel and does much to cancel out the bad impression of his ruthlessness in business. Nevertheless the Babbittry of Lalaji and Om are egregiously displayed in their narrowness and lack of culture…. The conflict between [Lalaji's] indulgent love as a father and his self-interest as a capitalist and old-fashioned family-man provides most of the interest.
Jhabvala enlists our sympathy for the corrupt aging bourgeois by loading the dice against him. From the beginning of the novel he seems to be doomed, not merely because his attempt at bribery is about to be exposed but because three of his children threaten the coherence of his family: Chandra, the western-educated civil servant; Nimmi, Lalaji's beautiful college-educated daughter; and Viddi, a would-be artist in revolt against his father's bourgeois ethos of money and power. Chandra and his wife Kanta are younger Babbitts who aspire to sophistication and culture, conforming in their own way to the government circles in which they move and affecting to despise Lalaji's old-fashioned crude ways. Nimmi rejecting the tyranny of arranged marriages dares to go out with Pheroze, a Parsee playboy, to the scandal of her family. Viddi (presented in some ways more vividly than the other two) dreams of going to England and living the exciting life of an artist, and prepares for it by associating with phoney artists in the cafes and clubs. (pp. 81-3)
In this novel Jhabvala is just as hard on the heartless social-climbing young Babbitts like Chandra and Kanta and the would-be sophisticates like Nimmi and Viddi whom she treats with teasing irony, as she is on the older corrupt tycoons of the new India. The undivided family is not spared some knocks, though the institution survives its stresses and strains. Lalaji emerges shaken but undismayed as the hero of this tale of the modern "rajas" whose nature according to the Bhagavad Gita is the nature of passion and selfish desires.
Another Babbitt is Gulzari Lal, a Punjabi businessman in Get Ready for Battle …. Like Lalaji he is ruthless and his chief exploit is to employ his power and influence in sinister alliance with the government and "do-gooders" to evict a settlement of wretched refugees from a piece of land he wants for development. His activities are much more starkly selfish than Lalaji's; and Jhabvala stresses the human misery he causes. He is less developed as a character and is overshadowed by the more strongly delineated characters of his wife and son…. In Gulzari Lal we have a bourgeois upstart who lacks the warm heroic qualities of Lalaji. He has no family to fight for (except his son) and seems a hollow man in all his social and business relationships. There is some social criticism in the way Jhabvala shows the Indian government and progressive enlightened people calling themselves reformers, advocates of birth-control and socialism, helping Lal to evict poor refugees. Ironically no force is needed; Lal simply bribes the refugee leader. (p. 84)
Jhabvala puts the Yogi in his various manifestations at the other end of the spectrum from her Babbitts…. The Yogi is traditional to the Indian scene; but is of course only one example of the disinterested spiritual man. Hinduism traditionally recognizes four stages of human life: student, householder, hermit, ascetic. Ideally one moves from stage one to stage four. The good Hindu hopes to spend his last years when his family has grown up in some form of meditation and disinterested existence. The Householder  … takes its title from the second stage and is indeed a serio-comic analysis of a young man's uneasy settling down to the life of husband, householder and expectant father. Prem, the hero, is tempted to give up the difficulties of being a good husband, teacher and householder and to follow instead in the footsteps of two men who have no such responsibilities, an Indian Swami who has found the peace of God and lives in almost perpetual ecstacy, and Hans Loewe, a likeable but ridiculous German tramping about India looking for his "Guru" (teacher) whose face he has once glimpsed in a dream. Whereas the laughing, singing Swami who spreads infectious joy around him has reached the goal, Hans is very much a beginner, portrayed almost as a caricature of the religious seeker. It seems to Prem that Hans has chosen a path which he too should take. But in the end he goes back to the job of being a householder. The moral is that Prem must be a householder first before he can be a holy man; he must not use religion to cloak his failure as a citizen. This is essentially orthodox Hindu teaching. In fact however, the real cause of Prem's re-conversion to materialism is his gradual falling-in-love with his girlish but delightful wife, Indu. Sexual attraction proves too powerful for the forces of religion and renunciation—a wry if not unusual comment on human nature. A different form of renunciation from the Swami's is shown by Sarla Devi in Get Ready for Battle. She once suffered an unfortunate arranged marriage with the minor Babbitt, Gulzari Lal, whose dubious activities have already been discussed, but wisely left him to follow her vocation of selfless social service…. She throws herself into lost causes with a quixoticism which never diminishes…. In championing the unfortunate refugees of Bundi Busti she finds herself locked in battle with her husband and the official "do-gooders." When this cause too is lost (the leader of the refugees is bribed into acquiescence), she refuses to give up and turns to the reclamation of prostitutes from the red-light district of Old Delhi. A ridiculous but noble figure, Sarla Devi gets ready to do battle once more, and we know she will lose this one too. But good action must be done regardless of failure for the sake of humanity, love, God. In Jhabvala's novels (as often in real life) the Sadhu, the Yogi, the holy man, are slightly comic figures: the singing, smiling Swami and the grotesque figure of Hans in The Householder. Sarli Devi is like them, a slightly comic crusader. Yet the last laugh is theirs as they go on with the lonely, unlucky business of religion and selfless good works, leaving the Babbitts and the sophisticates to their dubious victories of money and influence.
