Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927–

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

The following entry provides an overview of Jhabvala's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29.

Born in Germany to Jewish Polish parents and raised in England after...

(The entire section contains 53711 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala 1927–

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

The following entry provides an overview of Jhabvala's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 29.

Born in Germany to Jewish Polish parents and raised in England after her family fled the Nazis in 1939, Jhabvala began writing fiction after relocating with her husband to his native India in 1951. She frequently utilizes her vantage point as an outsider among India's bourgeoisie, and her characters, both Indian and European, often have an uneasy relationship with their cultural heritage. Critics have compared Jhabvala's novels to those of Jane Austen, citing her propensity for middle-class characters overly concerned with social status and tradition—thematic points that have given the author the reputation, like Austen, for being a social satirist. Jhabvala has also written many screenplays, adapting both her own novels as well as 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 Cologne, Germany. With Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, members of Jhabvala's extended family moved to various countries in Europe; her parents escaped to England in 1939. Jhabvala's family first lived in Conventry 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 on a houseboat 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 she queried. 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 on Euro-pean 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 travelling 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 avoidance of 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 charm and cultural sophistication and overlook his boorish nature. As the characters engage in social and political intercourse, Esmond's long-suffering wife deserts him, and he considers fleeing back to England with Betty, thereby leaving his new mistress, Shankutala, a woman he brought to ruin, behind in the country he loathes. A Backward Place (1965) concerns the plights of several expatriate European women whose reasons for remaining in India vary. Etta, a Hungarian women whose marriage to an Indian crumbled years ago, lives as the mistress of a hotel tycoon whose dalliance with his "niece" and their impending departure for Europe causes Etta to attempt suicide. In contrast, Judy, a British woman, admires her extended Hindi family whose laughter and closeness is 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 grand-daughter, 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) and Out of India: Selected Stories (1986).

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 continuing 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 conditions under which millions of India's lower classes live. Jhabvala, however, has readily acknowledged that living in India is to live "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise." Critics frequently remark on the literary nature of Jhabvala's screenplays, particularly Howards 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]."

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

To Whom She Will (novel) 1955; also published as Amrita, 1956
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: Nine Stories (short stories) 1968
Bombay Talkie (screenplay) 1970
An Experience of India (short stories) 1971
A New Dominion (novel) 1971; also published as Travelers, 1973
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 (screenplay) 1980
Quarter [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
The Courtesans of Bombay (screenplay) 1985
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
Howards 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

∗These films were directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant.

†This film, made for British television, was jointly directed by Jhabvala, Ivory, and Merchant.

‡This film was directed by John Schlesinger.

Haydn Moore Williams (essay date June 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5147

SOURCE: "Strangers in a Backward Place: Modern India in the Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, June, 1971, pp. 53-64.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses several of Jhabvala's novels, focusing on her sense of satire and irony and illustrating how her depiction of middle-class life subtly addresses various social and religious issues in India.]

The novels and short stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala stand in a unique relationship to Indian literature in English. Though she lives in India and is married to an Indian, she is European by origin, and her work belongs in some ways to the literature about India written by foreigners with close connections with India, the tradition to which P. Meadows Taylor, Kipling, and John Masters belong. Yet her close personal, experience of Indian life and her exclusive interest in it as a novelist as well as her ability to identify very closely with Indians, notably Indian women, take her nearer to indigenous Indian writers like R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao. Khushwant Singh cites her, together with Narayan, as a fine interpreter of contemporary India in fiction and as one who is free from the political alignments and extreme nationalism of other Indian writers. Such recognition was overdue in 1961. Perhaps, at least in a technical sense, she is the best fiction writer now writing in India and about India. She shows a mastery of English style and considerable skill in dialogue and plot. Jhabvala is a very able comic novelist of India, though her comedy is quite different from that of Narayan, who relies on the absurdity that comes from deviation from accepted Indian customs, and on a poetry of the grotesque. Jhabvala's strengths are irony, satire, and detachment; her comedy depends much on detached and critical observation of real life. The strength comes from Jhabvala's European origin which makes her still see with the eyes of the artist-outsider the Indian life she has come to know and share. One reason, perhaps, why her work has not received much critical attention is that critics tend to judge Jhabvala more harshly than they do native Indian writers who use English. Perversely her popularity with the non-literary public (her books are always off the shelves of public libraries) tells against her. It is too easy to write her off as a middle- brow author. That her narratives read well and easily and appear to yield their meaning quickly, does not mean, as I hope to show, that she lacks subtlety and depth.

I hope to demonstrate the cohesion and unity of her work, to explore the ironies in her treatment of recent Indian life, and to show how the central subject of her novels is the theme of isolation, rebellion, and reconciliation, and the problems of expatriation and adaptation to a foreign culture.

Broadly speaking, Jhabvala's novels descend from the novel of social behavior, the novel which sets out specifically to explore such institutions and 'feelings' as the family, marriage, romantic love, expatriation, love of power and money, and pursuit of them, youth's desire for liberation, snobbery. She does not, in her novels at least, step outside these chiefly social concerns to explore ideologies. It would be wrong however, to see no ideological conflicts behind the confrontation and clash of fathers and children, men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, in the Indian world she creates. Behind all marriages lies the idea or ideal of marriage sanctified by many centuries of Indian custom. Behind the large family of a modern middle-class business-man like Lalaji (The Nature of Passion), and behind the broken marriage of Gulzari Lal (Get Ready for Battle), lies the Indian undivided family as a tradition and an ideal. Behind the decision of characters like Sarla Devi (Get Ready for Battle) and Sudhir (A Backward Place) to lead a life of disinterested virtuous action, lies the idea of the sannyasi stage of life and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Yet Jhabvala does not parade or discuss these ideologies. They are accepted or rejected by her characters in the various circumstances they find themselves in. There is, of course, an important cultural difference between 'East' and 'West' which Jhabvala is careful never to conceal; it is that Indian life is much more subject to tradition and that the power of religious and social institutions and attitudes is much stronger (especially if the comparison is between New Delhi and New York rather than between South India and Southern Italy where the cultural situations are closer). In Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope ideas are paramount. A comic realist like R. K. Narayan depends considerably on brilliant caricature and on the 'humours' of men like Mr Sampath behaving like characters out of Ben Jonson or Dickens. Ideas of men and life are therefore highly significant for both Rao and Narayan. Jhabvala seems less bothered by them. To create her novels she takes subjects and characters from ordinary, middle-class Indian life. Narayan's art, especially in his later novels (Mr Sampath, The Man-Eater of Malgudi), takes as its point de départ the disturbing of an eccentric but peaceful society by characters and events from outside. Disorder is created and then order restored after a suitable purgatorial period. This is not Jhabvala's way at all. Her natural world is not eccentric and the disturbances do not come from outside but from inside the society; they are in a way self-generating. Narayan's problems are 'comic-epic'—the invasion of the hero's private world and the repelling of the invasion, and this pattern is reminiscent of fairy-tale, romance, and heroic literature. Jhabvala's problems by contrast are small-scale, more usual and expected, almost tritely realistic, though with many opportunities for satire, irony, and surprise well-exploited. Her novels point to no worlds of significance outside her ostensible subject-matter, the bourgeoisie of modern India. She has little symbolism and draws no parallels between her stories and those of the great Indian epics and the Puranas. Yet, unlike Narayan, she is fond of using quotations from Hindu scriptures as titles for her books. Both The Nature of Passion and Get Ready for Battle are taken from the Gita, and another title, The Householder, suggests one of the traditional stages or ashramas of Hindu life. The title of To Whom She Will comes from the Panchatantra. But the titles are intended, partly at least, to be ironical.

Her novels are set in Delhi, and the community of which she writes is mainly the educated, westernized middle-class and the vulgar, but powerful and influential, nouveaux riches profiting from Indian urban expansion and industrialization. She usually takes one family, perhaps a large sprawling 'joint family' living in a huge house, and explores the problems that would inevitably arise—the conflict between the 'liberated' younger people and the older orthodox members, the arrangement of marriages, business life, the search for power, influence, wealth. The plots and counter-plots of Jhabvala's stories always arise within this narrow, intensely in-bred family context. The Nature of Passion is one of the best examples. The 'hero' is a 'raja', Lala Narayan Dass Verma, or Lalaji as he is called, a corrupt financial tycoon from the Punjab who has fought his way to the top of Delhi society, securing wealth and power for his family. He is a powerful, earthy, oddly attractive villain with infectious vitality and a determination to do his best for his family, come what may. Jhabvala cleverly shows him early in the book in his most attractive and sympathetic role, as benefactor, paterfamilias, and simple lover of his grandchildren. In his indulgence of his own children he has encouraged the rebellion of his son (Viddi) and his daughter (Nimmi). Both threaten to break away completely from the tyranny of the family. Viddi modishly disclaims the world of money and is contemptuous of the bourgeois conformist exemplified by his elder brother Om—the only one of Lalaji's children who shares his simplicity, his love of wealth, and his fascination with finance. Viddi, a prodigal son, spends his time in cafés with literary bohemians who flatter, exploit, and secretly deride him. Nimmi has demanded emancipation, which for a girl in India is difficult. Her father overcomes the opposition of the women and sends her to college. She falls in love with a Parsee playboy, a frequenter of Delhi night-spots, and rebels romantically against the marriage which is being arranged for her with the son of another millionaire.

In his family life Lalaji is shown to the best advantage, combining a pleasant affection for old-fashioned ways with sentimentality towards the young rebels, shielding them from the wrath of the older members of the family. In business life however, Lalaji shows the ruthlessness and cunning of a predatory beast. He has not got where he is without resorting to corruption; and he has at last gone too far. Evidence of bribery to obtain government contracts now lies waiting to be examined. His own son Chandra, a civil servant highly educated in England at Lalaji's expense, is the only one who can save him by destroying the evidence. But Chandra is alienated from his father. He has become an ultra-modern Indian, living in sophisticated circles where Lalaji would not be welcome; and he has married a snobbish wife who is ashamed of his father's crude manners and old-fashioned ways.

The novel ends, as a comic novel should, with Lalaji the hero free of his difficulties. Jhabvala does it without seriously punishing the old capitalist, although he has to suffer a purgatory of suspense and narrow squeaks before he is clear of danger. Lalaji triumphs by a mixture of cunning and good luck. He wins back Viddi by giving him such a generous allowance that the would-be artist is fired with a consciousness of the power of money and of the influence of his family, and turns his back on his fellow-artists who have been bleeding him white. Luck and time bring answers to his problem with Nimmi. Her boy-friend turns out to be fickle; but she accidentally falls in love with another member of the gay cocktail party circuit, one Kuku, who turns out to be the very boy chosen for her by her family. Lalaji thus wins a new fortune and a rich son-in-law, and retains the affection of his favourite Nimmi. Luckily also for Lalaji and Om, the snobbery and social-climbing of Chandra and his wife overcome their scruples. Rather than suffer from the exposure of his father's crookedness, Chandra destroys the vital evidence and saves him. Lalaji ends with a united family again, more wealth on the way and freedom from fear of prosecution for corruption. Crime does pay.

The outcome appears cynical, but Jhabvala's tone is deliberately and satirically ambiguous. Lalaji is a crook, it is true, an exploiter, a ruthless businessman. Yet he is in so many ways shown as morally superior to the rest of the family. The young rebels, Nimmi and Viddi, are selfish, easily led, foolish and vain. There is an amusing episode at the Kutub Minar at night when Nimmi is clumsily kissed by Pheroze. She feels romantic, but the only lines of poetry that come into her head are Browning's 'I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three,' from her College Browning Selection. As for Viddi, he believes, until he is disillusioned, that the so-called artists he consorts with are free from the greed of his father and Om, whereas it is obvious that they only tolerate Viddi because he is the son of a very rich man. It comes home to Viddi when they hold a party in his honour, buy vast amounts of food and drink, invite scores of guests, and then send him the bill. Chandra and his wife are worshippers of etiquette books, lacking the warmth and generosity of the great familyman Lalaji. They soon surrender their precious principles from fear of social ostracism and the dashing of Chandra's hopes of promotion to a higher grade, should Lalaji be disgraced. Even Om, nearest to Lalaji in character and interests, in his dislike of the modern and the western, in his single-minded devotion to business, is Lalaji's inferior. Though he is loyal to the family, he finds the atmosphere of the house dominated by women, including his wife, too stuffy to endure and takes occasional time off to visit prostitutes. Lalaji emerges victorious only because he genuinely loves his family and has luck on his side. His behaviour is justified, somewhat satirically, by reference to the Gita and to Radhakrishnan's comments on it: '… the rajasa nature wishes to be always active … and its activities are tainted by selfish desires.'

Jhabvala employs gentler irony in The Householder. Here the threat to the very small family of Prem, a Hindi teacher, comes from that oldest of all family jokes, the mother-in-law. Prem saves his marriage in the end when he comes to love his wife. But not before he has to fight the demon of his mother who would smother him and drive his wife away, and the demons within himself, his longing for his old bachelor days and his excited wonder before the life of the sannyasi, the holy man. The story therefore revolves at one level round the demands of the four ashramas. Prem having passed the stage of bachelor-student (brahmacharya) is not yet ready for the stage of sannyasi (the laughing swami) until he has learnt to live in the stage of the householder (hence the significant title of the novel) and in this, he is far from successful. With ironical charm Jhabvala shows Prem's fumbling, self-conscious attempts to become an efficient professor, householder, and husband. Love helps him to get rid of his mother and learn to become a mature and competent husband, while Indu blossoms from a shy, embarrassed schoolgirl into a firstrate (and pregnant) wife and cook. Yet in his other ambitions Prem fails. He fails to get his salary raised; on the contrary, his principal, the odious Khanna, threatens him with the sack unless his discipline improves; and his landlord puts off with all too convincing excuses his pleas to have his rent lowered. Yet in the last scene of the book the monsoon breaks over North India, bringing relief to Prem and Indu. They invite Raj and his wife round to a meal and 'Prem felt really proud' when Raj complimented Indu on her cooking. The gentle Chekhovian ending is tinged with irony, for Prem has solved none of the practical financial problems of the householder and Indu's baby will increase the need for money. There is no villainy in this book on the scale of Lalaji's corrupt tycoonery. The nearest to it are the Dickensian grotesques, Mr Khadda and Mr and Mrs Khanna:

Mr and Mrs Khanna were having their midday meal. They ate in English style, sitting facing one another at a table and using fork and spoon. Mrs Khanna had just speared a piece of cauliflower pickle on to the point of her fork and she was holding it like a trident while she looked furiously at Prem.

The Householder is nearly all pure humour, rather than satire.