A form of Babbittry which brings acid to Jhabvala's pen is that represented by a succession of bossy progressive women through all her novels. We encounter it first in Lady Ram Prashad in To Whom She Will …. She is an energetic prosecutor of "good works" in post-independence India, a formidable figure of the Indian establishment…. Apart from being a busybody and a snob of a particularly unpleasant kind, Lady Ram Prashad is not shown doing much specific harm in this novel. Not so Mrs. Bhatnagar in Get Ready for Battle…. This energetic pursuer of high-sounding "Causes" plays a sinister role as the ally of ruthless Babbitts and helps with pious phrases on her lips to evict the wretched poor from Bundi Busti. Jhabvala brings the true humanitarian (Sarla Devi) face to face in militant confrontation with the phoney one (Mrs. Bhatnagar). In this novel too Jhabvala suggests ironically that the young westernized sophisticates who dance and drink in their ultramodern flats, like the smart Toto Saxena and the mildly nymphomaniac Gogo, will turn into fat future Bhatnagars and Ram Prashads. Both culture-pursuing and energetic "do-goodism" are bitterly satirized in the figure of Mrs. Kaul who presides over the "Cultural Dais" in A Backward Place …. (pp. 84-6)
Jhabvala shows how the world of the Babbitts in contemporary India attracts to it predatory animals in search of prey, and some of these are more dangerous and despicable than the Gulzari Lals, Bhatnagars and Kauls. One such is Esmond, the villain-hero of Esmond in India …. As a character he is so outrageous as to strain credibility particularly in the context of Jhabvala's cast of "normal" characters. An Englishman of considerable outward charm and good looks, suave and cultured, he is revealed from the outset as inwardly rotten. He is a philanderer with an Indian wife (Gulab) and an English mistress (Betty) apart from the succession of middle-aged women whom he preys upon as official guide and unofficial gigolo. Sexual promiscuity is the least of his vices which extend to sadistic persecution of his wife; he slaps and pinches her, jeers sarcastically at her old-fashioned Indian ways and restrains her from coddling their child, whenever he can drag himself away from his activities as Hindi teacher and cultural adviser to the wives of Indian Babbitts and to wealthy European expatriates and tourists. It is typical of the Babbitts that their vanity and social-climbing prevents them from seeing through Esmond and people like him. The chief exemplar of Babbittry in this novel is Har Dayal, a subtler and more cultured Babbitt as opposed to the cruder Lalaji and Gulzari Lal…. The pride of his life is his pretty, idealistic young daughter, Shakuntala, newly graduated B.A. who worships him, completely taken in by his cultured charm. He introduces her to the rich cosmopolitan circles in which he loves to exhibit his unctuous culturizing. His love of Shakuntala is at least sincere which is more than can be said of his political and cultural posing. His pose as cultured man of letters and progressive thinker is ill matched by his conformism to the bourgeois materialistic values of his wife, Madhuri, and his daughter-in-law, Indira. Yet Har Dayal unlike other Babbitts in the novels of Jhabvala is secretly tormented by feelings of shame and guilt, especially when he compares himself to his friends, Ram Nath and Uma…. Har Dayal's conscience is disturbed even more acutely when Ram Nath suggests a marriage between his idealistic son Narayan, a doctor working among the poor, and his beloved Shakuntala. He knows that his wife Madhuri will treat with brutal scorn the idea of allying their daughter with an impoverished doctor. Har Dayal may have profound doubts about the values of the Babbitt's life; his wife has none. While he is worried over conflicting loyalties to Ram Nath, Shakuntala and Madhuri, he is ignorant of the fate his social climbing and posturing has brought upon Shakuntala. He has introduced her to Esmond. Shakuntala, a naive, self-willed romantic with her head turned by her father's flattery and her illusion that he and his smart friends are in the van of freedom and enlightenment, succumbs with pathetic ease to Esmond's experienced charm. Temporarily dropping his cynical hard-boiled English mistress, he seduces Shakuntala on a trip to Agra. Here, as with Lalaji, though more tragically, the Babbitt suffers through the child he loves. The novel ends in mid-air however, before the disillusionment is complete. Esmond has not decided whether to go back to England with Betty (at her expense) or to stay with Shakuntala who is in love with him. He has been deserted by his wife and little son. The implication is that he will abandon Shakuntala for Betty, since she offers him escape from the India which he hates. The novel ends before we learn of Har Dayal's reaction to his daughter's corruption. Though heroic idealism represented by Ram Nath, Uma and Narayan, is still impotent (as in other novels) to change Har Dayal and turn him from his materialistic ways, it can at least give him an uneasy conscience. Really severe punishment has already been meted out by the gods through Esmond's villainy and Shakuntala's folly and innocence. Posing and conformism have brought their own destructive fate upon the poseur and his family. The hollowness of the Babbitts' life is cruelly exposed.
A Backward Place  … is a novel graphically exploring the problems of three expatriate European women in India (the "backward place" of the title) but the Babbitt and the Yogi appear here too. The most tragic of the three women, a Hungarian blonde, Etta, is seen growing older and plainer under the hot northern Indian sun, having come to India many years before as the wife of an Indian student. The marriage has failed and Etta has lived on as mistress of a succession of rich protectors, hating India and longing for the receding sophisticated Europe of her memories. She encounters the fickleness and gross selfishness of the Babbitt in her relationship with the hotel tycoon, Gupta ("Guppy"), a sensualist, though easygoing and amiable, who abandons her for his "niece," an Indian girl…. Guppy is too thoughtless and selfish to gauge the effect of this betrayal. When Etta hears that he is flying to Europe with his "niece" instead of with her as he has promised, she tries to kill herself and death is narrowly averted. In absolute contrast to this are the actions and attitudes of old aunt Bhuaji who lives in the undivided Indian family of Bal, an unemployed actor, and his English wife, Judy. Judy loves the promiscuous warmth of the large noisy Indian home after her lonely upbringing in England. Though not pious herself, Judy is instinctively drawn towards Bhuaji's Hindu piety, her life of prayer, detachment and love. (pp. 86-8)
Finally, A Backward Place has a character who after a period of cynicism turns back to his former ideals and like Sarla Devi chooses a life of heroic virtue. This is Sudhir, the Bengali Secretary of Mrs. Kaul's "Cultural Dais." (pp. 88-9)
In the main Jhabvala's writings about the Babbitt and the Yogi are comments on men and women in society and on their adjustment to social demands and expectations. She is not really a novelist of ideas (unlike Raja Rao) and does not attempt to analyse her themes and characters in political or philosophical terms. She does not, for example, suggest that all Babbitts are detestable because they are Babbitts, or all religious idealists wonderful because they are religious idealists. Her satire is sharper at the expense of the hypocrites, the pretenders, the false romantics, the self-appointed busybodies and callous planners. Her tone is one of disillusionment. The collapse of illusions is most marked in Esmond in India and A Backward Place which all strike a note of anguish and defeat and suggest the constant frustration of heroic idealism and romantic exultance by money, power and the dead weight of tradition. Esmond in India also shows a change of emphasis to exploration of the human soul, an examination of motives and conflicts, deep drives and compulsions, such as Esmond's sadism and Shakuntala's willingness to be seduced by him. A Backward Place is a study in disillusionment, Jhabvala's blackest novel in spite of its comedy, partly because of the absence of a fully developed idealistic character of the stature of a Swami or a Sarla Devi, partly because of Etta's despair and attempted suicide. In all the novels betrayal is a constant element. The Babbitts betray and are betrayed: Lalaji betrays his son Chandra by asking him to abuse his power as a civil servant and is nearly betrayed to ruin by his own wayward children; Gulzari Lal, the refugee leader, and the "do-gooders" betray together the refugees of Bundi Busti; Vishnu betrays his mother's ideals; "Guppy" betrays Etta. The holy men and the disinterested lovers of men and God seem unable to deflect the Babbitts from their selfish courses. The tragedy of modern India as depicted in Jhabvala's novels is the total failure of communication between the Babbitt and the Yogi…. [However, there is a sunny], and uniquely Indian solution of the problem of reconciling the demands of the world and the spirit in The Householder where Prem is persuaded to return to his wife and family duties after flirting with Yogistic aspirations; here it is the importance of priorities in relation to the four stages of life which is emphasized with some wit and irony. One of the short stories in Jhabvala's collection, Like Birds, Like Fishes  … pinpoints the tragic split of Babbitt and Yogi. In "My First Marriage," a Director of Education's daughter who has finally conformed to her Babbittry parents' bourgeois values, recalls her first "marriage"—a hectic liaison with a mystic she calls "M." In one sense M. is a useless man, a loafer, an idle dreamer, a superfluous character. In another sense, as she realises in the depth of her being, he is a holy sage, consulted and even worshipped as a guru. Though she has left him, fleeing from the spiritual disturbance and social disorder he appears to generate into a life of conformity and comfort, she feels fundamentally dissatisfied. M., the holy fool, has shown her a glimpse of a higher life. Like Har Dayal's in Esmond in India her conscience is incurably uneasy. (pp. 89-90)
H. Moore Williams, "The Yogi and the Babbitt: Themes and Characters of the New India in the Novels of R. Prawer Jhabvala," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1969, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 15, No. 2, July, 1969, pp. 81-90.