An interesting subordinate feature of The Householder, in view of subsequent novels, is the exploration of the holy life exemplified by the swami and Hans. The claims of spirituality against materialism provide the major theme of one novel, Get Ready for Battle. The heroine is an old woman, Sarla Devi, a dedicated idealist devoted to the ideals of the Gita and Mahatma Gandhi, and the words of the title (taken again from the Gita) sum up her policy of disinterested action in the pursuit of her vocation—to help the poor and oppressed. In the Gita, Krishna quells Arjuna's scruples about engaging in warfare by expounding the virtue of disinterestedly acting in accordance with one's vocation (Arjuna's is that of a warrior and ruler). It is Sarla Devi's vocation to serve the poor and needy. She has ceased to live with her rich husband, Gulzari Lal, because he does not share her ideals; on the contrary he is an unscrupulous materialist. Disapproving of his life, she refuses him a divorce. As Jhabvala portrays her, somewhat ironically, she is a complex character who unwittingly produces results which are the opposite of what she intends. The novel charts the failure of her holy and charitable life. She wants her son, Vishnu, whom she loves, to give up his life as a business executive in her husband's company and to follow her vocation of working among the toiling masses. But Vishnu is pulled both ways, by his father's money and by his mother's idealism; his will is weakened by sensuality and longing for change and the 'sweet life' of the fast-livers: Toto and Gogo and his uncle, Brij Mohan, a decrepit Casanova living off Sarla Devi's money. Completely muddled and repelled by his mother's possessiveness and over-earnestness, Vishnu throws himself into a scheme for manufacturing fountain-pens and turns his back on everything his mother stands for. Sarla Devi is equally unsuccessful in a wider context. She champions the rights of refugee squatters in a malodorous slum, Bundi Busti. They are in danger of being evicted to make room for a big industrial development of her husband's, backed paradoxically by the 'socialistic' Congress government in the interests of progress and hygiene. Following in the footsteps of the Mahatma, Sarla defends the rights of the wretched squatters to remain housed where they are. Her efforts are frustrated; the leader of the squatters is bribed to sell out the cause to Gulzari Lal. As a final blow, even her dissolute but dependent brother, Brij Mohan, is disloyal and intrigues with Gulzari Lal's tenacious mistress Kusum, in order to get Sarla to give Lal a divorce. As the novel ends, Sarla compromises with her principles so far as to allow the divorce to go through, but she clings to her ideals in general. We last see her setting off for the red-light district of Old Delhi intent on reclaiming from prostitution her brother's discarded mistress. She is, no doubt, a failure by ordinary pragmatic standards. Yet the Gita urges those who would be good to struggle on and do their duty without worrying about the consequences. Here lies Sarla Devi's only consolation, and it gives her character dignity. In some ways her good works are seen as a meddling with human relationships that she little understands; thus she drives Vishnu from her for ever. She gravely underestimates the pursuit of wealth, power, and the sensual (in her brother Brij, in Vishnu's infatuation with women, in her husband's enslavement to money and his mistress). Nevertheless, this '… skinny ageing woman, with her skin wrinkled and darkened by the sun and her short hair almost quite grey', who has withdrawn from the new India in revulsion against its materialism, its money-making, its corruption and its neglect of the great ethical teachings of the Gita and the Mahatma, is much nobler and finer than the men and women who circle about her—Mrs Bhatnagar, the rich 'dogooder' who hypocritically supports the eviction of the squatters in the name of progress, the young and old sensualists, the grasping tycoon, and the would-be tycoons (Joginder, Vishnu). The picture of contemporary Delhi is as satirical as in The Nature of Passion and much more pessimistic, since the capitalist of Get Ready for Battle lacks the benevolent charm of Lalaji. The essence of the book is the dramatic conflict between heroic virtue and selfish sensuality and materialism. Though its implications for contemporary India are depressing, the novel keeps coming back to personal rather than national problems; it begins and ends with the activities of two remarkable women, Kusum and Sarla Devi.

Indeed the problems of women in marriage, in love, in personal relationships, are always prominent in Jhabvala's novels and no more so than when combined, as in A Backward Place, with the problems of expatriation in India. Twice expatriated herself (from Germany to England and from England to India), Jhabvala is obviously fascinated by the problems of expatriates. A Backward Place is the only one of her novels so far which can be said to dwell exclusively on the subject. It is also, I believe, Jhabvala's finest and most sophisticated novel. In the same Delhi setting of her other books, it deals less with Indian characters and more with Europeans, and some of its power springs from the interaction of European consciousness and life in India. It is the nearest that Jhabvala has yet come to such novels of East-West confrontation as Forster's A Passage to India and Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope. She rigidly excludes the political, racial, metaphysical, and poetic approaches of Forster and Rao, and sticks firmly to her 'forte' of exploring the private lives of a few women in middle-class Delhi. The three women are all expatriates, and their common problem is coming to terms with the 'backward place' which is modern India. The title is again ironical. India's 'backwardness' is constantly assailed by Etta, a Hungarian, who, after the failure of her marriage to an Indian student, has had a succession of love-affairs and is trying desperately to retain the affections of a business man more powerfully attracted by the charms of a younger woman. Etta's view of India is bound to be emotional. 'Backwardness' takes on a different irony when India is viewed by Clarissa, the English eccentric who wears sarees, imitates Indian customs, and raves about the spirituality of the East. India is her ideal, her holy land, the land of Vivekenanda and Ramakrishna she has read about in dingy old England. She has found to her bitter cost that a great gulf lies between holy India and the India of reality. Her life, which was to have been the pursuit of metaphysical wisdom, has turned out to be a struggle with the climate, predatory landlords, and the need to make ends meet; when the novel opens she is exclusively concerned with finding a new flat. The third girl, Judy, also English, is in no danger of falling in love with metaphysics, or of regarding India as anything more than the country she has chosen to live in by marrying an Indian, Bal. Unlike the passionate, violent and possessive Etta and the scatter-brained Clarissa, Judy is the very embodiment of common sense and Anglo-Saxon coolness. She finds Bal's large united Hindu family a tremendous relief after her small miserable family in England with its history of depression and suicide. Her problem is not a nostalgia for England but a dread of moving from Delhi and a constant fear of the fecklessness of her unemployed actor-husband Bal. Expatriation is examined tragi-comically in Etta, humorously and satirically in Clarissa. Etta hates India and longs for the idealized Europe of her girlhood. Only the love and protection of her lovers can atone a little for her misery. When 'Guppy' deserts her for a young Indian charmer with 'lushly prominent' breasts and 'large round buttocks', she is only too painfully aware of her own complexion ageing and cracking in the Indian sun, and attempts suicide. Clarissa's eccentricity has been increased by the effect of expatriation. Moving from one flat to another, forever searching for a good place, she is mocked by beggars who tear at her saree, and she explodes in anger and physical violence at the India she has so sublimely and sadly idealized. (For these outbursts she suffers cruel remorse.) Attracted to women rather than men she pursues Etta with the zeal of a lover, and her jealousy precipitates Guppy's final break with Etta. At the end of the novel, as she slowly recovers from the hideous climax of her misery, Etta allows Clarissa to move into her flat with her. Both have to come to terms with their fate as expatriates in the 'backward place'. Jhabvala treats Etta with sympathy mixed characteristically with some irony aimed at her pretentiousness. She is seen strolling down a street in Old Delhi as if it were the Champs Elyseés, and her longing for Europe and scorn for India cannot hide the fact that she lives by bartering her sexual favours for security and status. It is Guppy's defection which makes her realize that she is at the end of the road, though she snatches hope from a meeting with a potential admirer at the Cultural Dais where Judy works as an assistant secretary. There is some satire in the treatment of Clarissa and the Germans, Herr and Frau Hochstadt. The Hochstadts on a short visit to India are mad about Indian culture and 'spirituality' and cannot understand the problems of either Etta or Judy who look to them for help and advice. They prefer to talk about Sanscrit drama. They fail to see that living in India has driven Etta to despair. Clarissa has come to India to worship at the shrine of Vedantism and has been bogged down in mundane searches for a flat and a lesbian lover. Etta shrewdly comments that the Hochstadts would not be so enthusiastic about India if they had to stay there permanently.

The sharper edge of Jhabvala's satire is reserved for Mrs Kaul, the rich Indian director of the Cultural Dais, an intellectual snob and hypocrite who pays lip-service to the highest ideals of service and benevolence, but, for a trivial offence, cruelly dismisses an Indian girl-employee who badly needs the job. Mrs Kaul is the most odious of the series of rich, fat, middle-class Indian women in Jhabvala's novels, including Mrs Bhatnagar (Get Ready for Battle) and Lady Ram Prashad Khanna (To Whom She Will). Much gentler satire is directed at Judy, with her intense conservatism that leads her to condemn the old Indian woman Bhuaji for falling in so readily with what Judy regards as Bal's idiotic plans to move to Bombay. The young English 'humanist' is seen as less enterprising than the old, orthodox, religious Indian woman. Judy's foolish husband Bal is more roughly satirized. He is vain, aimless, completely dominated by the oily, glamorous film-actor Kishin Kumar. Jhabvala's satire is therefore directed equally at the Indians and the expatriates. The 'backwardness' of India is a concept rejected by Clarissa, the Hochstadts, and Mrs Kaul. It is bitterly affirmed by Etta, accepted gratefully by Judy in her search for peace (she is greatly attracted to Bhuaji's piety for this reason only), and by Sudhir, the discontented secretary of the Cultural Dais in his realization of India's need for dedicated service.

Expatriation and the mixed ('East-West') marriage are also the themes of an earlier novel, Esmond in India. The expatriates are both English, Esmond and his mistress Betty. Esmond is perhaps the only completely unattractive villain among all Jhabvala's characters. He hates India but makes a living by teaching Hindi and 'Indian culture' to rich Indian women and English and American tourists. He is also a gigolo. Another writer might have made a comic study of such a character, but as the novel develops the lines deepen and Esmond shows the devil's hoof. He has (mysteriously) married a fat, pretty, but brainless Indian girl called Gulab, who is satirically presented as spending all her time at home stuffing herself and her little boy with rich sweets and spicy foods—a fine comic tableau. When Esmond returns from his mercenary philandering expeditions he descends to pinching, slapping, abusing, and threatening the wretched woman and her child, both of whom dread him. The climax of his villainy is his heartless seduction of a young, educated, beautiful, but foolish Indian girl, Shakuntala, who falls deeply in love with him. Her eventual fate illustrates the lines from the Panchatantra, from which the title of To Whom She Will is taken:

          For if she bides a maiden still
          She gives herself to whom she will …

Gulab returns to her mother's house with her son, while the sadistic Esmond abandons both her and Shakuntala when his old mistress Betty offers to pay for their joint return to England. Both Esmond and Betty, like Etta in A Backward Place, loathe India and are glad to be leaving it.

It is clear from this brief exposition that Jhabvala shows considerable understanding of, and sympathy with, such institutions as the Hindu united family, the pursuit of holiness by the sannyasi, and the concept of the ashramas. At the same time she points out the serious defects and weaknesses of contemporary Indian life, ready prey for a satirist and ironist. She presents a remarkably sympathetic interpretation of a corrupt capitalist in Lalaji of The Nature of Passion, but does not spare the snobs or the pretentious members of Lalaji's family and the hypocritical self-styled 'artists'. Corruption runs deep in this society, as is shown by Gulzari Lal's success in Get Ready For Battle in finding government support to evict a wretchedly poor community of refugees, in order to make more money for himself. Pretentiousness and hypocrisy afflict young and old in the new India; both Shakuntala and her father are affected by this disease in Esmond in India; she loses her virginity, her father his self-respect. Jhabvala's vision is unclouded by romanticism or poetry. It is severely realistic for the most part. There is, of course, some sentimentality in Jhabvala's novels. To Whom She Will, her first and rather immature novel, has been passed over in this article. It contains an interesting, but occasionally sentimental, narrative of the love-affair of Amrita and Hari, who are in collision with their families. Amrita is an emancipated young woman in revolt against traditional arranged marriages, and therefore is an early sketch for Shakuntala of Esmond in India. Amrita's rash and bossy behaviour certainly invite punishment as much as Shakuntala's silliness. The sudden switch at the end of the book, when Amrita falls in love with Krishna Sen Gupta, is both sentimental and incredible. To my taste there is some sentimentality in the end of The Householder, when Indu proves herself to be such a good wife. The cynicism of Jhabvala's blackest book, Esmond in India, comes as a relief after To Whom She Will, and the satire of A Backward Place is exhilarating after The Householder.

Jhabvala constantly stresses the universality of India's problems. Though institutions like the arranged marriage are traditionally Indian, many of the problems of the characters of Jhabvala's New Delhi could also be set in New York or London. This universality juxtaposed against the slightly exotic Indian settings gives a special flavour, a combination of nearness and distance, of familiarity and unfamiliarity, to her novels. She gains this universality the more easily by concentrating on personal, amorous and marital, themes within an acutely vivid observation of urban Indian society in the second half of the twentieth century.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (essay date 18 November 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

SOURCE: "Writers and the Cinema—A Symposium," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4267, November 18, 1983, p. 1287.

[In the following essay, Jhabvala comments on the reciprocal relationship between writing novels and screenplays.]

I suppose my experience with films has been different from that of most other writers because I've always worked with the same team, the director James Ivory and the producer Ismail Merchant. This has protected me in so far as they have stood between me and what I would have found terribly unpleasant: a collaborative effort at what is called the script level; the dreaded story conference. The only sort of story conference we ever seem to have is when Jim says "Oh that's terrible, awful, can't you do better than that", thereby usually echoing my own thoughts.

But besides protecting me from the real world of films, they have also brought it close, in the sense of home, to me. I know what they go through every time they have to raise money for a film—that is, I know about the financiers who draw up solemn contracts and then disappear when cast and crew are already on location and the producer is desperate for money. Once Ismail found a shipping magnate who wanted to be involved in films but one of whose ships sank every time Ismail needed money; another time a rich widow (actually, this happened several times with several rich widows) was already planning her outfit for the première and the village she was going to rent for the festival at Cannes when her accountant advised her against the investment. Then there are the actor's agents who always seem to be more important (or do I mean self-important?) than their clients; and everybody's lawyers whose fees take such a major bite out of a film's budget; and the actors—stars—surely the most comprehensive amalgam of human qualities any writer could hope to meet. All these people have enlarged my world and my landscape; and so have the locations we have used, admitting me into houses, palaces, whole strange cities—what an opportunity for a shy writer who would otherwise be restricted to peering through people's windows at night when the lights are on.

Another kind of advantage that I have gained through films has been in the editing room, where I have learned a whole new method of narration by watching scenes being moved to and fro in various juxtapositions, and time-schemes manipulated through flashbacks and flash-forwards. It has been a two-way traffic for me—what I have learned in films I have put back into my books, and what I have learned about characterization, relationships, happenings, and everything else that goes into writing fiction I've put to use in writing films. I can't think what it would have been like for me to have had one and not the other. I've needed both to keep going—I mean imaginatively as well as financially.

Yasmine Gooneratne (essay date April 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3111

SOURCE: "Apollo, Krishna, Superman: The Image of India in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Ninth Novel," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 15, No. 2, April, 1984, pp. 109-17.

[Gooneratne is a Ceylonese-born critic, poet, and educator. In the following essay, she examines Jhabvala's novel In Search of Love and Beauty, which she contends concerns itself more with Western culture than Jhabvala's previous novels.]

Q. Is there one thing you might just like to do which you have not done before?

A. Something I would like to do is combine my three backgrounds: my European background because it was Continental; and then I had an English education. Then I had a 5-year immersion into India and now I am beginning an immersion into America. So if I can bring all these elements together, well, that's just fine by me. (Newsweek, October 31, 1977)

With In Search of Love and Beauty, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's ninth novel, and the first to be published since she won the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975, she brings off with conspicuous success her stated intention to combine her "three backgrounds" if she can. There have been other, earlier, attempts. In Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), a film directed by James Ivory for which she wrote the screen-play, a young American art-collector and the representative of a British museum of fine art struggle for the possession of a Maharaja's famous collection of Indian miniature paintings. In "A Summer by the Sea," a short story, the young American narrator speculates about the origins of Hamid, an Indian visitor to the United States:

… I guess Hamid had a stronger personality than the rest of us, including Boy. Or maybe it was because he is a foreigner, an Oriental—someone different in an exotic way—and we kept looking at him in a fascinated way to see what he would do next.

At first we thought that he must be some kind of prince, on account of his looks, but he was too poor for that, really. He never had any money at all. Not that it bothered him, because there were plenty of people eager to pay for anything he needed. Boy said that maybe he came from one of those very ancient royal lines that were extinct now, except maybe for a few last descendants working as coolies in Calcutta. Or maybe, Boy said—he has plenty of imagination and also quite a bit of Oriental background, thanks to his study of art history—Hamid was a descendant of a line of famous saints, dating back to the thirteenth century and handing down their sainthood from generation to generation.

The satire directed here at a handsome Indian tramp who lives like a parasite on the goodwill and generosity of his gullible American friends blends, almost imperceptibly, with the tone of innocent wonder natural to Susie, the perplexed young American narrator. Susie, clear-sighted enough to note that it is not sainthood but eroticism that dwells in Hamid's beautiful eyes, is one of the latter's victims. Another is her husband Boy, whose elaborate theories spring not only from a lively imagination and a smattering of "Oriental background," but from willing self-deception: Boy, a homosexual, is infatuated with Hamid. A third victim is Susie's mother, whom Hamid calls "Golden Oldie" behind her back but flirts with outrageously in order to infuriate and distress Boy.

The emphasis in "A Summer by the Sea" is not, however, on Hamid and his mysterious Indian background, but on the Americans whose psychological weaknesses he exposes and pitilessly exploits. Boy's romantic speculations regarding Hamid's "sainthood" link Hamid with Swamiji, the religious rogue of Jhabvala's A New Dominion, while his spectacular good looks and callous heart link him with Gopi in the same novel. Boy, Susie, and Susie's mother find their lives laid waste by Hamid in much the same way that Raymond, Lee, and Asha are reduced to despair by Swamiji and Gopi in A New Dominion; and they too are willing victims, who joyfully open their hearts and homes to the predator. That the predators in question happen to be Indian is entirely by the way: it seems only too clear that exploitation would have come from one source or another, so obvious and inviting are the weaknesses displayed by the "victims" in both "A Summer by the Sea" and A New Dominion.