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Travelling people, moody, self-absorbed people shopping round for a friend or a lover or a guru, form the motley cast of R. Prawer Jhabvala's [A New Dominion]. She lets them loose to test their trite identities ("Gopi the gay and gallant groom", "Margaret hates modern materialism") against an Indian culture that returns a mocking echo to every question. If they find what they are looking for, perhaps that is only because India is so hybrid, so vast, so obligingly ambiguous. Mrs Jhabvala observes her people with concentrated calm: their energetic aimlessness, dim yearnings and contradictory oracles make a fascinatingly various pattern….
The social web is elaborate, insecure and many-layered, so that nobody can make a move without setting off significant vibrations. Glazed-eyed, determined American Lee …; hesitant, fastidious, English Raymond, who might have stepped out of a novel by E. M. Forster; the Swamiji learning to use the butter-knife in preparation for his world tour: all of them act on each other in unpredictable, often unconscious ways. For all her coolness, Mrs Jhabvala has the greedy curiosity of the true social novelist, and she finds plenty of food for it in the bland anomalies of the Indian scene….
It would not do, though, to make A New Dominion sound cosily recognizable; it has a distinctive and disturbing flavour. An English novelist, given this stuff, these people, would (one suspects) be in a delicious flurry of moral discrimination, bursting with ironic awareness—would be, in other words, busy inventing a perspective, a point of view from which to "make sense" of it all. Mrs Jhabvala, however, takes her characters on their own meagre terms, without embarrassment or reforming passion. She can switch from talking about them in the third person to letting them have their own first-person say, for example, without any of the momentous consequences that are supposed to hang on that in the English novel.
The reason seems to be that she is neither judging them nor making them plead for their lives before an imaginary jury. As you read you gradually become aware of a significant omission: the absence, for good or ill, of all those manifold promptings that make you expect a novel about a society to be about growth or decay, to have an emergent moral shape. India in this book denies all that; Mrs Jhabvala is not just writing about a different culture, but with an altogether different understanding of what culture means. In the end, judgments about the value of her characters' quests become impossible—they feel as they feel, they do what they do, and how could there be a norm by which to measure tautology? There is something simultaneously attractive and constricting about this. What is attractive is the generous respite from impatience and intrusive irony, so that reading is rather like watching a moving tapestry. What is disturbing is the hint of a desultory, drab mysticism underlying all the variety.
"Keeping Cool," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3702, February 16, 1973, p. 169.
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There are three novels in [A New Dominion], Mrs. Jhabvala's latest tour of the Indian horizon, two of them excellent and the third interesting enough in all conscience. She dances between them in little sketches each with its headline calculated to produce the embarrassing faux-naif effect which one remembers from earlier attempts to introduce us to the charms of undeveloped philosophy….
The first novel concerns two English girls who come to India seeking self-fulfilment. They join the ashram of a guru called Swamiji, who teaches total subservience to himself and is surrounded by acolytes who belong to him, body and soul. One of the girls dies of infective hepatitis while the other, called Lee, who is a girl of sturdy common-sense and sees through the hysteria of the ashram, nevertheless decides to devote her life to serving the Swamiji for reasons which are too complicated and too feminine for me to understand. By the end we accept the Swamiji as a more or less cynical rogue, and so does Lee, but there it is.
The second novel describes old India making way for the new. A fat and middle-aged princess wallows in useless boredom while her brother, a politician, trots out all the clichés of socialist nationalism to explain why Miss Charlotte, an aged Englishwoman, should close down the small mission she has run for thirty years. (p. 203)
The third novel is about a repressed, mother-obsessed Englishman called Raymond, who comes to Delhi and falls in love with a pretty Indian boy called Gopi, who insults his servant and who, although greedy and opportunistic by nature, never understands the nature of Raymond's affection for him. Mrs Jhabvala makes strenuous efforts to relate these three stories to each other—Gopi becomes the lover of the princess and also, briefly, of Lee; Raymond grows very fond of Miss Charlotte, seeing her as a mother-substitute, and both try to rescue the dying English girl from the Ashram. But I am not sure that the novel gains from these efforts to give it a unity which is not really there. The author might have done better to concentrate on the story of the English girls seeking spiritual values in the East which eluded them in the West. This seemed to me by far the most interesting part, and the most excellently told, although it obviously failed to say everything which Mrs Jhabvala is bursting to say about India. Gopi, Raymond and the princess would have made excellent sideshows, but as the book stands they occupy too much of the front ground. However, one must not niggle. Mrs. Jhabvala writes intelligently and well. It is a most informative and entertaining book, and warmly recommended. (p. 204)
Auberon Waugh, "Three into One Don't Go," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 230, No. 7547, February 17, 1973, pp. 203-04.∗
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The achievement of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as a literary artist is distinctive, yet limited at the same time; distinctive, because she has cultivated and demonstrated the qualities of a literary artist which are her own and emerge naturally from a social and cultural milieu peculiar to herself. But her distinction is modified and narrowed by the rather limited quality of her literary achievement, which is partly the inevitable result of her choice, and partly the artistic outcome of her creativity. This peculiar paradox of her attainment as an artist is, in a way, rooted in the environs of her literary effort, and is also co-extensive with the range and quality of her fiction.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has been variously described as an 'inside-outsider' and an 'outside-insider'. These apparently contrary expressions are more meaningful than mere high-sounding literary labels since they impinge on her special personal and literary situation. She is essentially a European writer who has lived, and continues to live, in India and has given to her experience of life and society in India an artistic expression. From a European literary vantage point she may seem an 'outside-insider', while from the Indian artistic point of view she seems an 'inside-outsider'. Both these descriptions involve a basic change of perspective, though one of them is inherent in her literary situation.
A New Dominion … marks a new phase in Jhabvala's literary career and a deviation from the norm which characterizes her early novels. The 'New Dominion' is, of course, India again, but it is not an area of darkness or a backward place, but rather a promised land. Jhabvala's storehouse of recorded values presents new notes and rhythms in and around India, reflecting a change of perspective from Esmond in India or A Backward Place. The theme can no longer be glibly summarized as 'east-west encounter', but rather 'east-west get-together' or even 'Indo-European-American union'. India is no longer conceived negatively or pejoratively, but rather in positive and adulatory terms—as an ancient country with a rich heritage of philosophical thought and spiritual insights, challenging, provoking, inviting, and inspiring three eager-to-learn western girls, Lee, Evie, and Margaret. India is evocative, inspiring, fulfilling, and frustrating, and all at the same time in this novel.