This impression is reinforced by a reading of In Search of Love and Beauty, a novel which has among its characters a large number of victims and predators, but in which the image of India seems at first sight to be unimportant and peripheral. Instead, it is the "Continental" background Ruth Jhabvala wished to explore in her American fiction that seems best represented in the private lives and secret longings of the Sonnenblick family and their friends, German-Jewish refugees who are building a new life for themselves in the United States. The novel focuses in particular on Bruno and Louise Sonnenblick, their daughter Marietta, their grandson Mark and adopted granddaughter Natasha, and Louise's childhood friend Regi; also on Leo Kellermann, a charismatic "genius" with whom both Louise and Regi are deeply and inescapably in love. As these European refugees recreate their pre-War lives amidst New York's "unending vista of towering buildings" with the help of their own imported furniture, cosy reunions in restaurants like the Old Vienna, and pastries from Blauberg's, Ruth Jhabvala makes contact for the first time in her published fiction with the obliterated world of her German childhood. Louise, she notes, "had grown up in a suburb of the town of D― in Germany". Whether or not D― stands for Dresden which (like Cologne, Ruth Jhabvala's birthplace) was bombed out of existence during the Second World War, we read for the first time in any of her novels and stories of a schoolgirl who lived in "a villa with a garden in which grew apple and plum trees," and travelled by tram every day to school.

India "officially" enters this European-American world only on page 22 when the restless Marietta, prototype of the Western self-seekers in Ruth Jhabvala's later Indian fiction, discovers at a dance recital in New York an Indian sarod player named Ahmed "and with him India and the particular brand of fulfilment to be discovered there." Unlike the European expatriates in their West Side and Central Park apartments, Ahmed has no intention of settling down in the United States. He "liked life in the West," and takes happily to Scotch, cigarettes, late-night TV and Marietta, but his life and his music cannot be uprooted from the Indian soil. When Marietta follows him to India, Ruth Jhabvala summarizes through Marietta's responses to India an aspect of her own relationship with the land in which she lived for twenty-five years.

Marietta's initial enthusiasm for all things Indian places her at first in Stage One of the cycle of Indian experience that Ruth Jhabvala has described in her essay "Myself in India":

How she exclaimed! And at what he considered such common, everyday things, one was almost ashamed of them. She adored, simply adored, the bazaars and the merchants … copper pans, or silver ornaments, textiles fluttering in the wind, gaudy sweetmeats—such colours, she had never seen, never dreamed such colours! She liked the smells, too, of incense and clarified butter, and even the denser ones of rotting vegetables and more sinister rotting things—even those didn't bother her, for she regarded them as part of everything: as the beggars were part of it all, and the corpses on the pyres, and the diseased people healing themselves in the sacred river, and the very fat priests … She wondered and wondered at everything and exclaimed and shone with joy so that there was absolutely no language barrier—feeling streamed out of her [see An Experience of India].

Despite this early enthusiasm, however, Marietta does not surrender her Western sensibility: "She wanted to see everything but as herself." She is saved, therefore, from the disillusionment and revulsion Ruth Jhabvala associates with later stages of her cycle, and while heavy German furniture and upholstery darken her mother's West Side apartment, the Indian influence lights up Marietta's flat in Central Park West. Her oriental rugs "bloom" with "delicate floral motifs," while raw silk upholstery, "a shining gold Buddha," and exquisite Indian miniatures in golden frames illuminate her stylish, if unsettled, way of life.

While Marietta represents in the novel what is essentially a sensitive Westerner's enthusiasm for India, a hint of deeper and more serious concerns is conveyed through Ahmed: he, unlike Marietta, is "restful," "impassive," "imperturbable." He is a disciplined musician who achieves his moments of most intense joy when he is either making or listening to music. He refrains from making personal or moral judgments about the astonishing people and experiences he encounters in the West, but his own personality and his outlook on life and art combine in an implicit statement that is not lost on those about him who have eyes to see and wit to understand it:

When Leo asked Ahmed about his music: "Is it of the senses or of the spirit?" then Ahmed understood him less than ever. He had no conception of any division between the two, and if he had thought about it, he would have said, surely the one is there to express the other? That was what his music was for—he knew this so deeply that he had absolutely no thought or words for it.

In view of the chasm that exists between Ahmed's unspoken philosophy of life and art and the worldliness and sensuality of voluble, "pot-bellied and short-breathed" Leo Kellermann, it is ironic that "Ahmed's music opened up Leo's Tantric period," providing inspiration and starting-point for a new variation on the pseudo-philosophical theories Kellermann expounds to the impressionable members of his Academy of Potential Development. The "Tantric period" is one of a variety of stages through which Kellermann's philosophy passes before it reaches its culmination in what he terms "The Point," and it is on his journey toward "The Point"—at which, hopefully, man's highest spiritual and physical experiences intersect—that we have our last glimpse of Kellermann driving blindly into snow and a mist that is partly real, partly a confusion of the spirit.

In her characterization of Leo Kellermann, Ruth Jhabvala achieves her aim of inclusiveness, combining her "three backgrounds" at a very ambitious level that takes in In Search of Love and Beauty far beyond the comparatively easy satiric strokes of Hullabaloo and "A Summer by the Sea." Until he encounters Ahmed in New York, there seems to be nothing "Indian" in either Kellermann's genesis or his personality. On the contrary, he is very "European" indeed, has arrived in New York from Europe in the 1930's as a penniless refugee, and makes his first appearance on page one of the novel among a group of German and Austrian women expatriates whom he manages from the very start to delight with his charm and fascinate with his ideas. But as things turn out, Kellermann's impact on American life as depicted in the novel is not human in any narrowly national sense but superhuman. He enters the novel on a note of divinity: "An Apollo!—A god," cries Regi to her friend Louise, describing this new and superb acquisition, and as his extraordinary influence spreads together with his fame, Kellermann becomes the "reigning deity of the Old Vienna" and the "beneficent deity" of the massive Gothic house in the Hudson Valley that houses his Academy of Potential Development. Described at various times in the novel as a "pagan god" possessed of a "great Olympian laugh," and admirers who are at once his "followers" and "disciples," Kellermann has the "wonderful gift of making each (woman) feel that he was in intimate contact with her, on the deepest and most thrilling level; and moreover, that he had absolutely no difficulty in understanding as well as condoning whatever secret, or secret longing, she might be harbouring."

To Louise Sonnenblick, whose lover he becomes, he is nothing less than "a tornado," and even in the most unlikely circumstances retains his divine aspect: for example, while taking a bath and demanding that his back be scrubbed, he holds out a loofah as if it were a trident. The lives of Regi and Louise are changed by his theories. Religious symbolism thickens about Kellermann, whose very hair resembles a "burning bush" and "a prophet's halo," whose garments include a "robe like a monk's," and who cultivates in later life "an air of benign blessing." But such associations are counteracted, if not entirely given the lie, by symbolism of a very different, indeed sinister kind. Suggestions of the bestial and of a rank and mysterious underworld combine in the very name of this European adventurer who, like Hamid in "A Summer by the Sea," "never really had any difficulty in getting people to look after him"; and cluster about the "den," the "lair," the "escape hatch" to which Kellermann flees in order to avoid his disciples and be himself. His classes in physical expression culminate in a "Day of Wrath" in the description of which animal references proliferate: "roaring as of lions, such bellowings of bulls, chatterings of monkeys, shrieks of hyenas." To Regi, forty years after he first enchanted her, he becomes—still larger than life—an "old monster." Mark sees him as a "stranded whale," and as "some superannuated circus animal." These divine and bestial images are brought together skilfully in the "Dionysian figure" of a tramp who resembles Kellermann, and whose appearance wins from little Natasha (the character who, above all others, seems to be her creator's persona in the novel) tears of "overwhelmed pity for all the hungers of humanity":

Natasha led (her grandmother) to the corner: the awful vision was still there. He sat enthroned on the dustbin, like a god wafted up from its depths. He was enormous and red in the face and wore a hat without a crown on his wild hair; a pair of stiff black trousers encased one massive leg but was ripped open on the other, exposing a surprisingly soft, lily-white expanse of thigh. His trident, or escutcheon, was an empty bottle held aloft in one hand, and he was alternately shouting and singing to passers-by.

It is Natasha, perceptive beyond her years, who draws her disgusted grandmother's attention to the fact that the derelict tramp resembles Leo Kellermann. The scene, which ends with Louise thrusting coins and reproaches simultaneously on the tramp, permits the reader an oblique insight into the mixture of sensual and spiritual elements in Kellermann's character, and foreshadows the novel's penultimate scene in which the founder of the Academy of Potential Development, crazed with the despair of an ordinary unrequited love, drives (evidently to his death) with Natasha beside him, "glad to be there with him: not that she could do anything as, blinded with tears, he drove them further into snow and mist, but at least so he wasn't alone."

It is inevitable that the blending of spiritual and bestial associations in Ruth Jhabvala's characterization of Leo Kellermann should remind readers of her novels of a somewhat similar technique used by her in building up the personality of another seeming charlatan, Swamiji in her earlier work, A New Dominion: particularly striking there were Lee's recollection of her sexual encounter with her guru in bestial terms, and the scene in which Swamiji runs "a broad, pale tongue swiftly round his lips" as he tells Raymond of his (overtly spiritual) desire that Lee should return to him. The similarities do not end there. Swamiji's ashram parallels Kellermann's Academy, and the conversation of both men ambiguously combine spiritual and sexual elements: for example, Swamiji's statement that "the old Lee must be broken before the new Lee can be formed, and we are now only at the first stage of our task" has a parallel in Kellermann's pursuit of Marietta:

Leo … issued many invitations to her—which she ignored as she did her best to ignore everything to do with him. But Leo had never given up. He loved it when people resisted him, nothing pleased him more. "It's like fishing," he said—"It's no fun unless the fish resists; unless it struggles—flaps and fights and wriggles for its life until—yupp! you've got it: up in the air where you want it, dangling there, with all your hook, line and sinker inside it." He tended to use this image for both his sexual and his spiritual conquests.

But in Kellermann's ability to communicate intimately and secretly with each of the women who make up the adoring circle that surrounds him, we see not only a reflection of Swamiji's easy fascination of a roomful of admiring Western tourists, there is here a skilfully hidden allusion to the god Krishna's ability to manifest himself before Radha and her fellow milkmaids individually and collectively.

Here, then, so cunningly woven into the stuff of her novel as to be unobtrusive and almost invisible, and yet undoubtedly at the very centre of it, is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's image of India, larger than life, containing within it intimations of divine joy and intense disgust, of god and beast, of Heaven and Hell. The ironic presentation of the character of Swamiji had made it possible for two contradictory, yet perfectly consistent, interpretations of his personality to run throughout A New Dominion: spirituality on the one hand, opportunism on the other. Although there is no Natasha to weep for him, it is not possible for the careful reader to dismiss Swamiji as a mere sensualist and charlatan. And so it is with Leo Kellermann, in Ruth Jhabvala's latest and most complex work of fiction: with the added advantage in his case that Natasha's pity for him, which impels her to what is presumably her final, fatal, act of "self-immolation," helps us to see him with the compassionate eyes of his creator as more pitiable in his final, dreadful, banal despair than any of his helpless victims.

"Having assimilated all this Indian experience I don't want to forget it or cast it off; what I want to do is to take it out again as a Westerner, enriched by what I have learnt there." In Search of Love and Beauty, while confronting "life's disenchantments with alert and humorous resilience," unobtrusively achieves this personal authorial aim through a plot that brings together characters convincingly representative of its author's "three backgrounds" to work out a universal theme; but most triumphantly through the chief of those characters, the novel's anti-hero Leo Kellermann—Apollo, Krishna, and Superman.

David Rubin (essay date Winter 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6181

SOURCE: "Ruth Jhabvala in India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 669-83.

[In the following essay, Rubin categorizes Jhabvala not as an Indian novelist, but as an "Indo-Anglian" novelist in the tradition of R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao.]

Although the Major was so sympathetic to India, his piece sounds like a warning. He said that one has to be very determined to withstand—to stand up to—India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for—the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of her men and women—but all, said the Major, are dangerous for the European who allows himself to love too much. India always, he said, finds out the weak spot and presses on it.

        —Ruth Jhabvala [Heat and Dust, 1975]

From Flora Annie Steel to Paul Scott the English novelists who have written about India—and they are so numerous that a complete bibliography would fill a small volume—have virtually all reached certain conclusions, whether expressed or implicit: first, that successful communication (and still more, successful fusion) between India and the West is always imperfect when not absolutely disastrous; second, that Indians are somehow deficient in the more admirable qualities of character as understood by the West (which may make them more perilously seductive to Europeans); and third, that India is a source of disillusion, disgust, and corruption for the naive Western pilgrims who flock to her for illumination. It is also characteristic of most of these novels that there is little humor (Scott's Staying On is one happy exception) and, even more surprising, no sense of wonder or delight at the obvious beauties of India and the pleasures and excitements of daily life there—inevitable, one imagines, at least occasionally even for the most disaffected visitor. It would seem that filth and poverty, "heat and dust," have annihilated the first and bureaucratic entanglements the second, leaving behind only ill temper and bitterness.

A great many of the Indian novelists who write in English are also preoccupied with the confrontation of East and West (for example, Raja Rao, B. Rajan, Kamala Markandaya), and although their conclusions are not identical they tend to concur with their English counterparts on one essential point, namely, that relations between representatives of the two cultures are certain to be difficult, dangerous, and often tragic in their consequences.

Considering the consistently negative nature of the British novelists' response to India one may well be surprised that they continue to be fascinated by the subcontinent and cannot leave it alone. For some, India may provide only a backdrop for a tale that has fundamentally nothing to do with the country. Others may employ India as a spring-board for a ruthlessly objective look at Victorian ideals and bungling, as in James Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, a fictional recreation of the siege of Lucknow in 1857. Less intellectual writers have seen in Indian history the opportunity for the nostalgic review of a romantic and to some extent chimerical English heroic past, as in the novels of John Masters and M. M. Kaye. Or India itself may emerge as the inexhaustibly spellbinding protagonist—such is the case, I believe, with Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, although even here the central symbolic actions of rape, indiscriminate irrational violence, and the frustration of almost every attempt to bridge the cultural and psychological chasm between the two worlds all reveal a fundamental acceptance of the late Victorian image of India.

Of these recent novelists Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because of the special nature of her case, seems to me the most interesting, whatever the limitations of her work. When I speak of her "case" I mean the question of how she is to be classified by the literary historian, a point not merely of technical interest but one of fundamental importance. Ruth Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Frankfurt, Germany, of Polish-Jewish parents, who in 1939 took her to England. She lived there until 1951, when she married a Parsi architect and went with him to Delhi, where she lived for the next twenty-five years and brought up three daughters. During this time she wrote all but the last of her nine novels, as well as four volumes of short stories and various screenplays, including the prize-winning Shakespeare Wallah. In 1975 she left India and settled in America, which has become the subject both of her most recent novel, In Search of Love and Beauty, and of her screen-play Roseland. Most Indian and Western critics regard her as an Indian writer, one of the "Indo-Anglian" school that includes such diverse novelists as Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, R. K. Narayan, and Kamala Markandaya. I believe, however, that not only should she not be viewed as an Indian writer but that she is actually in the mainstream of the English novelists cited above, and that not to see this seriously compromises the possibility of a genuine comprehension of the significance of her work.

Let us consider first the grounds for regarding Jhabvala as an authentic Indian voice. Are her marriage and residence sufficient to justify classifying her as Indian? If so, then by the same standards Kamala Markandaya (married to an Englishman and living in London) must be judged British. If we consider the problem from the viewpoint of her material, which is mostly Indian in setting with a fair mix of Indian and Western characters, Markandaya for her part could again just as fairly be called British. The question is further complicated by Jhabvala's recent abandonment of India for the United States. The solution to this puzzle of national identification is not idly speculative for on it hangs the far more complex mystery of Jhabvala's sense of her own identity and its relation to the world she has created, and ultimately of the real value and meaning of her fiction.