A New Dominion tries to grapple with a vast and varied, harmonious and discordant, noble and profane, reality that is India, almost inexhaustible in its range and inscrutable in its depth. Consequently, she has to adapt her art of fiction to a new structural pattern necessitated by the requirement to transcribe this multifarious reality. Therefore, A New Dominion does not duplicate the earlier pattern of her novels as a neatly fabricated comedy of manners. It is far more diffuse in structure than Esmond in India; its characters are more individualistic, though a few of them experience the 'merge' in several contexts; its scenes and situations are not neatly tied together in a conventional, single, indivisible unity of form, partly because it might be futile and self-defeating. The theme of the novel demands a new technique which is more in tune with its multiple motives. (pp. 45-6)
Structurally A New Dominion falls into three parts. Part One is placed in Delhi; Part Two in the holy city of Benares; Part Three in the Rajasthani town of Maupur. The characters, both Indian and Western, pass from one place to another and in doing so demonstrate various aspects of their personality and destiny. The novel is, indeed, episodic and each episode has a sub-heading, e.g. 'Gopi Comes to Tea', 'Raymond Writes to His Mother', 'A Secular State', 'Red Roses', etc. This pattern seems fragmentary or diffuse, but it only conceals the real motif and Jhabvala's deliberately designed technique. Her principal endeavour is to depict the various aspects of 'A New Dominion', the reality that is contemporary India in its social, cultural, religious, political, and spiritual contexts. Since the dimensions of this reality are so vast and intractable, she tries to grasp it in fragments through the characters she creates, both of east and west; they not only react to the large panoramic reality of the new dominion, but they also react to each other, creating a complex of human relationships which is central to the novel. (p. 47)
[The] basic question may be asked: what … is A New Dominion about? It is clearly a westerner's view and evaluation of contemporary India and its multifarious realities. To an interviewer's question, 'Which according to you, is your best novel?' Jhabvala replied, 'A New Dominion.' This personal reaction is quite significant because in A New Dominion Jhabvala has made a bold attempt at grasping the reality of the entire corpus of her fiction, her pre-occupation with the entity of contemporary Indian society and western responses to that phenomenon.
The disillusioned in the West have for some time been increasingly beguiled by the 'mystic' East, and A New Dominion primarily projects a British and American view of contemporary India, but ironically, for the basic irony throughout the novel is that while the English girls are seeking a spiritual India to enable them to find their true selves and solve their personal predicaments, the India that they experience is the very opposite of their original concept.
A New Dominion breaks new ground in technique. Though Jhabavala carries forward her characteristic method of ominiscient narrator in this novel too, there is a much greater emphasis here on what Percy Lubbock defines as 'point of view', and therefore the novel is split up into small episodes, each projecting the perspective of a particular character. A New Dominion warrants comparison with B. S. Johnson's extraordinary novel, The Unfortunates (1969), which is divided into twenty-seven sections; only the first and last have headings, the rest being set in random order and meant to be shuffled by the reader as he likes. This unconventional mode, it is said, is designed 'to represent the random workings of the mind without the forced consecutiveness of a book'. A New Dominion does not, however, display such radical departures from conventional technique. Yet, it is innovative and its narrative mode may be described, after Mark Schorer, as a 'discovery'.
The modern novelist may treat the novel as an improved form of imaginative journalism, or as an entertaining transcription of contemporary history. A New Dominion may contain elements of both these approaches, yet it lacks a vision which will unify and transform fact into fiction. If A New Dominion is considered a novel, of not merely a few individuals thrown together, but of a country in a moment of the meeting of two different cultures, it fails to measure up fully to its aim, despite the novelist's brave attempt at a very difficult undertaking.
Although technique is in a certain sense discovery or vision, in A New Dominion, technique and talent eventually seem to go their own separate ways. Modern fiction in English is peculiarly conscious of its techniques and tools. The modern novelist tries to explore and interpret the complexity of the modern spirit, and in this matter almost all Indo-Anglian writers, except Raja Rao, seem to register an odd failure. In a realist like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala we find a very sensitive creative writer, but she is mostly preoccupied with the environment only, with India as its focal point. Elizabeth Bower in a perceptive comment on the fiction of D. H. Lawrence writes: 'We want the naturalistic surface but with a kind of internal burning. In Lawrence every bush burns.' The vision of Lawrence finds an objectification in his technique of projecting a passionate, private world of values. But in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala the bushes are neat and green, and they never seem to burn. As she tends unconsciously to identify herself more and more with India—the objective correlative of her aesthetic emotions—it seems likely that her comprehensive world will picture more bushes which not merely flourish but also burn. When she attains this synthesis of talent and technique, her artistic potential will at last be realized. (pp. 53-5)
Vasant A. Shahane, "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 'A New Dominion'" (copyright Vasant A. Shahane; by permission of Hans Zell Publishers, an imprint of K. G. Saur Verlag), in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XII, No. 1, August, 1977, pp. 45-55.
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[There] is a monotonous sameness in [Jhabvala's] writing: in the kinds of characters chosen, the angles from which they are observed. More important, there is no progress towards a deepening of insights about the social forces at work in [India], no striving to understand these. Indeed, the writer shows no inclination whatsoever even to attempt to go beyond the facile emotional reactions to what she observes on the Indian social scene. (p. 219)
[The kind of characters who inhabit the Jhabvala world are recurring stereotypes.] What is monotonous about all these one-dimensional stereotypes is that there is no objectivity or depth in their depiction. No attempt is made to understand and to project through the types the social pressures which produce such characters, the motivating forces and value systems that drive them to be what they are. There is observation in the novels and short stories, but not insight, analysis, or psychological depth. Perceived behaviour is all [that] Jhabvala seems to be able to cope with.
The unpleasant Indian types Jhabvala depicts certainly exist, and Indians probably dislike them as much as Jhabvala appears to do. But Indians cannot shrug them off with a sneer or an ironic comment as Jhabvala does…. Even if we agree with Jhabvala that the Westernized Indian is superficial, and there are many Indians who would agree with her on this score, the fact remains that it is these superficial, pseudo-Westernized types who are among the most powerful in social, economic, and political terms…. The kind of resentment, even hatred that an "ordinary Indian" has for such types and for the neocolonial social and cultural setting which permits such a state of affairs, goes far deeper than anything Jhabvala is able to understand and depict. How do we still have such a colonial mentality? How do the Westernized elite remain at the top in spite of their superficiality? What socio-economic system produces and keeps them there? Without this kind of exploration, Jhabvala's observations about her Westernized types remain trite and superficial and her characters just another lot of ethnic curiosities.
Many of the novels contain a mixture of Indian and Western characters. But nothing significant is made of the East/West encounter, not even when, as in Esmond in India, an Englishman is married to an Indian woman. Both Esmond and Gulab have defied their social conventions by marrying each other, yet the marriage is allowed to peter out without any explanation in depth. (pp. 221-22)
Stylistically too, Jhabvala's work offers no pleasure. Writing as she is about one dimensional characters, she reduces language too to the same threadbare quality, so that one often has the feeling, in reading her work, that she is writing for overgrown babies, and about overgrown babies, all in a somewhat patronizingly indulgent tone.
The entire introduction to An Experience of India must be read for an understanding of Jhabvala's serious failures. We have already looked at her attitude to the Westernized elite. But there is a quality she has in common with that elite which seems to have escaped her notice. While castigating this elite for its shallowness, arrogance, and contemptuous behaviour to those below it, she herself describes those Indians who are not Westernized as people who "say yes and give in and wear a sari and [are] meek and accepting and see God in a cow." If five minutes with the elite set her teeth on edge, a little of the company of this other bovine species also makes her want to run away. She can't stand their kind of social life—sitting around, happy to be with each other, often making no conversation at all. A little of this and she is horrified at the prospect of being dragged into that "bog of passive, intuitive being." She is bored in Europe as well and soon wants to hurry back; however much she may enjoy the company of visiting Europeans she soon runs out of conversation with them, and becomes sullen as she talks about India and how awful it is. She soon finds herself reduced to staying in her room "with the blinds drawn and the airconditioner on."
The hysterical reactions revealed in these quotations account for the observations which always remain superficial, and a mind which consistently fails to analyse what it observes. One doesn't expect her to be a sociologist. But if someone writes about a country for twenty years, she can expect to be taken seriously only if she has a sociological perspective and insight. But since she herself does not create any socio-economic and cultural framework which moulds her characters—their motivations, behaviour, life-styles—her superficial, facile depiction is likely to provide sufficient fodder for instant "sociology" to those foreigners who want "evidence" to support their preconceived notions about modern Indian society. (pp. 223-24)
Eunice de Souza, "The Blinds Drawn and the Air Conditioner On: The Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1978 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 17, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 219-24.
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Writing for the cinema allows Mrs. Jhabvala to reach a far larger audience than she could ever have thought it possible (before 1975) to reach with her novels and stories. A concern to strip life of its illusions seems to motivate her films and fiction alike during the period under review [1960–1976], and it is evident that she often works out in her films ideas that run as major themes through her fiction. Asked in 1975 to comment on the influence of film-making on her writing of fiction, she referred to a "personal influence":
The films allowed me to travel a lot more and meet a great many people of all different types. You must have noticed that my early books were all set in Delhi but later on I do branch out and travel. That is entirely due to film.
It is certainly true that the fiction written after 1960 ranges far more widely than before; geographically, as in A New Dominion, which takes its characters by stages (like Jenny, Tom and the Ustad in The Guru) deeper into India, and socially more freely than ever up and down India's infinitely varied and graded social scale. The early novels were indeed all set in Delhi, and though they could be said to present India in microcosm, the later fiction travels not only through space but through time in ways that make Mrs. Jhabvala's India begin to take on the aspects of a cosmic metaphor for life and universal experience. (pp. 370-71)
The "personal influence" upon this writer of her work for the screen seems, however, to have been rather more profound than she suggests or can herself be expected to perceive (or at any rate discuss in an interview). By presenting possibilities for successive explorations from many different angles of certain major concerns personal to her and for subjecting stories (or "treatments") based on those concerns to assessment by others, screen-play writing seems to have allowed Mrs. Jhabvala opportunity to express and gradually objectify her varying approaches to India. The advance from A Backward Place to Heat and Dust (as from Shakespeare Wallah to Autobiography of a Princess) represents not merely a gain in technical expertise, but a maturing in point of view. The crisp humour of the stories dealing with Westerners in India in How I Became a Holy Mother, a collection of stories published at the end of the period under discussion, shows that the theme of a Westerner's struggle for survival in India, while still of interest to her in 1976, is no longer at the troubled centre of her creativity. After 1976 it becomes possible to see Mrs. Jhabvala's striving with India as an aspect of a larger struggle to come to terms with life itself, the earlier (Indian) rounds of her battle having ended—like Jacob's with the angel—in victory, despite a temporarily disabling dislocation of her artistic point of view: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." (p. 371)
["The Englishwoman," a story in the collection How I Became a Holy Mother,] is written in the present tense, an unusual feature suggesting that the whole has been constructed in the manner of a "treatment", the median stage in the evolution of a screenplay from synopsis to shooting script. Mrs. Jhabvala builds into this story certain special effects, notably a "dissolve" from a moonlit Indian garden to a view of English downs, the details of which are noted so as to suggest in practical filmic terms, ways in which the emotions of the character experiencing this vision can be conveyed…. (p. 372)
Some of the lessons learned from film-making may be seen in the structure of A New Dominion, which is divided into scenes rather than into conventional chapters, scenes that move and shift with an attention to principles regarding variation of mood and maintenance of significance in contriving each such shift that reflect experience gained in the editing room. The organization of these scenes into three main movements, titled respectively "Delhi," "The Holy City" and "Maupur" closely imitates the design of The Guru, in which film the characters move similarly from Bombay through Benaras to "Bajapur" in their search for truth and enlightenment. Particularly interesting in this connection is Mrs. Jhabvala's adaptation of what film-makers call the subjective camera technique for Lee's inner monologues in this novel. The narrative of A New Dominion, which is presented in the third person throughout the novel, moves at times—always effectively and significantly—into the first person. This is done legitimately in letters written by characters to one another, or in letters written by Raymond to his mother, which advance the action while simultaneously illuminating character and temperament, but most spectacularly and daringly in the inward thoughts and impressions of Lee. The subjective camera technique achieves an illusion by which a cinema audience views the action through what appears to be the eyes of one of the characters; in A New Dominion, the switch from third person to first has the impact of a change not only in visual angle, but in personal and moral point of view.
Raymond's description in a letter to his mother of tea taken with a lower middle-class Indian family … is crammed with detail, but it is detail that would have been noticed only by him (Lee, for instance, would have observed as little of these surroundings as she does while eating kebabs with Gopi). Raymond notices—and mentions—that the tiny rooms were "bulging" with people, that they were not very efficiently cleaned or very well furnished and that "the crockery too seemed to have been borrowed and none of it matched and some of it had cracks with dirt ingrained in them."… By having him do so, Mrs. Jhabvala not only indicates the fussy, old-maidish fastidiousness that his life with his mother has ingrained in him, but establishes Raymond as an observer who misses nothing of what is about him. His eye for detail is directed, with great self-awareness, also at his own embarrassment on this occasion, and his eagerness to please…. Raymond's self-awareness and his sensitivity to the reactions of others are demonstrated very clearly here while—as in a good screenplay—simultaneously advancing the progress of the story, for his habit of inward criticism is perceived and taken as an insult by the touchy Gopi and is the factor which, more than any other, keeps the two young men physically apart and prompts Gopi to turn first to Lee and at last to Asha for companionship. Mrs. Jhabvala will use Raymond's observant eye and critical mind for matters of far more moment than a tea-party; later, when the action shifts from Delhi to Benaras and Maupur, the reader looks to his reactions for reliable and sensitive pointers to moral significances that underlie seemingly trivial incidents and conversations.
In her use of the subjective camera technique for inner monologue, Mrs. Jhabvala obeys the script-writer's rule that it is a method to be used sparingly and judiciously. She employs it only for Lee's meditations. By its means the reader becomes gradually and disturbingly aware that Lee has mistaken her own passionate experience of first love for spiritual devotion:
… it really seems to me there is something like a column of light over the hutment where he is. And all I have to do is to concentrate on that and then I feel anything is all right—no not all right but marvellous, marvellous! as long as he is there, I don't have a thing to worry about….
Such a handling of Lee allows Mrs. Jhabvala to present the novel's action occasionally through the eyes of a single character, thus introducing into A New Dominion the variety and interest the technique commands (when properly used) in a film. It also helps her to subtly indicate Lee's obtuseness to the significance of what goes on around her, her suggestibility and her capacity for self-deception. (pp. 374-76)
Heat and Dust is divided into twenty-three sections of varying length…. Mrs. Jhabvala has indeed "cut up" her manuscript as if it were film, so that each section sets the other off to the best advantage, introducing the variety in her material and her design that is essential if interest and verisimilitude are to be maintained.