Speaking of Indo-Anglian writers in general, Klaus Steinvorth writes:

The position of Indo-English novelists is on the periphery of their own society, they are partly even separated from it by emigration or expatriation, which does not mean they are sufficiently integrated in their new society…. Almost every one of them feels, or is considered, an outsider standing between India and the West, often led to believe that these two complex and abstract ideas can be reduced to a pair of simple opposites. [The Indo-English Novel: The Impact of the West on Literature in a Developing Country, 1975]

The curious thing about Jhabvala, of course, is that, unlike the other novelists Steinvorth considers, her exile is not from but to India. Her position as a kind of permanent refugee has, I am convinced, the greatest significance for an understanding of her work, and I shall return to this point later. Steinvorth also maintains that Jhabvala's fiction is strongly moulded by Hinduism, to an extent even greater than one finds in a Hindu writer such as, say, Manohar Malgonkar. The unlikelihood of this thesis should become clear in what follows.

Here it will be useful to see what Jhabvala herself has said about this question:

The central fact of all my work, as I see it, is that I am a European living permanently in India. I have lived here for most of my adult life and have an Indian family. This makes me not quite an insider but it does not leave me entirely an outsider either. I feel my position to be at a point in space where I have quite a good view of both sides but am myself left stranded in the middle. My work is an attempt to charter this unchartered territory for myself…. My books may appear to be objective but really I think they are the opposite; for I describe the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine…. My work is only one individual European's attempt to compound the puzzling process of living in India. [Contemporary Novelists, 1976]

This straightforward and candid statement, made in 1972, offers useful clues for the interpretation of Jhabvala's fiction, some of which I shall return to later. Here I will point out only the somewhat enigmatic use of the word "compound" where one might have expected the less ambiguous "understand."

From Jhabvala's point of view there is, of course, a considerable advantage in being thought of as Indian. It allows her to be ruthlessly critical of both traditional and "modern" India without incurring the odium of a hostile and uninformed outsider. She also need not anticipate banning (unlike John Masters, to take one example) on the grounds of offensiveness to a particular community or tradition. In writing of the India that she knows from her own experience she has the advantage, as she suggests, of being as it were both of it and out of it. To her observation of Indian city life she brings both a European irony that can come only with a certain detachment and an insider's knowledge of detail and nuance that few other non-Indians could hope to command. At moments (and I believe they are her best) she writes with a finely controlled irony that is neither necessarily Indian nor European but more her own individual manner—an accomplishment few genuine Indo-Anglian writers can claim, with the notable exception of R. K. Narayan.

Apart from its exotic interest as a reflection of Indian experience, it is as a triumphant example of comedic art that Jhabvala's work has been most consistently praised. The comparison of her work to Chekhov's has become a reviewer's cliche. Her novels have been called comedies of manners in the tradition of Austen and James. To cite only one instance, V. S. Pritchett finds her "an ironical observor of what Chekhov called the false emotions, the comedy (in the sternest sense) of self-delusion without drastic condemnation of the deluded." This conception of Jhabvala strike me as inaccurate as the view of her as Indian and derives in part from it, as I hope to demonstrate.

In reevaluating Jhabvala's work at this stage, which may be said to mark the definitive finale to her career as an "Indian" writer, it would be impossible in an essay of this scope to examine her complete oeuvre. I propose instead, after some preliminary remarks about her early work, to discuss her three most recent novels with Indian settings, in all of which problems of East-West understanding assume ever greater prominence, and her extraordinarily revealing autobiographical essay, "Myself in India," which more clearly and explicitly than any other of her writings calls into question her status both as an Indian writer and a comic novelist of manners.

Jhabvala's first five novels may be said to constitute the first phase of her work. With the exception of Esmond in India they are not particularly involved with Europeans but portray, rather, Indian family life and its constant preoccupation with finding suitable husbands for younger daughters. Although the tone darkens after the relatively sunny first novel, Amrita, the principal characters are viewed in general with some compassion and their eccentricities as usually endearing. The third novel, Esmond in India, the first to take up what may be called Jhabvala's international theme, is noticeably sourer and more bitter in tone. It seems as though a European presence automatically calls up tension, anxiety, and disappointment. The novel that followed, The Householder, is again a mostly Indian story, one in which Jhabvala achieves her most sympathetic insight into middle-class domestic life with nuances both tender and melancholy—her most genuinely Chekhovian work; its only defect comes from the occasional intrusion of minor European characters—unbelievable caricatures that anticipate the hippies and other questers who flocked to India in the Sixties and who were to become almost an obsessive preoccupation in Jhabvala's later work.

A Backward Place (1965) may be taken as the novel that initiates Jhabvala's second phase, in which the international theme becomes all-important. As in all of Jhabvala's fiction the focus here is on women—there are no memorable male characters in her work. In this case the central figures are three European women who represent in varying degrees the East-West malaise exemplified in the recurrent subjects and themes of Jhabvala's work: the troubled marriages and love affairs between Indians and Europeans; the romantic, vaguely questing Westerner; the adventures and fight for survival of bored, superficial, and Indophobic drifters, mirrored by their egomaniacal, mindless, and predatory Indian counterparts. In A Backward Place the Indian characters (with two minor exceptions, Shanti and Bhuaji) are characterized by shallowness and mediocrity, combined in individual cases with infantile selfishness, cupidity, stupidity, and extravagant vanity. They are, in short, caricatures, occasionally amusing and generally predictable. The Western characters show only slightly more realistic individuality.

The action of the novel is of the simplest nature. Judy, married to Bal ("child"), unemployed and unemployable, works in the office of the Cultural Dais until finally she gives in to her husband's harebrained scheme of going to Bombay to look for work in films. Clarissa, an adumbration of the later hippies, is a painter, an expert sponger, and wildly in love with the elemental India of nature and villages, about which she knows nothing. She says that Romain Rolland's Life of Vivekananda inspired her to come to India, and she has "rejected all Western values." Etta, a Hungarian refugee, is a fading blond who survives by having affairs with Indian businessmen. Unlike Clarissa she clings to everything Western. This limited material is sufficient for Jhabvala to present a cutting satire of the way foreigners live in New Delhi. Her fiercest scorn is reserved for a German exchange economist at the university and his wife, victims of the reverse Indian myth—a gushy uninformed Indophilia sustained by the good life guaranteed by their government grant ("Even the furniture was provided by the government…."):

[the Hochstadts] saw in it a reflection of the spirit of India as a whole—of that new India, which strove to bring itself in line with the most highly developed technical achievements of the twentieth century and yet retain its own culture: its art, its religion, its philosophy (and where in India, as Dr. Hochstadt so aptly remarked to his wife, can one draw a dividing line between these three manifestations of the human spirit?) which had ever been and would ever be, an inspiration to the world.

Another few months and Dr. Hochstadt's assignment would be at an end, and it would be time to return to the normal course of their duties. In a way they were not sorry: all good things must come to an end, and they were beginning to miss the cosy flat in St. John's Wood … and several other features of their normal settled lives. [Jhabvala, A Backward Place, 1965]

The Indian characters are just as cruelly satirized. Mrs. Kaul, the rich patroness of the ineffectual Cultural Dais (which presents a farcically inept performance of Ibsen's A Doll's House), is a modern variation on Dickens' Veneerings:

Then some of her own friends came, and they were very much more acceptable. They were all dressed, spoke good English and had been abroad; in short, they were cultured people.

"Last year we were in Berlin where Mr. Kaul was head of the economic mission at the International Conference of Civil Servants. We were shown many interesting cultural events such as the State Opera and the Berliner Theatre. From there we went to U.K. and saw Rosenkavalier at the Covent Garden Opera House. This too was a beautiful experience. In Moscow we saw the Bolshoi Ballet—oh my own dear Bolshoi Ballet!" she cried and clapped her hands and shut her eyes for joy.

Jhabvala's most delicate satire is aimed at Mrs. Kaul. This lady would like to fire Judy to oblige some influential friends by hiring their daughter.

He pointed out that it was hardly possible to slide one person out of a job for no better reason than that you wished to slide another person into it; but here she could not follow him, for as far as she was concerned it was entirely possible.

Most of the other Indian characters are even less attractive: Guppy, the grossly self-indulgent businessman; Kishan Kumar, a mindless, narcissistic film star; snobbish, Europe-mongering Mr. Jumperwala; the pompous Doctor; and so on. Jaykar, the editor, feels some indignation at the idleness and silliness of the young Indians who crowd the coffeehouses, but he expresses it only in editorials composed in a desolatingly trite style. "Now is the time it behoves our Youth to leave their cushioned chairs, gird up their loins and stride out into those areas of our vast land where the trumpet of Progress has not yet sounded its first triumphant notes". Sudhir, who has decent instincts, is, like the majority of Jhabvala's characters throughout her work, passive, ineffectual, and ultimately aimless.

Judy, the most (almost the only) sympathetically drawn of all the characters, seems to promise the possibility of a sane middle path between Etta's Indophobia and Clarissa's gush. She is happy to work to support her husband and children, content in the society of her sister-in-law and husband's aunt (a conventional religious old Hindu woman). But Judy herself is without any strong motivation or discrimination and seems indeed to be almost simple-minded; her capitulation to her husband at the end of the novel, in a kind of irrational, euphoric surrender, is difficult to credit. (In Esmond in India [1958] Jhabvala had told a more convincing story of an Englishman and Indian woman whose marriage ends in divorce, to the relief of all concerned.)

Despite their flatness and predictability, the European characters in A Backward Place have a little more individuality than the Indians. As for the Indians, Jhabvala's estimation is not far from that of V. S. Naipaul as expressed in India: A Wounded Civilization.

Considered in itself this novel is a deft and entertaining satire of the way some Europeans live in Delhi. But it is not genuine comedy. The classical conception of comedy—a literary process in which illusions and confusions are dispelled and true identities at both symbolic and literal levels reestablished with the protagonists given, as it were, a second chance (the point at which comedy diverges from tragedy) so that their lives are clarified, sweetened, and, in short, redeemed—cannot be applied to A Backward Place. The outcome of each character's conflicts and quests is too sour, too negative, to be called comic. As in so much of Jhabvala's work there is a persistent, one might say dogged, concentration on the perverse, the mediocre, and the disappointing that is actually not the correction of the exaggeratedly romantic but merely its opposite extreme and too unbalanced to be considered realistic—a facile cynicism of the kind that an unhappy Indian experience can breed so effectively. This is the world of Evelyn Waugh's early novels successfully transplanted to India.

The cynicism and emotional deadness are reinforced by the prose style. It is self-consciously flat. There are hardly ever any conjunctions except for "and" and "but"; consequently, there is scarcely ever any subordination of clauses, which in turn means a heavy restriction on affective highlighting, indignation, or other moral implications. Superficially this may seem like Hemingway, but in Hemingway—at least in the earlier novels and stories—the coolness and evenness of style are used to communicate and enhance extraordinary events, intense emotional shocks, and a definite moral viewpoint. In A Backward Place the affectation of indifference does not serve any such purpose. Instead of lending conviction to passionately felt experiences and hard-won stoicism in the face of tragic losses, the style merely confirms the obvious mediocrity of the novel's characters and their reaction to experience. Almost any paragraph chosen at random illustrates this.

Bal had a brilliant idea. He woke up with it one morning and couldn't wait to tell Judy. Unfortunately she had already left for work—he was always the last to get up, for he got home late at night and liked to make up for it in the morning—so he had to lie there and think about it by himself. He lay for quite a long time, but in the end jumped out of bed for he had got so excited about his idea that he felt he had to share it with someone, even if it was only Bhuaji who wouldn't understand properly. But she had gone out too, and the children were at school, and the servant in the bazaar.

Even at a moment that is charged with some emotion, the writer downplays it to rob it deliberately of serious impact.

"She has insulted me!" he suddenly shouted. With a vehement gesture he flung away his chicken leg (Mrs. Hochstadt, who hated to see litter, had to check an impulse to run after it and pick it up and put it in her special disposal box). He shouted again, "I have been insulted!"

This is farce rather than comedy and it depends not on insights but rather on facile generalizations and accurate observation only of the surface of things. Chekhovian comedy depends on a ready recognition of what is typical and expected, but its effectiveness derives from the way this is set off by what is neither typical nor expected. The apparently placid surface conceals and gradually reveals a depth and tension, a sympathetically conceived human personality, not a clinically sound diagnosis. In Chekhov the sadness of life is constantly counterpointed by flashes of recognition of a current of joy in living; laughter and tears are natural partners in his stories and dramas. In A Backward Place one finds only a dry and occasionally humorous chronicling of the bleak totality of Indian experience; India is used as an instrument to diminish and denigrate the characters.

The limitations of one particular novel become far more significant when we see that the flatness of tone, the cynical attitude, and the pervasive desolation are characteristic of Jhabvala's work in general. One finds no particular evolution in the style, no increase in depth or richness of response to India, almost no expansion of the subject matter—the restricted world of middle- and upper-class Delhi and Bombay, with the exception that in the succeeding novels the hippies become significant. Jhabvala's special interest has always been the refugee. "What I am interested in now is myself in India," she writes in the essay "Myself in India." Herself a refugee, she is fascinated by the various kinds of emotional and philosophical escape artists who have gravitated to India, some of whom may represent projections of her sense of her own identity. "My books may appear to be objective but really I think they are the opposite."

The novel that follows A Backward Place, Travelers (1973, titled A New Dominion in England), might well have been called "Refugees." The two central Indian characters—Asha, a middle-aged Rani, and Gopi, a young sponger—drift from one place to the other as their affair progresses. Raymond, a young middle-class Englishman in love with Gopi, follows them around despite his disillusionment with Gopi's superficiality and rapacity. Lee, an American girl, one of several spiritual questers, floats sometimes with them, sometimes away, drawing them after her, amid a group of other ashram-dwellers and foreign pilgrims whose apathy, which they apparently mistake for illumination, is so great that even when one of them dies of the diseases that torment all of them, it causes no great stir. At the end of the novel a weary Raymond sets out for home and the family business. Lee, who has been seduced, almost raped, by a swami, is apparently on her way back to his ashram. The swami, a particularly nasty Dickensian caricature, is a monster of ambition, greed, and lust. "Dickensian" is perhaps inaccurate: he appalls but does not amuse. The element of caricature extends to all the major characters. The three parts of the novel (their titles—"Delhi," "The Holy City," "Maupur"—sounding vaguely Forsterian echoes) are coldly and wryly critical portraits of the capital, an ashram in Varanasi, and a Raja's broken down provincial palaces that are the stock in trade of Jhabvala's novels and film-plays. To emphasize the author's distance from the material, the novel is further subdivided into mostly brief scenes, each with its title, for example, "Gopi Is Displeased with Raymond," "Lee and Gopi Eat Kebabs," "Asha Feels Old."

V. S. Pritchett writes, "A large number of these passages are perfect as 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." Again I find it difficult to see much that is Chekhovian in this work, where the style and technique appear calculated to dispel any suspicion of sympathy on the author's part by reducing events to something like the panels of a comic strip.

Pritchett finds the Western characters less successful than the Indian. "The Hindus are Mrs. Jhabvala's complete characterizations—above all, the ancient Princess Asha and the impossible young Gopi." But Asha (who may be fading but is hardly "ancient") and Gopi, far from being complete characterizations, are scarcely even recognizable as Hindus. (Perhaps Pritchett means "Indians.") As certain Indian types, yes, types made familiar by Hindilanguage films of unquestioned, unashamed triviality. The only element that distinguishes Asha and Gopi (like the swami) from the Europeans in the story is their capacity to exercise their willpower, their relentless and sometimes crafty grasping. The Westerners for their part are once again apathetic, passive, and vague; and once again the novel's narrative style serves mainly to diminish them. What we have is a series of vignettes, virtual cartoons, in which nobody is more important than anyone else, nothing much has value, and nothing much matters: the depressed world of voluntary displaced persons who somehow fail even as refugees.

If we return to the question of whether to consider Ruth Jhabvala an Indian novelist, it is worthwhile to call attention here to the kind of characterizations found in the fiction of her Indo-Anglian contemporaries, where characters are endowed with clearly defined, rounded, and heightened individuality. Although it is outside the scope of this essay to discuss them in detail, let me cite the novels of writers such as Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, and even that most Brahmanical of writers in English, R. K. Narayan. The same can be said of those novelists who write in Hindi: for example, Rakesh, Vatsyayan, Ashk, and Sobti. The contrast of all these writers' approach to characterization with Jhabvala's is striking and serves to emphasize how much of an outsider after all (like all the English who have written fiction about India) she has remained.