The placing of her cut-aways in Heat and Dust appears to have been guided principally by thematic concerns particular to the novel, however. An examination of the way in which transitions are managed from present to past and back again yields more evidence of the amount she has "learnt … technically from film." The flowers the narrator receives at the shrine at Khatm leave her palm "sticky and with a lingering smell of sweetness and decay that is still there as I write."… Since the next section begins with the words: "Olivia first met the Nawab at a dinner party he gave in his palace at Khatm," one can imagine an easy transition from the flowers, evocative of nostalgia for the past, by means of a filmic "match-dissolve" perhaps to a formal arrangement of flowers on the Palace table, or to the flowers in Olivia's corsage as she drives, filled with pleasurable anticipation, to Khatm. (pp. 378-79)
A fuller appreciation of Mrs. Jhabvala's achievement in Heat and Dust emerges from a comparison of the structure of this novel with that of the screen-play she wrote for the film that preceded it, Autobiography of a Princess. (p. 379)
It is no accident that the reviews accorded to Autobiography of a Princess could, with little or no alteration, be applied to Heat and Dust. "Brilliant interweaving of film within film and past within present"; "An elegy for a past age viewed without bias or contempt but with subtle understanding"; "A 60-minute chamber-work [that] opens up much richer worlds than any epic spectacle." The novel, like the film, achieves its subtlety by focussing on characters who are engaged in deliberate editing of historical fact in such a way as to present a finished fiction satisfactory to their own view of life that they can accept as historical truth. (pp. 382-83)
Mrs. Jhabvala has from the first, it seems, seen fiction with a dramatist's eye. She supplies such early novels as To Whom She Will and The Nature of Passion with the tight structure of stage plays, and even with casts of characters. The process by which the comparative simplicities of satiric drama yield to the complexity of ironic fiction is hastened, it would appear, through her experience of working repeatedly within the extremely narrow limits of a screenplay. In Heat and Dust the narrator of the novel is herself one of its two central characters, and the interpreter of the other's life and letters. It would be difficult to envisage sparer or more richly concentrated versions of this novel and of Autobiography of a Princess, the film with which it is most closely linked from a technical and thematic point of view.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Jhabvala's increasing technical skill as a writer of screenplays has helped her to devise ways and means to make the cinema screen yield workable equivalents for her established fictional techniques, it is probable that her artistry as a fiction-writer still outstrips her achievement as a writer for film. So rapid has her development been, however, that this is unlikely to be the case for very long. Especially when we have the instance of Autobiography of a Princess, which broke many established general rules of script-writing by confining its characters to a single area, limiting their physical actions, and assigning them long, uninterrupted monologues, yet brought off an undoubtedly successful work of cinematic art. Her novel Heat and Dust, however, does not only gather together and employ skills gained in writing screenplays and other fiction, but is the artistically controlled examination in two separate but cunningly connected movements of a personal dilemma that informs all Mrs. Jhabvala's fiction from A Backward Place on, the complexity of which has, so far, eluded the camera. "India always changes people, and I have been no exception," writes the narrator; and later.
I want to move on, go higher up…. 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….
The impulses to personal and artistic expression that have united in shaping Mrs. Jhabvala's work to a strong, continuous development towards increased understanding and skill reverberate through these words in a way that might only too easily be lost, when filmed, in period detail and local colour. For Heat and Dust is being made into a film, and though its author is writing the script, it seems unlikely that even she can produce a closer binding together of the techniques of film and fiction than she has already achieved in writing her novel. (pp. 385-86)
Yasmine Gooneratne, "Film into Fiction: The Influence upon Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Fiction of Her Work for the Cinema, 1960–1976," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1979 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 18, No. 2, November, 1979, pp. 368-86.
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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's stories have been compared to Chekhov's. She is a detached observer of what he called morbus fraudulentus, the comedy (in the sternest sense) of self-delusion which leaves us to make up our minds. Her novel A New Dominion embodies this irony, but one is more struck, this time, by the echoes of A Passage to India. Two generations have passed since Forster. The Westerner is not now in India to rule or give…. But, allowing for this difference, Forster's and Mrs Jhabvala's characters are matched. Raymond, the sensitive English aesthete and inquirer, is another Fielding, plus unconscious homosexuality; his Indian friend, the ingenuous and plaguing student Gopi, is a budding, ill-educated, up-to-date version of Dr Aziz. The disturbance in the mind of the unhappy Mrs Moore becomes bold and explicit in the persons of three English girls who have recklessly gone to India on a spiritual quest. They throw themselves without defence upon India in order to attain their 'higher selfhood' and to find their 'deepest essence'. To these lengths Forster's characters never went, for the girls have come to suffer, to be destroyed so that they can be remade. Times have changed, but the theme is similar: opposites have met.
In one way, Mrs Jhabvala's book is a satirical study of the disasters that overtake those who dabble in the wisdom of the East, and one can think the lesson forced. The girls are rootless, daring, and sexually frigid. One is told little about their background. Under what circumstances in their native land did these virgins, or demi-virgins, pick up the idea of something 'higher' than sexual love? Why, one asks, didn't they become nuns at home? Or are they in some sense hippies? We do not know. And are these three not too alike? The Western characters in A New Dominion are denatured types. (pp. 206-07)
Yet if Mrs Jhabvala's novel is in part satirical, it rises above satire in her patient, sensitive, and undismayed treatment of the situation. Her attitude is that of the careful truth-teller rather than of the arguer; the irony lies between the honest lines, so if we feel that the girls are bickering shadows and their behaviour is unbearably silly and pretentious, they are always explicit when, from time to time, they come on the scene. The inner subject of the book is the idea of dominion. In the foreground is the dominion of the new, rich, brash, Indian middle class, itself torn between the dominion of its traditions and the vulgar, careless ostentation now available to it. Sexuality will dominate, luxury will dominate, the gurus will dominate, squalor will dominate, servants will intrigue and be downtrodden. Yet all have their eager, dreamy eyes on the West. The girls are dominated less by the swami than by his insinuation of his belief in Fate: India, in its chaos, has its ancient belief in the domination of Fate in its bones. This is exactly the theme for Mrs Jhabvala, who probably knows more about India and feels it more strongly, in terms of personal conflict, than any other novelist writing in English. She has a constant power of collecting the scene in hundreds of glittering fragments—the life of Delhi, Benares, and a desert province—and of losing herself in the contradictions and ambiguities of temperament. Her prose has not the plain Chekhovian transparency, but her method is one that curbs pure satire, for the novel is built up from dozens of short passages in which each character speaks for himself. A large number of these passages are short stories in which the light changes from the bizarre to the poetic, from the comic to the horrifying, from the thoughtful to the mischievous—all with an allusiveness, a susceptibility to mood, a tenderness of which Chekhov was the exemplar. The light in which we see the people, and in which they see each other, changes every minute. (pp. 207-08)
All Mrs Jhabvala's scenes are so ingeniously put together that the wry, the absurd and even the terrible mingle in the space of a few minutes. One situation bears upon another, and all the more sharply because the speakers rarely answer one another but pursue what is going on in the isolation of their own minds. India is indeed evoked by non-communication. (p. 211)
One can see why the comparison with Chekhov has been made. Like so many of the Russians, Mrs Jhabvala 'made it strange' and has caught hours of the passing day through the comedies and tragedies of her people, especially the Indians. The hour is her measure. With her Englishman and her English girls, Forsterism comes in. Here I find her schematic, for they are outside the Indian hour; they are arguments of young and baffled shadows in a novel where the vitality is elsewhere. (p. 212)
V. S. Pritchett, "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Snares and Delusions," in his The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays (copyright © 1980 by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.; in Canada by A. D. Peters & Co.), Random House, 1980, pp. 206-212.