The nature of Jhabvala's relationship to India and the effect that country has had upon her work may be clarified by her essay "Myself in India." In these fourteen pages Jhabvala describes with the cool precision we expect from her and a raw intensity we do not her own private anguish over her Delhi life and the unsettling ambivalences, familiar to so many who have lived a long time in India, of being unable to live with the country or without it, a special kind of odi-et-amo, or as she candidly terms it, a disease. Even the most commonplace social pleasures are fraught with malaise. Of a Delhi hostess she writes:

In her one may see the best of East and West combined. She is interested in a great variety of topics and can hold her own in any discussion. She loves to exercise her emancipated mind, and whatever the subject of conversation—economics, or politics, or literature, or film—she has a well-formulated opinion on it and knows how to express herself. How lucky for me if I could have such a person for a friend! What enjoyable; lively times we two could have together!

In fact, my teeth are set on edge if I have to listen to her for more than five minutes….

Out of context the point may seem trivial, but it has emblematic importance for Jhabvala. If one does not enjoy the limited and artificial society of the Civil Lines or the rich new colonies and if, on the other hand, one is not a "strong person who plunges in and does what he can, a doctor, or a social worker," as she puts it, what is left? Extraordinarily, she can summon up only a handful of isolated images to express her sense of all the rest of the subcontinent—a smiling leper, the carcass of a dog, a human sacrifice, Shiva on Mt. Kailash sporting his necklace of skulls, outlaws with the hearts of wild beasts, the naive and touching devotion to the cow—none of which ever appears in her fiction. One cannot suppress a decided disappointment that this acute observer should feel obliged to evoke the shade of Katherine Mayo, no matter how superior the style. Her Delhi life is haunted by the knowledge that she is "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise. Even if one never rolls up the blinds and never turns off the airconditioner, something is bound to go wrong. People are not meant to shut themselves up in rooms and pretend there is nothing outside."

So we are back again in India as experienced by all the earlier British novelists who have tried to come to grips with it: Europeans are not meant to live there (perhaps nobody is, as N. C. Chaudhuri contends), with the possible exception of pathologically passive, egoless drifters like Lee; the country somehow accentuates sexual craving and offers easy gratification, but the sexual adventures are always disappointing and corrupting; the spiritual values of Indian thought are an illusion; and Europeans and Indians are doomed not to understand one another.

In Heat and Dust (1975), the last of Jhabvala's Indian novels to date, there is some attenuation of the attitudes prevalent in the preceding books. At first glance it seems to be an apologia for, almost a refutation of, the earlier novels. Although caricature and stereotyping are still in evidence, the major characters are more fully delineated, and for a change there is at least some ambiguity (allowing a note of affirmation, albeit a feeble one) in the conclusion. The unnamed narrator comes to India in part to unravel the story of Olivia, her grandfather's first wife, who had caused a scandal by becoming the mistress of a navab and renouncing England forever—whether happily or not we are never permitted to know. In the process, the narrator herself is fascinated with India, becomes pregnant by her Indian landlord, and, unlike Olivia, resolves to have her baby. We last see her awaiting its birth in the lower Himalayas and planning vaguely to go eventually to a mountain ashram.

An unwonted element of allegory is discernible in this novel. The navab's palace is near a village called Khatm ("finished") and Olivia and the narrator resides in Satipur, the city of the faithful wife—Jhabvala's penchant for irony once again evident here. Satipur is notable for its English cemetery, like Paul Scott's Pankot in Staying On. This cemetery, with its graves of British soldiers, their wives, and children, overgrown with weeds and its tombstones and statues broken, is all that remains of the Raj in Satipur. The only English in evidence today, including the narrator (herself the representative of a British colonial family), are partially Indianized vagrants. Olivia aborts her half-Indian baby but remains ever faithful to its Indian father, whereas the narrator, in a more enlightened age, or perhaps merely one more decadent, though she discards her Indian lover, after unsuccessfully trying to abort her child finds a rapture in the idea of having it. Although Pritchett had found Travelers Forsterian rather than Chekhovian, the adjective is more applicable to Heat and Dust. The concern with "bridging" is treated more seriously than anywhere else in Jhabvala; the possibility of a positive value in at least some Hindu holy men and women is suggested; and even Forster's tendency to sententious and intrusive observations of a moral nature can be found, as exemplified by this essay's epigraph.

It is difficult to assess how much of a development in Jhabvala's sense of India Heat and Dust represents. As so often in her work, the author has remained elusive, difficult to pin down. Unlike Forster, for instance, who expresses his moral viewpoint in his fiction in his own person, Jhabvala never does. What Etta or Raymond or the narrator thinks may or may not coincide with her personal ideas. We must try to draw conclusions only through a process of inference by examining the consistency of story patterns, the fate of each of the characters, and the dominant elements of the narrative style. In all these respects, Heat and Dust has after all not gone so far beyond the world of A Backward Place. The irony of the later book may be deliberately blunted, the value of Indian experience for Europeans less defined (and therefore at least potentially positive), the attitude toward India's victims (including the indispensable hippies) a trifle more sympathetic. But the fundamental modality is still flatness of presentation and the major characters still passive, almost without either will or awareness. In both her sexual adventures (they can hardly be called love affairs) the narrator is virtually inert. By the very nature of the novel's structure—present-day events recorded in the narrator's matter-of-fact diary and the distant past, reconstructed from Olivia's letters, retold by the same narrator—we are excluded from an opportunity to confront characters and situations with either intensity or certainty. Once again the technique provides a skillful screen that allows the writer to remain uncommitted to any position that might hint at the sentimental, the emotional, or even the genuinely compassionate. Just as in the later Hemingway the controlled concealment of emotion leads to a suspicion that there is little feeling to conceal, so here we are troubled by the unrelenting deadpan and the steady letdown from what at best is only ground level.

In all these novels no Indian and no European experiences a moment of fulfillment or even of pleasure. In "Myself in India" Jhabvala herself records no agreeable Indian experience apart from the enjoyment of bhajan, traditional devotional songs. In the same essay she writes:

However, I must admit that I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India—which sometimes, in moments of despondency, I tend to think of as my survival in India. I had better say straightaway that the reason I live in India is because my strongest human ties are here. If I hadn't married an Indian, I don't think I would ever have come here for I am not attracted—or used not to be attracted—to the things that usually bring people to India. I know I am the wrong type of person to live here. To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.

She concludes the essay by saying that she gets bored after a time in Europe and finds it difficult to stand the European climate. "I have got used to intense heat and seem to need it". Nevertheless, in 1981, she writes [in Contemporary Novelists], "In 1975 I left India and am now living in and writing about America—but not for long enough to be able to make any kind of comment about either of these activities." It is obviously too early to say whether without that country's "intense heat" her inspiration will wither or whether, after a respite, she will return to India as her subject with a new perspective and greater depth. Until the present her Indian fiction has constituted a clever and disarming set of variations on the long tradition of the Anglo-Indian novelists. Although her earlier novels, like those of any genuine Indian writer, tend to deal with Indians as people first and only secondarily as Indians, in her later ones this is reversed as the East-West theme comes to obsess her. Her characters become increasingly emblematic and less human, the impoverishment and triviality of the Indian life she knows is presented more and more bitterly, and in consequence the alleged comic nature of these books appears ever more dubious. Their relation to her "constant self-analysis" can only be speculated upon in the light of her abandonment of India, but it seems likely that she can no longer allow herself to be regarded as an Indian novelist. The third phase—the American—has only begun, bringing with it, it is safe to assume, ever greater contradictions and complexities.

H. Summerfield (essay date July 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5129

SOURCE: "Holy Women and Unholy Men: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Confronts the Non-rational," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1986, pp. 85-101.

[In the following essay, Summerfield discusses critics' frequent comparisons of Jhabvala to Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov, concentrating on her frequent depictions of swamis and their relationships to their female followers.]

Any woman who writes witty novels in English about courtship and family life faces the occupational hazard of being compared to Jane Austen. Despite the exotic character (to Western readers) of her Indian settings, this has frequently been the privilege and the fate of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It does not often happen, however, that the novelist who is compared to Jane Austen for wit is also compared to Anton Chekhov for humour tinged with melancholy. The fact that Jhabvala is the subject of both comparisons suggests that the atmosphere of her books is richly varied, but the affinity of her work with Austen's novels and Chekhov's stories is more than a matter of surfaces. Austen carried the values of the Age of Reason into the Romantic period, Chekhov opposed the anti-scientific outlook of the Russian Slavophiles and of Tolstoy, and Jhabvala attacks the proliferation of mystical cults. All three writers base their judgements of people and actions on experience and reason; they share a deeply rooted suspicion of the non-rational without being rigidly narrow in their outlook.

As an heir of the eighteenth century—Johnson, Cowper, and Crabbe were her favourite authors—Jane Austen measured people and their feelings by the standard of reasonableness, and, like so many of the Augustans, she accepted a kind of Christianity which stressed rational morality far more than belief in the supernatural. (Even the devout Dr. Johnson, reacting to Boswell's anxiety about the strength of Hume's argument against miracles, warned his friend "that the great difficulty of proving miracles should make us very cautious in believing them.") Characteristically, Austen feared imagination or emotion that could carry people beyond the control of reason. Christians might legitimately be Evangelicals, she thought, if they were so "from Reason and Feeling," and she considered that a powerful imagination would corrode judgement unless it was guided by "Religious Principle."

The outlook of the Age of Reason was expressed in the empirical philosophy, according to which reality is to be apprehended by applying reason to the data acquired through sensory experience. This philosophy underlies the tradition of natural science, which was a central element in the life of Chekhov, a physician as well as an author. His biographer Ronald Hingley observes [in A New Life of Anton Chekhov, 1976] that his allegiance to medicine "reinforced his pragmatical, down-to-earth view of life," helping to keep him from reaching "conclusions based on combined instinct and ignorance" and to remain "scrupulous in his respect for evidence throughout his writing career." Scientific objectivity was accompanied in Chekhov by abundant compassion and ready humour but was not modified by religion, for Chekhov was a non-believer. As a pragmatist he rejected the Slavophiles' devotion to autocracy, church, and peasantry seen as noble expressions of the essence of Russia as firmly as he rejected Tolstoy's contempt for medical science and absolute commitment to the Sermon on the Mount. "I have peasant blood flowing in my veins," he wrote, "and I'm not the one to be impressed with peasant virtues. I acquired my belief in progress when still a child … Prudence and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstention from meat." Beverly Hahn observes [in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, 1977] that "Chekhov's work belongs to that European tradition of humanist literature, classical in spirit and often centring in comic modes of perception, which links Pope and Swift with Jane Austen, Henry James and James Joyce."

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany, educated in England, and for twenty-four years domiciled in India, where her first published fiction and most of her subsequent work are set. Her first three novels—To Whom She Will (1955; U.S. title: Amrita [1956]), The Nature of Passion (1956), and Esmond in India (1958)—focus on courtship, marriage, and social status and expose their characters' pretensions and unreasonableness in ways that make comparison with Jane Austen easy and natural. The aspect of Indian civilization furthest removed from the rational empiricist outlook, however, is the country's rich religious life, with its artistic, philosophical, and devotional components. In recent years certain lightweight gurus, very different from the great figures of Hindu philosophy and holiness, have attracted numerous Western disciples, and since the mid-sixties scathing portraits of such men have enriched Mrs. Jhabvala's works along with a comic and pitiable parade of their gullible European and American disciples.

The figure of the swami first appears prominently in her fourth novel, The Householder (1960), where he has only Indian disciples and is neither lauded nor damned. At one time, Mrs. Jhabvala recalled in a lecture,

I wanted to believe in such a man too. Whenever opportunity came to visit a swami, I did so. I loved to think I was near someone holy, within the range of such wonderful vibrations. ("Disinheritance")

In The Householder there is a hint that for all his good will the swami may be ineffective in a harsh world: "With the swami," thinks the downtrodden hero at a time of stress, "there would be an escape, for however brief a time, from his sense of the world's oppression." (Similarly the swami glimpsed in Esmond in India would talk comfortingly "in the abstract, in large philosophical terms," but could give little help with specific problems.) In The Householder it is not, however, the swami who is mocked but English-speaking ladies and a German youth who are grotesquely naïve in their search for an Indian guru.

Mrs. Jhabvala's fifth novel, Get Ready for Battle (1962), shows that her attitude is beginning to change. A friend of the hero suggests that female devotees sometimes unconsciously fall in love with the younger swamis, but the book implies that a number of these teachers have an influence for good: the only upper-class character who associates with them is also the only one who has genuine compassion for the miserable shanty-dwellers. Yasmine Gooneratne, Jhabvala's foremost critic, considers that both The Householder and Get Ready for Battle portray swamis favourably. In the sixth novel, A Backward Place (1965), there is a passing reference to two fraudulent men of this class—one claims that God, feeling a sudden craving, steals sweets through him—and by 1966, when, in the short story "A Spiritual Call," she paints her second portrait of a swami, she is unambiguously hostile to him. The guru in this story exploits his young English disciple Daphne as an unpaid literary secretary and editor to help him shape his trite and incoherent thoughts for international marketing. Called to consult with him at night while his other followers sleep, Daphne observes him eat with gusto and, as the light falls on his face, she sees for the first time "something disagreeable" on his "short, blunt, and common" features—something which gives way to his usual "wise, calm, and beautiful" expression when he raises his head back into the shadows. This swami, who loves to travel and has plans for an ashram with air-conditioned rooms, is as grotesque as Molière's Tartuffe, with his hair shirt and his valet. Daphne—the author especially regrets this—surrenders to him her rational, university-trained mind, and only slowly and incompletely realizes that she became a disciple because she fell in love with him.

When Mrs. Jhabvala returns to the subject of the self-seeking guru five years later in her story "An Experience of India" (1971), she describes a large, robust swami of singularly unspiritual appearance who reaches a new level of viciousness, for he forces himself sexually on a woman disciple in what is almost a rape. Elements of "A Spiritual Call" and "An Experience of India" are much further developed in the subtle and complex novel A New Dominion (1972; U.S. title: Travelers). This book tells the story of Lee, an American girl deceived by a swami; of Raymond, an English visitor, and Gopi, the Indian youth with whom he falls in love; and of Asha, an Indian princess who seduces Gopi to console herself for the onset of middle age. The novel is divided into short sections, some narrated by the author in the third person, others written in the first person and ascribed to Lee or Raymond.

Jhabvala makes it clear that Lee's swami, a hypocrite who enjoys meat and alcohol, is driven primarily by a craving for power. To a Hindu, his teachings, though good and true, are commonplace—Gopi, who respects religion despite his low moral standards, does not have to read through the man's pamphlets, for he knows what is in them. Combining characteristics of his forerunners in the short stories, the swami intends to travel widely, plans an air-conditioned ashram, uses a young girl to help him write a book, subdues his disciples with his hypnotic eyes, and, in an horrendous scene, rapes Lee. He seeks to obliterate the personal identities of his followers, and in his lust to dominate causes the death of Lee's friend Margaret by manoeuvring her into rejecting modern medical treatment for her hepatitis. When Lee, who is probably, as Asha suggests, in love with him, continues to assert herself—at first, for example, she cannot bring herself to touch his feet—he breaks her spirit by conspicuously ignoring her and ultimately rapes her while yelling loathsome insults. Though she flees the ashram, he feels that he can draw her back—and then, he assures a mutual friend, "I will take her far, very far, right to the end if need be—and this time, Raymond, this time there will be no running away." Yet the swami is such a skilful actor that Raymond, even when he knows why Lee fled, continues to enjoy his company—"sometimes," the author observes, "in spite of himself."

The swami, whose capacity for evil recalls Rasputin's, perverts the traditional doctrine that by obliterating the ego a person can make way for the emergence of the soul or divine self in a mystical rebirth. This belief is Western as well as Eastern: The Book of Privy Counselling, a fourteenth-century English treatise, speaks of the soul's "noughting of it-self," and when Blake in his later prophetic books advocates "self-annihilation" he is employing a Christian term of respectable antiquity. The principle was expressed within an institutional framework in the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Western disciples in A New Dominion, however, encounter a crude form of this doctrine, for while the aspirant must renounce worldly self-assertion and attachment to the pleasures of the senses, he is not required to surrender all judgement and discrimination. When the nineteenth-century teacher Sri Ramakrishna found that his disciple Jogindra had purchased a cracked vessel, he exclaimed, "What—you bought a pot and didn't examine it first?… Just because you're a devotee, that's no reason to be a fool." When Jogindra spied on him at night, afraid that he was going to his wife (as an ascetic, Ramakrishna did not consummate his marriage), he commended the young man saying, "… before you accept anyone as your guru, you should watch him by day and by night" [in Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 1965]. But Lee and her friends come to India without any knowledge of mystical traditions and are dazzled by unfamiliar ideas and romantic swamis that they are ill-equipped to judge.