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Having come to New York in the 1930s, a refugee from Austria, Leo Kellermann [in In Search of Love and Beauty] establishes himself as a 'psycho-spiritual therapist': a Bacchus figure in a monk's robe 'girdled by a studded cowboy belt'. Aside from collecting the pupils and disciples he collects, he is also the pivot around which turn the lives of three generations (the story spans half a century) of an émigré New York family whose matriarch, Louise, 'adopted' him when he first arrived in the States.
Leo is neither the first 'guru' to feature in Prawer Jhabvala's fiction, nor is he the only one in In Search of Love and Beauty. Louise's daughter, Marietta, resentful of Leo's hold on her family, tours the ashrams of India in a desultory quest for the more traditional variety. And this, of course, is the novel's subject—that structureless, restless, enervated, peculiarly Western search for the Meaning of Life. Marietta sometimes pursues it through her passionate love for her son; or in promiscuous sexual relations with middle-class Indian boys. Her son, for his part, looks for it in a quasi-sadomasochistic involvement with a 'wholesome, Anglo-Saxon' stud called Kent. Her mother, Louise, has her complex devotion to Leo; while her mother's friend Regi trawls the world for face lifts, excitement and servile young men.
The problem is that Prawer Jhabvala is none too sure if her characters are at least attempting to do the right thing; or are merely vicious, stupid and absurd. For absorbing the troubles of his followers while pursuing his hedonistic ends, is Leo to be respected or despised? For sacrificing her life to Leo, is Louise a saint or an idiot? Suspended, due to these uncertainties, between social satire and tragedy, the book is uneven, uneasy. The characters are neither grotesque nor attractive enough to engage us; ideas get embarrassed with themselves….
Taking another perspective, one could say that In Search of Love and Beauty is rich with … suggestive images. It is also very important to add (from whatever angle you look at it) that the weaving backward and forward through time, the stage-management of people and events, are performed with Prawer Jhabvala's usual dexterity. The book, for all that, is too unresolved to be one of her most successful.
Harriett Gilbert, "Time Search," in New Statesman (© 1983 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 105, No. 2717, April 15, 1983, p. 24.∗
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's [In Search of Love and Beauty, her first novel] since the prize-winning Heat and Dust, is set largely in the United States. For a writer who has made Indian-Western relationships her own particular field, there is an element of risk in moving into new territory—in this case, cosmopolitan New York—which the natives themselves have cultivated with great success and perhaps to the point of exhaustion. The foreign writer must adopt an individual strategy unavailable to the natives: pure fantasy for a non-visitor like Kafka, humorous disdain for an exile like Nabokov. Mrs Prawer Jhabvala has opted for a sort of selective romanticism—selective, because she admits only a small cast of characters: romantic because she seems to exclude anything likely to interfere with the quest proposed in her title. Clearly, love and beauty can easily be pushed out into the margin where modern metropolitan life is concerned. Only by neglecting most of its impact can the novelist devote her attention to her theme.
A group of refugees arrives in New York some time in the early 1930s. Louise, her much older husband, Bruno, and her friend Regi are all rich: they have "brought their money out" and in the case of Bruno and Louise, their furniture as well.
Regi introduces Louise to Leo Kellermann, another refugee, described on the first page as "an Adonis!—An Apollo!" In reality he is a domineering adventurer who soon becomes Louise's lover. Louise and Bruno have one daughter, Marietta, whose marriage to an alcoholic New Englander has left her with a son Mark, now a successful entrepreneur, and an adopted daughter, Natasha. Marietta's pursuit of love and beauty involves an elderly Indian musician and several visits to the subcontinent. Mark is preoccupied with the tantrums of various beautiful but unsatisfactory boy-friends; Natasha, who adores Mark, remains on the side-lines, failing to grow up.
With skilfully managed time-shifts, the narrative slides to and fro over a forty-year period, filling in the background to these lives with extensive summaries, and involving a small number of indigenous Americans on the way. Attention is focused most frequently on Leo. In his early days, he looks shamelessly to Regi and Louise for a meal-ticket. His apotheosis in old age is as head of his successful Academy for Potential Development on the Hudson River….
Heat and Dust was a novel with a strong and symmetrical structure at times only thinly concealed by the evocation of physical reality. Other stories and film-scripts have contained dialogue which seemed awkwardly expository. External appearances and the spoken word still come low among this writer's priorities. It is difficult to imagine the chic Marietta using a tired catch-phrase like "You've got to be joking". We are left in ignorance of the language that Louise, Regi and their menfolk use among themselves. Presumably it is German, but this goes unremarked by the younger generation.
In Search of Love and Beauty is about evasions of reality and one has to decide how much is the fault of the characters involved, how much belongs to their creator. Physical reality is more or less absent: there is no poison ivy on the mossy banks of Leo's estate where Mark, Natasha and their friends disport themselves. More seriously, concentration on love and beauty has led to neglect of those two equally important abstractions, power and wealth. These people swim in money, as though it were their natural element. As far as power goes, in the form of politics, it is a relief perhaps to have a novel about refugees which mentions neither the Holocaust nor the Second World War—but hardly a justifiable one.
There is a famous passage in Edith Wharton's memoirs in which she enquires why the characters in The Golden Bowl exist in a vacuum, why Henry James had stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after us through life. He replied: "My dear—I didn't know I had." Like James, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala excels at the confrontation of character. She obviously knows why she has stripped down the human fringes, but I am not sure that her readers will.
Frank Tuohy, "Metropolitan Margins," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1983; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4176, April 15, 1983, p. 375.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291
The follow-up to Heat and Dust has been a long time coming. And, although a fine novel, it's unlikely to keep [Jhabvala's] reputation at the sky-high level it suddenly achieved eight years ago. The narrative of In Search of Love and Beauty flits achronologically over the lives of a group of Austrian and German émigrés, comfortably resettled in America. They have contrived to get their money out, and have eluded Hitler. But refuge has its penalty in the pointlessness of refugee existence. Bored and stranded, their lives are historical leftovers, without any cultural significance or moment. Jhabvala's narrative is correspondingly inconsequential, observing no linear sequence, central action or climax. The novel, as it were, is not told: it takes place. Its intensest effects are those of charm and pathos….
Jhabvala's touch is too delicate for satire, but there is a pleasant hilarity in the description of the ritual dances performed by Leo's students symbolising 'the harmonious absorption of the Individual into the Universe'. No one, of course, becomes anything in this novel. Nor are the characters absorbed, harmoniously or otherwise, into the fabric of American life. They remain, like their favourite resort, the Old Vienna restaurant, fixed in foreign forms, smart and irrelevant. The novel, after circling aimlessly over thirty years of their aimless lives, concludes with Regi, alone and senile, blowing out the candles on her 84th birthday cake.
As elsewhere, Jhabvala contrives poignant effects out of the post-imperial futility of characters whose elegant élitism has lost any connection with power. But the Austro-German past, and the American present, are only thinly re-created.
John Sutherland, "Poles Apart" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, May 5 to May 18, 1983, p. 15.∗
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760
Though she was born in Germany of Polish Jewish parents and has until now located her fiction in India, where she lived for many years, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has always seemed, in temperament and practice, to be a British novelist of a very distinct kind. Such a novelist (usually, but not invariably, female) is notable for her ability to deal firmly with any amount of nonsense from her characters. She instantly sees through their little games, laughs at their pretensions and calls them to order when they step out of line. Their antics may sometimes surprise the reader but never their mistress. She is witty, often funny and nearly always a precisionist in style. Though she usually allows herself one or two pet characters in each book, she is not known for exceptional kindness to most of her creations, who, if female, are likely to be vain, demanding or self-deluding and, if male, pompous, weak or fecklessly eccentric. This novelist (who has far more individuality than my composite sketch can indicate) has appeared variously under the names of Nancy Mitford, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym.
Certainly Mrs. Jhabvala's "In Search of Love and Beauty" displays in abundance the wit and chilling accuracy of insight that I associate with the British type. A macabre comedy of impulsive, thwarted lives, it is her first work of fiction to enjoy—if that is the word—an American setting. Like its predecessor, "Heat and Dust" (the most complex and interesting of the Indian novels), it is more satisfying in its richly textured parts than in its larger design.
Uprootedness is the prevailing condition in the novel…. Leo is a successful guru—part Gurdjieff, part buffoon—who has made a career of ministering to the souls (and bodies) of emotionally uprooted women of all ages who "wanted to be known, to be found out and probed to the core of their being."…
Nonchronological in its organization, "In Search of Love and Beauty" is built upon an accumulation of small scenes depicting the intertwined lives of Leo and the members of his circle….
In the passage that provides the novel's title, the narrator says of … [one] of Leo's disciples that "all her life … she had been in search of love and beauty and, in the course of this quest, had recklessly entangled herself in one harmful relationship after another." In pursuit of such a theme, there is much scope for comedy. (p. 3)
[The narrator often gives] ironic commentary on the behavior of her characters. It is writing of this deftness that has frequently led reviewers of Mrs. Jhabvala's books to evoke the name of Jane Austen. While the comparison has some validity in reference to the earlier Indian comedies, it would be misleading if applied in any but a very limited way to "In Search of Love and Beauty." The wit, the verbal precision and the firm grip are there, all right, but the total impact is utterly different from that of Jane Austen's fiction. For one thing, the tone is much harsher. Although Jane Austen can be severe and even a bit heartless in her attitude toward some of her characters, she does not revel—as Mrs. Jhabvala occasionally seems to—in their discomfiture and degradation. An element of grotesque horror dominates the later section of "In Search of Love and Beauty," particularly those dealing with the senility of Regi, who at 84 is nursed by a soft young man from a dance studio where lonely, sleepless old women come night after night to dance until they begin to fail or lose their minds. Mrs. Jhabvala's comedy is embellished with grinning skulls.
Page by page, "In Search of Love and Beauty" provides an abundance of small, sharp pleasures. Mrs. Jhabvala renders a little world of emotional, greedy refugees with much shrewdness of insight and with expertly chosen detail. Her phrasing is often brilliant—for instance, her description of a four-poster bed as "heavy with primal scenes." But in its totality the novel invites a response of amused detachment. Neither the structure—with its scrambling of the time sequences and its avoidance of a compelling, on-going action—nor the tone permits any marked degree of identification with the characters or their destinies. Entertained and slightly repulsed, one watches from a safe distance as Mrs. Jhabvala's damaged creatures dance around the ludicrous monster of egotism in their midst. (p. 41)
Robert Towers, "Leo and the Ladies of Temperament," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 12, 1983, pp. 3, 41.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
The title of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's new novel, "In Search of Love and Beauty" … evokes that of Proust's great opus concerning the search for lost time, and much else about the novel is Proustian: its aristocratic milieu, where there is always enough money to finance romance; its multi-generational scope; its free movements back and forth in time; its frequent scenes of sexual spying; its interest in Jewishness and homosexuality as modes of estrangement; and its insistent moral that human love will always find an unworthy object…. [However, there is] one respect wherein this novel does not resemble Proust—a certain hurried flatness of the prose; the authorial voice assumes a tone of gossip and summation before the characters have earned our interest and, briskly racing around the ambitious territory staked out, does not always provide the specificity of which this fine writer is capable. In Proust's interweave of romantic delusions, the glory of the descriptions, as the narrator strives to recapture the past, redeems everyone, even characters as tawdry as Jupien and Morel; in "In Search of Love and Beauty" no one is redeemed.
Yet the novel contains a world of knowing and many vivid scenes that in sum give a colorful picture of what America meant to the upper-class Germans who immigrated here during the thirties, and what they made of it. Like the Russians who came to Berlin a decade before, they retained as much of their social and actual furniture as possible…. Louise's chic friend Regi … has a Park Avenue apartment "done up in the Bauhaus style she had brought with her as absolutely the latest thing," with glass-and-chrome furniture and white wolf rugs…. To cater to the German refugee community, a posh restaurant called the Old Vienna opens … and here at the center row of tables Louise and Regi, in girlhood called The Inseparables and now, like the century, in their thirties, make a splendid impression, [flamboyantly dressed in expensive clothes]…. (pp. 85-6)
Marietta, of the second generation, had no European girlhood to shape her, and in her American unease turns toward India, the site of most of Mrs. Jhabvala's previous fiction. A sure affection relaxes and lifts the prose when it describes Ahmed, the musician (he plays the sarod) whom Marietta takes as a lover, and Sujata, the huge female singer who, raised as a courtesan, supports a typically extensive Indian household where Marietta becomes a guest. Sujata, too, has had a career of painful loves…. But Indian philosophy, unlike that of German-Americans, can accommodate these ruinous lurches of the heart…. The third generation, with its credit cards and drugs and religious sects overseen by charlatans, lacks the concept of glory [which Indian philosophy provides]. Mark, a conscientious child much leaned upon by his husbandless mother, becomes a successful realtor and a suave invert, but runs a constant low fever of depression…. Natasha, seeing that Leo, so shrewd a manipulator of others, is helplessly in love himself, is depressed by the thought, "for it seemed to her that there just wasn't enough love to go round and never would be—not here, not now—with everyone needing such an awful lot of it." And so dispirited a conclusion dulls the brilliance of this novel, wherein the characters possess intelligence and ardor but never a sense of choice or a motive for self-sacrifice, and are condemned, even the ebullient Louise, to figure in the universe as no more than witnesses of the inexorable dissolution that time achieves. (pp. 86-7)
John Updike, "Louise in the New World, Alice on the Magic Molehill" (© 1984 by John Updike), in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 24, August 1, 1983, pp. 85-90.∗
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