Jhabvala does not explicitly mention the ignorance of the Western disciples she portrays, probably because she not only deplores swamis but distrusts the mystical doctrine itself in spite of her desire that holy men might really exist. Characters as different as Raymond and Lee recoil from the swami's cruel attempt to obliterate the egos of his disciples. For all his enjoyment of the swami's company, Raymond cannot accept his failure to acknowledge that his disciple Evie is present with them. When Raymond offered her a beverage,

she put up one frail hand as if to say please don't bother about me. I'm not here, or if I am, I am as nothing. But—unlike Swamiji, who did so without effort—Raymond could not regard her as nothing …

Lee, finding herself beside two fellow disciples one of whom is in a coma and the other meditating, discovers that it is "like being with two people who were not there," and when she describes the pain and degradation of being raped by the swami she tells how "I didn't feel as if I were a person any more … He was the only person there." The author's view becomes particularly clear when Raymond tempts Lee to disclose the misery that engulfs her on the ashram while her guru ignores her: "his voice," she realized, "was also full of concern—personal concern—caring for me. At that moment I was ready to open my heart."

As one counterweight to the contemplative life of the fraudulent swami, Jhabvala describes the good works of the elderly English missionary Miss Charlotte, who busies herself with the sick and the aged. She paints an attractive picture of Miss Charlotte, but, although she herself is Jewish, she does not raise the question of whether missionaries are detaching non-Christians from their spiritual and cultural heritage. Miss Charlotte, however, is not narrow-minded: her favourite authors are the unbelievers George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and she is touched by celebrations commemorating the Moslem saint Salim Chisthi.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's writings show that she would in general agree with George Orwell's humanist rejection of Mahatma Gandhi's values: according to Orwell, "our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have," and "sainthood … is a thing that human beings must avoid." Nevertheless, when Jhabvala explained how she had once delighted in swamis but had now come to loathe them, she admitted that she was "at the same time always wishing: if only it could be…." She observed young women like Evie:

they got jaundice and became very pale and worn away physically and as people, in their personalities. They had given up their personalities (as tough, thinking, fighting European or, more often, American girls). Their eyes and thoughts and souls were only for their guru. I deplored them … I laughed at, even despised, them; but also envied them—for thinking they had found, or maybe—who am I to judge?—they had found, what I had longed to find and never could and I guess never would now. ("Disinheritance")

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's hope that "it could be"—that "a man so good he was holy" ("Disinheritance") might exist—seems not to have completely died. Her later work contains portraits of three women who are reputed to be holy and whose remarkable qualities are not easily explained. The first is a shrivelled old woman whose ecstatic storytelling, singing, and dancing, which are certainly innocent and perhaps inspired, lead the jaded American heroine of "An Experience of India" to seek a teacher who can bring her to what this person has found. The old woman is holy in other people's eyes, not her own. The second such figure of wisdom—Banubai in A New Dominion—is small, old, toothless, wrinkled, and joyful, like her forerunner in the short story, and she is described as "a prophetess" in the list of characters which introduces the novel. Gooneratne sees Banubai as a bogus saint, but she does not deserve this condemnation. She is not, indeed perfect—none of this novelist's characters are: she is fond of sweets and handsome men, she considers that Raymond is unable to love, she exaggerates the perniciousness of Western materialism, and she claims—clearly in contradiction to the author's views—that suffering is good when it draws people's attention from this world to the next. Superficially, indeed, Banubai has some resemblance to the swami: in particular, Lee and Raymond feel that both of them have eyes that gaze into people's very thoughts. Banubai, however, not only has exceptional insight into her visitors' minds but uses it to give them what help she can. When Lee, having fled the swami, comes to her, she is glad of the girl's escape from an evil master but sees that her emotions are not detached from him. With comparable insight, she recognizes that the homosexual Raymond has corrupted Gopi, luring him away from his widowed mother and sisters and his college studies into a life of unfamiliar luxury and smoothing the way for the rich and aging Asha to make him her lover or kept man. For a time Raymond even encourages their relationship, though when Gopi's family want to arrange his marriage he tries in vain to undo the mischief that he has done. Banubai, for her part, attempts to transmute Asha's passion into maternal love, but her apparent success proves only temporary. Trying to redeem Asha, too, she has to struggle against the latter's old woman-servant Bulbul, who is descended from a long line of unmarried singing and dancing girls and whose delight it is to minister to her mistress's illicit pleasures.

In portraying Banubai, Jhabvala tries to give as rational an explanation of her powers as possible: "she had always," says the author herself,

been an unusual person with unusual gifts. She could look deep into other people's personalities, and it enabled her to have so immediate an intuition of what activated them that it was often possible for her to tell them something about their past and make a guess at their future. She gained quite a reputation that way, and people began to come to her for guidance….

… She even had a number of sophisticated, highly westernized visitors, and if most of them came in the first place to see her as a curiosity, some of them were truly impressed by her powers.

We are given an opportunity to see how rational Banubai's counselling can be when a family distraught at the mysterious disappearance of one of its members comes to her for help. She astutely describes just the thoughts and feelings which would afflict the near relatives of a missing person, and gives them the best advice that she can offer fellow believers: whatever happens will be God's will, and they must submit. Asha notices that they depart "somewhat lightened" (though this does not happen with all of Banubai's troubled visitors), and Banubai is left exhausted by her effort to give comfort. In spite of the predominating rational element in such counselling, there is also a vein of strangeness, even of mystery in Banubai's proceedings. As long as Gopi visits her, she dotes on him, caresses him affectionately, and claims that he has been her son in many previous lives; as soon as she hears of his betrothal, she seems to detach her emotions from him—when the news comes, it hardly causes a pause in her joyful singing to Lord Krishna. Indeed, as the author herself says, "Banubai was an extraordinary woman".

The narrator of Mrs. Jhabvala's next novel, Heat and Dust (1975), is a contemporary young woman who tells how she comes to India to investigate the experience of her grandfather's first wife, Olivia. Half a century before, Olivia deserted her husband for a minor Muslim prince. Though this novel contains less humour than the earlier books, it portrays a bizarre English youth who, under the name Chidananda, has become an initiated Hindu sadhu or holy man—a sadhu with a saffron robe, a shaven head, a Midlands accent, and a voracious appetite for food and sex. What most disturbs the narrator—and here she seems to be the author's mouthpiece—is his flight from reason: his chanting of his mantra, she complains,

seems somehow so mindless that it drives me crazy. It is as if all reason and common sense are being drained out of the air.

As Lee's swami is contrasted with Banubai, Chidananda is contrasted with a coarse, elderly peasant widow known as Maji and regarded by others as a holy woman. The sober-minded narrator admits

it always seems to me that she has powers that others don't. Once I had a headache and she put her hand on my forehead and I can't describe the strange sensations transmitted to me.

The narrator becomes pregnant by a married Indian, and Maji massages her, ostensibly to cause an abortion. The massage, however, seems to infuse a radiance into her that makes her instantly decide to keep the child. The author clearly respects Maji, for she is the only person the narrator can find to tend to a destitute and dying beggarwoman. Chidananda, by contrast, remains indifferent to the agony of a young wife being burned with red-hot irons as a cure for fits. Maji recommends a pilgrimage as a better form of therapy—and as a beneficial activity for Chidananda. Both go, and while we are not told whether the wife is cured, Chidananda sloughs off his assumed identity and reverts to Christianity. Like Banubai, Maji combines strange insights with good sense.

In her most recent novel, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Mrs. Jhabvala turns from the aberrations of Indians and their Western visitors to the domestic follies of Americans. The North American counterpart of her swamis is the gluttonous, philandering Leo Kellerman, who shares their knack of making each member of a group feel that he is looking into his or her soul as well as their skill in attracting wealthy female admirers and their ambition to found an institution with many branches. He bases his community—the Academy of Potential Development—on a blend of theatre, psychiatry, and Eastern religion, but his only true gift is an exceptional insight into people. Despite Leo's affinity with the swamis, the book contains no counterpart to the prophetesses. The one major character who is not culpably self-centred is the plain, ungifted but exceptionally compassionate Natasha. She is self-sacrificing, and unacquisitive, cares deeply about people without being possessive, and has the good sense not to believe in Leo's work. Her unsatisfied longing for a settled and traditional way of life underlines the author's penetrating satire on the fads and philandering of contemporary Americans; similarly Leo's posturings reflect her uneasiness about the cultivation of prolonged introspection—an uneasiness that may spring from what she refers to in "Myself in India" as her "deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis" (How I Became).

To a considerable extent, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala identifies the outlook she regards as non-European with the predominance of emotion over reason, an imbalance which she associates with a turning away from reality and a passive acceptance of evil and suffering. As she tells us in "Myself in India," she loves India's devotional songs, which can make her temporarily feel that everything that distresses her "is of no importance at all because all that matters is this promise of eternal bliss," but she asks "whether religion is such a potent force in India because life is so terrible, or … is life so terrible because, with the eyes of the spirit turned elsewhere, there is no incentive to improve its quality?" (How I Became). In A New Dominion, she can treat the theme lightly through the innocently naïve founder of the University of Universal Synthesis, who wishes to bring together scholars from the rational West and the feeling East "to educate the mind in the language of the heart and the heart in the language of the mind." Jhabvala probably regards this ideal as unattainable and agrees—as she partly confirms in an interview—with Major Minnies in Heat and Dust, who believes that the Western mind should guard itself against becoming Indian. A British political officer so devoted to India that he spends his retirement there after independence, Minnies holds that a Westerner who loves that country should love her "with a virile, measured, European feeling," and that "One should never … become softened (like Indians) by an excess of feeling"—no doubt the kind of feeling that allows the dishonest businessman in "How I Became a Holy Mother" (1976) to be filled with rapture by a holy man's blessing (How I Became) or Chidananda to ignore the tortured wife's agony. A particularly striking example of such an aberration occurs in A New Dominion, where the disciple Evie, her face suffused with a look "so gentle, so good, so full of kindness for all created beings," ignores the needs of the mortally sick Margaret to gaze with adoration on the swami, who has recently insisted that an injured dog must be left to howl in anguish until it died. Yet in Heat and Dust the charitable Maji passes through religious trances without moral injury, perhaps even with advantage, suggesting that Mrs. Jhabvala, despite profound misgivings, is not prepared to condemn categorically all mystical practices and their accompanying emotions.

The predominance of feeling over reason is a common object of Jane Austen's satire. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet observes that her sister Jane, who is rapidly falling in love with a new acquaintance, "cannot even be certain of the degree of her own regard, nor of its reasonableness." Subsequently Elizabeth's own experience confirms the superiority of rational love, which grows slowly and is based on esteem, over the love which "is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged." It is a lesson that Jhabvala's Gulab, an Indian girl who does not "form decisions" but follows "her instinct" and who impetuously marries an entirely unsuitable Englishman—"an unredeemable cad and sadist," Haydn Moore Williams calls him—badly needs to learn (Esmond in India). Similar irrational emotions drive Jhabvala's spiritual seekers: the German youth in The Householder comes to India because he has seen a holy man in a dream, and Daphne in "A Spiritual Call"—like the Countess in "How I Became a Holy Mother"—conceives an instantaneous devotion to a swami she meets in the West. Lee's experience, though not so sudden, is of a comparable nature; her and her companions' disastrous misjudgement of their guru has a comic counterpart in Jane Austen in Catherine Morland's misjudgement of General Tilney under the influence of Gothic novels—novels that have so excited her that an invitation to a residence with the romantic name of Northanger Abbey can work up her emotions "to the highest point of extasy." Nevertheless, as has been shown, Austen's devotion to rationality does not prevent her from being a pious Christian and from believing that feeling as well as reason has a place in religion.

Chekhov, too, exposes delusions that spring from limitations of character, but the quality that Jhabvala most obviously shares with him is a combination of insight into the nuances of joy and sorrow with the humour of a detached observer, a combination that is responsible for the characteristic Chekhovian atmosphere. Thus the young girl Shakuntala in Esmond in India, with her partly assumed sensibility and her imaginary idealism, has a likeness to the less self-conscious Irina in Chekhov's play Three Sisters, and such Jhabvala characters as the idle, effeminate young husband of "The Interview" (1957), the elderly widow of "The Man with the Dog" (1966) with her Dutch lover, and the neglected wife of "Rose Petals" (1971) have a notably Chekhovian flavour. That Chekhov's values resemble Jhabvala's can be seen especially clearly in one of his most famous stories—"Ward Number 6." As Jhabvala's devotees ignore the suffering around them in their pursuit of personal holiness, so Chekhov's provincial physician, Dr. Ragin, asks himself

why pain should be relieved. Firstly, suffering is said to bring man nearer to perfection. And, secondly, if mankind should really learn to relieve its sufferings with pills and drops it would completely turn its back on religion and philosophy which have hitherto furnished a bulwark against all manner of ills, and have even brought happiness too.

In defiance of reality, Ragain maintains that despite the discoveries of modern medicine

the essence of things has not changed a bit, sickness and mortality still remain…. between the best Viennese clinic and my hospital there is no real difference at all

and that

You can find consolation inside yourself in any surroundings…. Diogenes lived in a barrel, but was happier than all the emperors of this world.

Not until he is forcibly confined in his own mental ward does he recognize the truth of his patient Gromov's argument that it is only because his own life has been so comfortable that he has been able to hold such a theory. Gromov, like the author, judges theories on the basis of experience and reason, but Chekhov is no blinkered materialist. In his story "On Official Business" the coroner Lyzhin—a character who, as Ronald Hingley notes [in Oxford Chekhov, IX: Stories 1898–1904, 1975], serves as a spokesman for Chekhov—comes to perceive all human beings as part of the one entity which is life, "a single miraculous and rational organism," so that a prosperous person cannot without guilt condone the suffering of a single one of the masses whose poverty sustains the rich. However, it is only through "the gift of penetrating life's essence," a gift transcending reason, that Lyzhin comes to see the rational essence of human life, and his mode of perception is comparable to those of Banubai and Maji.

Superficially, Jhabvala resembles Austen in her witty portrayal of snobbery and self-deception, and Chekhov in her delicate, humorous evocations of mood and feeling. On a deeper level, she shares Austen's and Chekhov's conviction that the dictates of reason and experience should prevail over emotion and provide a guard against irrationality. Jhabvala regards submission to a guru as a form of extreme emotionalism accompanied by indifference to others' suffering and by a failure of the respect due to the uniqueness of each individual. Even Banubai, Asha notices, is "like the sun and wind that play on all alike" (A New Dominion). Most of the swamis, in addition to promulgating a false theory, are the very opposite of the ego-free persons they pretend to be. But although in "Myself in India" Jhabvala writes sadly of "ashrams full of little old half-starved widows who skip and dance about,… giggle and play hide and seek because they are Krishna's milkmaids" (How I Became), her fiction contains portraits of three very different aged female devotees. Her characterization of the Krishna-worshipper in "An Experience of India," of Banubai, and of Maji shows that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, like Chekhov, is open to the possibility that there may be non-rational, non-sensory modes of perception which can contribute to the betterment of human life.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Michael McDonough (interview date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2436

SOURCE: An interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 4, Spring, 1987, pp. 5-6.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in New York in 1986, Jhabvala discusses her screenplays and her novel In Search of Love and Beauty, which she considers her first American novel, having written it after moving to New York City.]

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born to Jewish parents in Cologne, Germany on May 7, 1927. Her father, Marcus Prawer, came to Germany to escape military conscription in Poland; he met and married Eleanor (Cohn) Prawer in Cologne. Ruth Prawer's grandfather was the cantor of the largest synagogue in that city and prided himself on his friendship with Christian pastors; her grandmother studied at the Berlin Conservatory of Music and played the piano. Her family identified with Germany and celebrated all national, civic and Jewish festivals and holidays. She was raised in this solid, well-integrated, civilized atmosphere, surrounded by life-loving aunts and uncles, and the fragrance of her grandmother's tea cakes.

Ruth Prawer started school when Hitler came to power in 1933; then, one by one, all her relatives emigrated—to France, Holland, Palestine, and America. In April 1939, she and her immediate family became refugees and moved to England. She studied at Stoke Park Elementary School, Coventry; Hendon County School; and Queen Mary College, London University, where she majored in English literature and earned her Master's degree in 1951. She married the Parsi architect CSH Jhabvala that same year and moved with him to Delhi, India. While there, Mrs. Jhabvala wrote eight novels and four volumes of short stories.

American film director James Ivory and Indian producer Ismail Merchant met Ruth Jhabvala in Delhi in 1962 and asked her to script their version of her novel The Householder. Their next work, Shakespeare Wallah (1965), was based on her original screenplay. Other Jhabvala-scripted films followed, the most popular being Heat And Dust (1983), and, most recently E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. Her adaptations of Henry James' include The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984).

Ruth Jhabvala left India and came to live in New York City in 1976. Her ninth novel, In Search Of Love And Beauty appeared in 1983. Mrs. Jhabvala winters in Delhi where her husband runs an architectural firm and teaches; her brother Siegbert Salomon is professor of German literature at Oxford; her three daughters are grown and have independent careers.

In March of this year, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won an Academy Award for screenwriting. The following conversation took place in 1986 at Mrs. Jhabvala's upper East Side apartment.

[McDonough]: Your writing is not novelistic in the sense that most stories simply put up the machinery of setting; your characters seem more intuitively related to the setting

[Jhabvala]: I'd like it to be that way. I'm not writing a literary exercise. If something doesn't matter, if it isn't real, then I want nothing to do with it. I'm not interested in anything made up.

But then the stories themselves, though they feel real, don't appear to be autobiographical.

No, they're not autobiographical, but on the other hand I like to make the situation personally authentic, as though it could have happened to me, if my responses had been those of the character in the story, like a sort of vicarious living, I suppose. I want it to be almost like nonfiction, fake biographical, fake autobiographical, but on the other hand I also want it to have form and a kind of beauty.

Intuitive structure seems important in your work. The scenes and episodes flow into each other as in Heat And Dust (1975), though my first experience was with Travelers (1973), where you had these little panel-like stories which seemed to interrupt and form a larger picture at the same time, yet you weren't aware of the structure except that it fit and was natural.

All this is, as you say, intuitive, because I can't think it out, if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen—I set up the situation and follow along slowly and see what happens.

How did Travelers start?

Travelers was at a time when I started meeting girls who were traveling all over India in buses and trains, everything that I must say that I myself have not done. I used to look at them quite enviously for traveling this way in India which is a difficult place that they had chosen to travel in.

Did you meet them in passing or were they introduced to you?

They were introduced to me. They were friends of friends—someone would say, "when you're in Delhi you must look for Ruth," so they would write me, and I was eager to meet them. And then at one point I lived next door to one of those American programs that bring people to India for a year and that was very interesting and had a lot to do with it. One of those girls got involved with some guru and there was a sort of secret report that I managed to have a look at which concerned this girl and how she got involved with this guru and got very sick, and then her family tried to get her back, and then they tried to hush it up, and that spurred me on and crystallized everything that I saw happening there in the mid-to-late '60s.

The theme of search on a very basic level seems to be a common thread in your work.

Yes, that started off quite unconsciously but now it's more conscious. Usually it's a search for something higher and better. There are so many frauds who really want to take advantage of this really rather noble streak, I mean there were these girls who had come to India and were very open and wanted to make themselves better and then there were those frauds who took the most horrible advantage of them in every way. I've seen that happen again and again, not only in India but everywhere. So many people seem to get trapped by the ignoble. So that's becoming a quite conscious theme also connected, I suppose, to obsessive passions for unworthy characters. I see something noble and beautiful in that search that's dragged down to a workaday level.

People seem to be looking for something beyond the material world, especially Americans.

I don't think Americans are particularly materialistic, I mean look how they came here in search of religious freedom. That sort of thing always seems to be with them, but in the meantime they made so much money that the society became materialistic. There seems to be this split between the altruistic soul and the desire to increase their wealth.

This search becomes explicit in In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) in which a fraudulent guru who has been donning and shedding guises for years uses his charm to start a spiritual community.

I think the guru there is more worked-out and interesting than the one in Travelers.

He's had more transformations within the world than Swamiji

transforming himself into what a particular generation wants.

In Heat Anne is looking for her great-aunt Olivia

and also "looking for herself," as people do nowadays or did then.

I read the character as trying to escape a materialistic world

but most people come to India not only to escape a materialistic world but their boring English background too.

The characters in your novels seem both physically and socially displaced.

The European characters do: that's why they came to India in the first place.

There isn't that mystical tradition in Europe and America that there is in India with all the religions, the sense of rebirth and transformation, because things are in a way more set.

That's part of the boringness—religions are set because so many of them are no longer alive and people can no longer find the living fountain, they're so sealed up that they can't get anything out of them. I'm writing a new novel which is concerned with search more than ever; the working title is Three Continents: it's about two 19-year-old American twins who are very rich heirs in search of something nobler and higher and who get caught up in a world political movement which is also partly financed by smuggling drugs, paintings and art objects.

Events in your writings are framed and presented so clearly that the reader can discern how the characters relate to one another.

I go along completely ignorant of what's going to happen.

Do you re-write much?

I have to polish, and if a thing isn't working well I feel it's a kind of warning to stop and try something else, but I can't change the direction or the meaning except on the more superficial stylistic level of how to present the scene such as maybe someone else should be talking here. But on the deepest level you can't force a meaning into or out of a story or force a character into something that they're not naturally growing into. The same with a situation—if it's not developing along then, too bad. For one successful story you have to write a lot that don't work.

Are you a strict critic of your work?

I'm a bad judge and can't tell for a long time—I have to distance myself—but when the writing's really going well then I know.

Does a story ever write itself in the sense that something you've thrown away comes back and finally happens?

Something I've thrown away sometimes comes back in a different form as if it had been a practice work.

Some of the stories in Out Of India seem to be studies for your novels.

Heat was almost a companion piece to the film Autobiography Of A Princess—both had the same sort of themes—and all the guru stories went finally into Travellers; How I Became A Holy Mother (1976) was after that but I've been going back again and again.

How did you go about adapting Heat with James Ivory?

I had to do something I hate doing—I had to re-read the book which was published in '75; and in '81 or '82 I wrote the script. So I re-read the book and did what I always do—I put the book aside and tried to find a completely new form to present the story—of Anne coming to see the only survivor. I had to find a way to tell the two-level story—that was the major problem. And the novel itself was written in a very strange way. It wasn't laid-out sequentially because I wrote big chunks of 1923 and big chunks of present time and then afterwards I cut it all up and thought what scenes of present and past would best set each other off, complement or contrast with each other, so I juxtaposed them—edited them in relation to each other—more like a film. I didn't do that much juggling in In Search.

That's a sort of Central European-American novel. Did you feel you were getting back in touch with your roots with that?

Absolutely. New York would have been the place you'd logically come to from Europe, so when I came here it was what should have happened in 1939. The first time I came to New York was in 1966 when I was here for ten days and I liked it because it was like a cosmopolitan European city, so when the question came of leaving India I came here. I was also keen to write something not about India, something closer to my own background and this was the background I could write about so that's how In Search came about; I consider it my first American novel.

It's remarkable.

I'm glad you liked it because all that time I was writing in India no one was taking any notice. The reviews of In Search said my Indian work was better and I should go back and write about that and this after twenty years when nobody cared a damn about what I was writing in India. My first American thing was my script about the New York dancehall, Roseland, for the film with the same name which we did in 1977, and then there was The Europeans in 1979.

How did that come about?

I always thought that Henry James would be good for James Ivory because they had a lot of things in common—the way James viewed the world, and the characters he admired was a lot like Jim himself—so I thought they ought to get together. But the film we really wanted to make was The Portrait Of A Lady though that would be very expensive whereas The Europeans was much simpler—a smaller cast of characters, more restricted American locations, and easier to get financing for. Then The Bostonians (1984) was actually started by WGBH who wanted to do a whole series on the James family and one American-set feature film but the funding for our part of the project fell through so we got our own funding for The Bostonians.

Ivory was quoted in The New York Times as saying that your new project, Three Continents, would be similar to Portrait.

There's something very peculiar about that. Somebody said he would finance a film for us and he said what do you want to do and we vaguely had an idea about a modern Portrait—what would a modern American lady do—she wouldn't go to Europe but maybe to India on a quest in search of herself, but somehow I had the idea of nineteen-year-old twins, and so the man said OK, go ahead, but Jim said why don't you think of it as a novel and work it out in detail before you present the finished script. So I worked it out into a novel which moves from America to England to India and I'm so glad to have written what I suppose is my second American novel which is a sort of stepchild to my other work. Now after all these years the Indian novels are getting more attention, but In Search Of Love And Beauty, the new path I've turned onto seems not to have been recognized so I suppose it just does take twenty years for the work to be known and then it's there and you go on to something else. I think the film Roseland and some stories I wrote then were the beginning of a move away from India, but I hesitate to call these in any way American novels because I'm not an American though America's a mixture, as I am.

Bruce Bawer (essay date December 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10107

SOURCE: "Passage to India: The Career of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in The New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 5-19.

[Bawer is an American literary critic. In the following essay, he analyzes several of Jhabvala's novels, including The Householder, Travelers, and Heat and Dust, commending her more recent works for including American characters, while criticizing them for their preoccupation with Westerners who try to become Indians.]

Probably most Americans who recognize the name of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala know her mainly as a screenwriter, one third of the celebrated international movie-making team whose other members are the Indian producer Ismail Merchant and the American director James Ivory. In this country, at least, Jhabvala and her partners are known almost exclusively for three recent films that were based upon major modern novels: The Europeans (1978) and The Bostonians (1984) both derived from works by Henry James, and A Room with a View was an adaptation of one of E.M. Forster's less familiar novels. Though many reviewers carped about the casting and the slow pace (among other things) of the first two films, even the harshest critics almost invariably praised the filmmakers for their seriousness, for their wonderful attention to period detail, and for their manifest effort to be as faithful as possible not only to the word of the text but to James's tone and sensibility. The word "literate" was widely invoked—and, at a time when films often seem to be more illiterate than ever, the literateness of the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala productions was more than enough to inspire fervent expectations, on the part of many critics who were unhappy with the two James adaptations, that in time a truly magnificent film would be forthcoming from the team. These expectations, in most instances, seem to have been satisfied with the release of A Room with a View. This splendid film received better notices than either of its two immediate predecessors; it was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture and earned Jhabvala the award for best screenplay adaptation. When she appeared on the awards telecast last spring to accept her statuette, it was doubtless the first time most Americans had heard her name.

Despite her relative obscurity in this country, however, Jhabvala's writing career has been a long and distinguished one. Her motion-picture partnership with Ivory and Merchant dates back to the early Sixties; prior to the films I have mentioned, the team collaborated on a number of productions, none of which was shown widely in the United States. In addition, Jhabvala has written ten novels—the most celebrated of them being the Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust—and several collections of short stories. Most of these books, if obtainable at all in this country, have hitherto been available only in British editions; but, largely as a result (one assumes) of the success of A Room with a View, that situation has lately begun to change. Both Heat and Dust and the 1973 novel Travelers, as well as the short-story collection Out of India, have recently been issued by the Fireside division of Simon and Schuster in handsome, well-distributed paperback editions. Alongside them on the bookstore shelves is Jhabvala's newly published novel, Three Continents. As if this were not enough compensation for years of stateside neglect, during the months of September and October the Asia Society in New York held screenings of a number of Ivory-Merchant films—six of them scripted by Jhabvala—as part of a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to the team. Though she has been writing fiction and movies for more than a quarter of a century, then, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Jhabvala is only now being introduced to a broad American public. There could hardly be a more appropriate occasion to examine some of the highlights of this most interesting—and, on these shores, largely neglected—career.

Probably one important reason for America's neglect of Jhabvala's novels is that most of them—as well as the majority of her pre-Henry James screenplays—are set in the country where she has lived, whether full- or part-time, for decades: India. Though she still spends several months of the year on the subcontinent, her principal residence is currently in New York. The problematical question, however, is whether Jhabvala herself—born in Germany of Polish parents, and educated in England—can be considered Indian. Her own answer to this question, given in an essay entitled "Myself in India" (which serves as the introduction to her recent story collection Out of India), is no. "I have lived in India for most of my adult life," she declares at the beginning of the essay. "My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year." India, she goes on to say, is a country that one either loves or hates; it offers "a special problem of adjustment for the sort of people who come today, who tend to be liberal in outlook and have been educated to be sensitive and receptive to other cultures. But it is not always easy to be sensitive and receptive to India: there comes a point where you have to close up in order to protect yourself." Her reason for living in India, she tells us—and I quote this at length because I think it helps to explain some of the distinctive qualities of her fiction—is that

my strongest human ties are here. If I hadn't married an Indian, I don't think I would ever have come here for I am not attracted—or used not to be attracted—to the things that usually bring people to India. I know I am the wrong type of person to live here. To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.

She is not, in other words, the type who has come to this land of desperate poverty—a poverty of which she, in her very nice air-conditioned house, is nonetheless always vividly aware—to be of service as a doctor or social worker. "I often think," she writes, "that perhaps this is the only condition under which Europeans have any right to be here." (According to a recent article by Dinitia Smith in New York magazine, Jhabvala's reason for living part of the year in New York is that "by 1976, she had grown overwhelmed by the subcontinent.") If her fiction is predominantly about "modern, well-off, cultured Westernized Indians," it is because her way of adjusting to life in India is to do her best to ignore the backward and hungry multitudes (which she refers to continually as a "great animal" on whose back she rides). Yet she doesn't associate with many Westernized Indians, either, for she believes that their social lives are synthetic, their conversation empty ("Everything they say … is not prompted by anything they really feel strongly about but by what they think they ought to feel strongly about"), their perspective on India's poverty and backwardness thoroughly detached. They talk about India "as if it were some other place—as if it were a subject for debate—an abstract subject—and not a live animal actually moving under their feet." Her problem, then, is essentially one of cultural adaptation: "To live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? Should one want to try to become something other than what one is?"

This question, in a sense, is at the center of Jhabvala's fiction. Many of the prominent characters in her novels and stories are either Indians who try to be Westerners, or Westerners who try to be Indians. Jhabvala's tone, when she writes about such people, invariably combines affection with irony—affection, because she knows that it is only human to be attracted to that which one is not, to long for that which one does not possess; irony, because she recognizes how delusory most such attractions are, how fruitless most such longings. Jhabvala is a humorist as well as a humanist: she laughs at man's moral and intellectual imperfections even as she laments his inability to transcend those imperfections. For she does perceive (it is the central perception of her fiction) that the human animal craves transcendence—transcendence of uncertainty, of mortality, of the banality of day-to-day life. Characteristically, Jhabvala sees this craving as both beautiful and foolish. Or, more precisely, she sees it as a beautiful longing that people—not knowing where they can go to find satiation—try to satisfy in foolish ways. In her novels, characters are always seeking, travelling, roaming the world in search of a locus amenis, making fools of themselves by reaching out for the impermanent, the inappropriate, the unnatural, the impossible.

The longing for transcendence often takes the form, in Jhabvala's work, of a passionate attachment (and passion is a word that she does not hesitate to use) to someone grand, exotic, forbidden, even evil—usually someone of a different race. In her novel Esmond in India, for instance, the sheltered young Indian woman Shakuntala is smitten with the haughty, married, extremely European Esmond; in Heat and Dust Olivia, the wife of a British officer, falls for the Nawab, a rich, shady local prince; and in Three Continents the naïve American girl Harriet adores the mendacious, mysterious Crishi. The narrator of Heat and Dust speaks of reaching "a higher plane of consciousness through the powers of sex."

Another form taken by the longing for transcendence is the reverence of movie stars and swamis. (Yes, movie stars and swamis.) Jhabvala recognizes that however different they may seem—the movie star an embodiment of modern Western popular culture at its trashiest, the swami a symbol of ancient Indian religion at its most sublime—they are really very closely related, in that they both represent for the common man a type of transcendence; if swamis (embodying as they do the mysteries of India) hold a special fascination for certain Westerners, so movie stars (embodying the affluence and glamour of the West) hold a special fascination for Indians. Nothing, by the way, is more characteristic of Jhabvala's unique vision and perspective than her recognition of such a bizarre cross-cultural affinity. Movie stars and swamis thus pop up frequently in her work. (One of her films—probably her most unsuccessful, in fact—was The Guru, a 1968 character portrait starring Michael York.) Though she pokes fun at both movie stars and swamis, however, she does not make them out to be thoroughgoing fools and rascals; in Jhabvala's fiction, even they have their moments of goodness and wisdom. This is one of the things that make Jhabvala special; she perceives that man is neither basically good nor basically evil, that neither pure materialism nor pure idealism—the struggle between which she often depicts—makes very much sense as a philosophy of life. She knows that we all have in us both good and evil, that we consist of both body and spirit; we are, in short, holy but imperfect creatures, and she writes about us with an empathy that stays well clear of bathos and a cynicism that only occasionally descends into bitterness.

Her career can be divided into two periods. Between 1955 and 1971 Jhabvala published six novels. Typical of these early books are Esmond in India and The Householder, in which Jhabvala is very much a novelist of manners in the tradition of Jane Austen, as well as a natural storyteller à la Chekhov. These novels also bring to mind the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan, though her characters are generally more well-to-do than his, and her novels more obviously aimed at a Western audience. Conventional in style and structure, they are strong on character development and social detail; they lie squarely in the realistic tradition of the English novel, and, among twentieth-century English novels, belong in the camp of Evelyn Waugh, Joyce Cary, and Kingsley Amis rather than with such four-square modernists as Woolf and Conrad.

Take, for instance, her third novel, Esmond in India (1958), which is set in the years immediately following India's independence from Britain. The title notwithstanding, the character who is really most prominent in the novel is a young woman named Shakuntala, who has just earned her B.A. and returned home to New Delhi to live with her family. They are a wealthy clan who pride themselves on their Westernization: Shakuntala's father, Har Dayal, a Cambridge-educated government minister, spices his conversation with quotations from Keats, Wordsworth, and Matthew Arnold; her fair-skinned mother, Madhuri, remembers proudly the time a friend told her that in Europe she'd "be taken for Italian or Spanish"; her married older brother, Amrit, a businessman (and a subscriber to Reader's Digest), has moved up quickly because his British-owned firm is following a "policy of gradually replacing British executives by Indian ones," and he is "very suitable for this purpose, as he had attended an English university and was also very English in all other respects, except in his complexion"; Shakuntala herself is a fan of Sibelius and Liszt.

Shakuntala considers herself and her father, though, to be different from the other members of her family, especially Amrit. Her brother is a materialist, she complains, whereas she and her father are "idealists" and know that "art and culture are the only important things in life." From the outset, it is clear that Shakuntala's and Har Dayal's culture is superficial and their idealism pragmatic. The truth is that Har Dayal enjoys art and culture less than he enjoys his image of himself as a friend of art and culture.

The novel's other New Delhi family is strikingly different. Its patriarch, Ram Nath—once Har Dayal's friend and mentor and a respected leader of the struggle for Indian independence—has lately gone down in the world as steadily as Har Dayal has gone up. So traditionally Indian is Ram Nath's clan, moreover, that his niece Golub, to the disgust of her despicable English husband, Esmond, cannot even make conversation with his European friends. When this family enters Shakuntala's life it is because Ram Nath wants her to marry his son, Narayan—a brilliant young doctor who has rejected a lucrative practice to care for the rural poor. Unbeknownst to everyone, however, Shakuntala has fallen in love with the superficial Esmond, who represents to her everything Western, and who doesn't care for her in the slightest. Esmond or no Esmond, though, one never has any question about the outcome of Ram Nath's proposal. One knows that Har Dayal, for all his supposed devotion to Ram Nath, will manage to argue slickly against the marriage. And one knows that the idealistic Shakuntala will decide that "my ideals are different than [Narayan's]…. I love Art and Beauty and Poetry, how can I give these things up as I shall have to if I go and live with Narayan in a village to do good to the poor?"

It should be said that some of the characters in Esmond are less credible than others, their motivations more dubious and their fatuities too strongly exaggerated. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the pathetically meek Golub could ever have worked up the nerve to marry Esmond against her family's wishes—especially since she cannot now summon up the same nerve to leave him, though she and her whole family realize that the marriage is a lost cause. Equally difficult to swallow is that a rich, sheltered young Indian woman of the 1950s would have opened her chaste treasure, especially to a married man, as readily as Shakuntala opens hers to Esmond. In any event, one sometimes wishes, while reading Esmond, that Jhabvala would let up a bit on the irony, particularly when she is writing about Shakuntala. Quite often the girl is just too foolish to be believed. When her mother asks her, on one occasion, what she is doing, Shakuntala replies, with a child's solemnity, "I am thinking quite hard"; at the end of the novel, when she has a marketplace rendezvous with Esmond, she is absurdly deluded and happy, and Jhabvala, who wants to indicate that life is nowhere near as wonderful as Shakuntala thinks, makes her point with less subtlety than might have been desirable: "She knew now that life was more wonderful, a hundred times more wonderful, than even she had suspected. It was not the moment nor was she the person, to hide such a sentiment, so she told him, 'Life is wonderful—wonderful!' letting her hand slide from his arm down to his hand which she firmly and fearlessly held as they made their way through the crowd." Though Jhabvala's affectionate attention, then, to the little details of human relations, attitudes, and customs is very charming, she is at times so ironic in this novel that she comes off as downright misanthropic.

The Householder (1960) might be read as something of a companion piece to Esmond in India. Instead of concerning herself with a rich young lady who has returned to her father's house after being graduated from college, Jhabvala gives us a middle-class boy named Prem who, as the novel opens, has recently earned a second-class B.A., has undergone an arranged marriage with a girl named Indu, has taken up residence with her in a seedy little flat in Delhi, and has entered upon a low-paying teaching job at a seedy little private college. He is, then, a brand-new "householder"—which is, according to the ancient writings, the third (after child and student) of the four stages of a man's life. The novel is concerned with describing his period of adjustment to this role. For this timid, unambitious, and only moderately intelligent young man is not quite ready for the responsibilities of manhood. Though Indu is with child, he does not find her attractive, and considers her pregnancy a "terrible embarrassment," for "[n]ow everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark." He tries to behave in a manner befitting a proper Indian husband, but is not very good at it; Indu blithely ignores his orders. At the college, too, his attempts at discipline are ineffectual. Though he spends much of the book, moreover, trying to work up the nerve to ask Mr. Khanna for a raise in salary and his landlord for a lower rent, one knows from the start that when he finally manages to choke out these requests, they will be brushed aside breezily: one knows this as surely as one knows that Shakuntala will never marry Narayan. (One reads Jhabvala novels like Esmond in India and The Householder not to discover what will happen—one knows pretty much what will happen—but to delight in, among other things, the perceptiveness with which Jhabvala depicts self-important, self-deceiving people like Har Dayal and Mr. Khanna in the act of justifying their ignoble actions.) But one also knows that eventually—and very gradually—things will improve for Prem. Perhaps he will not come to enjoy his new life, but he will grow used to it; it will come to seem less of a burden, and at times even pleasurable.

About Prem: although he is a believable and pitiable character, he is not an extremely likable one. Like Shakuntala, he seems abnormally puerile for a college graduate, buying candy on the way home and eating it quickly so he will not have to share it with Indu. As in the case of Shakuntala, the irony Jhabvala brings to his characterization is sometimes excessive; on occasion he is so passive and ineffectual that one feels as if one is being invited not to sympathize with him but to feel superior to him. This is true not only of Prem, to be sure, but of many of the characters in the book, whose banality is of grotesque dimensions. Prem's fellow teachers, for example, speak almost entirely in clichés. Since they are minor characters, however, this is not a crucial failing, and the results are admittedly very funny; the inane pretentiousness displayed at Mr. Khanna's tea party, for example, is reminiscent of Dickens:

"As I was saying," said Mr. Khanna; he took up his position in the centre again and replaced his thumb in his armpit. "It is very pleasant to have the ladies with us. Very agreeable." The ladies all stared straight in front of them, without any change of expression. Only Mrs. Khanna said, "I think the tea-water is nearly boiling."

Mr. Chaddha said, "The society of ladies is said to have a very softening effect." He was wearing a cream-coloured silk suit which seemed to have been washed quite a number of times, and he sat with his arms and his little bird legs crossed in an attitude of ease suitable to a tea-party.

"It is not for nothing," suggested Mr. Khanna, "that they are known as the gentle sex." Led by Mr. Chaddha, the gentlemen politely laughed. "It is good sometimes to break off in the midst of toil," Mr. Khanna continued, "and enjoy an hour's leisure and ease in their charming company."

"As our heroes of old," said Mr. Chaddha, "withdrew for respite from their battles to have their wounds dressed and their brows soothed by the hands of their consorts." He seemed pleased by this remark; he cleared his throat and crossed his legs the other way. The other teachers looked at the Principal, and when they saw him smile in appreciation, they too smiled in appreciation.

Outlandish as they are, furthermore, the teachers are a lot easier to take than Hans Loewe, a German boy who befriends Prem. Hans has come to India from "materialistic" Europe because he thinks this is "the country where people renounce the flesh and think only of the Spirit!" Nothing, apparently, can make him see things any differently. (He is as obtuse about the real nature of India as Shakuntala is about Esmond's lack of affection toward her.) He says to Prem,

"Only think—in this country where everything is beautiful, the sunset and the fruit and the women, here you call it all Illusion! How do you say—Maya?"

Prem said, "Yes, Maya," though he was not quite sure.

"How I love your India!" Hans tells Prem, but his India is not at all the same as Prem's; when Prem begins to speak of India's independence and its economic progress, Hans seems not even to hear him: "Everything is so spiritual—we can wash off our dirty materialism when we come here to your India!" At first these speeches are somewhat amusing, and this Westerner's admiration of India's supposed spiritual richesse is certainly deliciously ironic in light of post-revolutionary India's desperate longing for a Western-style material affluence. But though Hans appears several times in the book, Jhabvala never develops him any further than this; he remains incredibly obtuse and deaf to Prem's practical-minded conversation. To Hans, indeed, Prem is little more than a symbol of India. Of course, Jhabvala finds Hans ridiculous for taking this simplistic, condescending attitude. But Hans is such a blatant, uncomplicated stereotype of the European in India that it could be argued that Jhabvala herself, in creating such a character, is as guilty of gross simplification and condescension as he is.

The most peculiar episode of The Householder is one in which Prem spends part of an evening with a swami and his followers. Nobody says anything profound during this encounter, but the mere fact that the swami and his followers speak—even in the vaguest terms—of God and of the heart's longings and of "what is valuable in the world and what is not" makes the experience overwhelming for Prem; the "unaccustomed purity" of the meeting goes to his head, and causes him to laugh and feel drunk and experience, like Shakuntala at the marketplace, a brief sense of transcendence:

He thought yes, this is how one must live—with love and laughter and song and thoughts of God. All his former worries about his rent, his rise in salary, his lack of authority as teacher and husband, were nothing but a thin scum floating on top of a deep well of happiness and satisfaction. Nothing, he thought, would ever trouble him again. From now on he would live in contemplation only of spiritual things. Indu would be like a sister to him—he would love her as a sister and both would sit at the feet of the swami and think of God and indulge in happy, innocent play.

But of course the pressing circumstances of daily life make Prem's determination to live such an existence fade quickly away. Though this episode is well done, Prem seems in it to be rather out of character; one feels as if her has been led to the swami less by the longings of his soul than by Jhabvala's desire to work a swami into the novel, and to have somebody speak of transcendent things.

The strength of The Householder—and a great strength it is—is that Jhabvala manages to make an unremarkable phase of an unremarkable life very touching and compelling. Like many contemporary English novelists—the late Barbara Pym comes to mind—she seems deliberately, in these early novels, to cultivate a certain smallness; in size, style, setting, scope, intentions, ideas, and range of feeling, The Householder is a modest book. Jhabvala concerns herself with a protagonist who we know from the start will not change dramatically, will not do anything admirable, will never amount to much. Jhabvala's restraint is remarkable, as is her understanding of character. She captures with great skill Prem's feelings of fear, uncertainty, deprivation, and hopelessness. (In fact, she makes the life of these middle-class Indians seem so barren and banal—which I don't doubt for a moment it is—that one can only be grateful she doesn't take on the life of the abject poor.) She has extraliterary goals, of course: here—as throughout her fiction—she is out to destroy the sentimental views that Western readers may have of India. Furthermore, her attention to homely details seems to be designed, in part anyway, to ridicule the grandiose pretensions of characters like Mr. Khanna. Whatever the case may be, The Householder is wonderfully attentive to the details of Indian life—the jarring of pickle, the making of poori and chapati, the conservations about the desirability of government jobs, the entreaties of beggars ("You are my mother and my father"). As for the novel's prose, it is even more lucid and luminous than that of Esmond in India. Compared to that novel, The Householder is shorter, simpler, more focused, more austere in its manner, and more concerned with conveying a sense of everyday Indian life; in the latter regard, in fact, it is, despite its drawbacks, a veritable tour de force.

Aside from the swami, the one thing in Prem's life that seems to transcend everyday reality is the cinema. Jhabvala's novels poke merciless fun at the film world—at the shoddiness of most of its products, at the large role it plays in most Indians' lives (and imaginations), and at the preoccupation of many Indians with the romances and scandals described in movie magazines. (In The Householder a paper-man passes by Prem's mother's train, shouting, "Film-Fun, Film-Fare, Film-Frolic!") It seems ironic, then, that Jhabvala has herself made such a large contribution to Indian film. The first motion picture on which she collaborated with Merchant and Ivory was a charming black-and-white adaptation of The Householder (1963), starring Shashi Kapoor as Prem. Though the film has the same story, and much the same grim, claustrophobic atmosphere, as the book, there are a few notable differences: several episodes are shuffled around; Prem is not quite as spineless as in the book, and is rather more talkative; and Hans from Germany—who probably should have been an American in the first place—is transformed into Ernest from Philadelphia.

The film of The Householder was succeeded by two good films about India, the West, and the decline of culture. Shakespeare Wallah (1965) concerns a small travelling company of English Shakespearean actors who have spent years in India but who, thanks to the growing popularity of movies, have had increasing trouble finding employment, and are thus beginning to feel as if there's nothing left for them in India. "We should've gone home in '47 when they all went," complains the company's lead actor, Mr. Buckingham. But his wife (and leading lady) observes that "We always used to think this was our home." Indeed, the Buckinghams' teenage daughter, Lizzie, has never even been to England. Nor, in spite of her family's wishes, does she want to go there to be educated—especially after she meets, falls in love with, and begins an affair with a rich, handsome young man named Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). The affair is doomed from the start, of course. For one thing, Sanju's values and way of life contrast sharply with those of the Buckingham family; for another, Sanju already has a woman in his life, the glamorous film star Manjula, who is as wily and superficial as Lizzie is sincere and sensitive. Shakespeare Wallah may be the best of Jhabvala's early films: it is a gentle comedy with the audacity (and the good sense) to imply that certain products of a foreign culture—that is, Shakespeare's plays—might be better for Indians than certain products (i.e., tacky films) of their own culture.

After Shakespeare Wallah came Bombay Talkie (1970), yet another Jhabvala movie whose primary concern is to deplore the influence of movies. The heroine is Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), a restless, superficial, several-times-married hack writer from England who has come to India hoping to change her luck. On a Bombay soundstage—where a musical number featuring a giant typewriter is being filmed—she meets two men who are attracted to her. One of them is a good-hearted bachelor screenwriter named Harry; the other is the dashing movie actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor again), who is as superficial as she is. Though Vikram is married, Lucia has an affair with him; so insensitive is she that even when his meek little Indian wife walks in on the two of them in the couple's bedroom, it doesn't occur to Lucia to feel guilty or uncomfortable. Vikram is one of many men in Jhabvala's work (Esmond is another) who blithely cheat on their Indian wives with Western women; to these husbands, their wives represent tradition and permanence, where as Western women—who need not be taken seriously anyway, because they are prostitutes by nature—represent adventure, sophistication, modernity. Of course, no Jhabvala story about restless Westerners in India would be complete without a swami, and so Lucia spends some time in an ashram, trying (without much success) to adapt herself—and her very healthy sex drive—to a disciple's ascetic life. Bombay Talkie is a good movie; if it is less satisfying than Shakespeare Wallah, it's because the principal characters are less sympathetic, the theme more familiar (with only a few changes, the story might have been set in Rome or London), and certain development (notably, the stabbing at the end) downright corny.

Beginning with Travelers (1973), Jhabvala's novels represent quite a different sort of accomplishment from their predecessors. If the early novels tend to depict India from Indian points of view, in these later novels the subcontinent is more usually seen through the eyes of Westerners. In these books the country seems more exotic, somewhat less a geographical entity, a way of life, and somewhat more a state of mind; her view of the country, that is to say, is less down-to-earth, more cosmic—more symbolic. Whereas in the early novels the story is paramount, and narrative coherence a priority, the later novels are more fragmented; Jhabvala is less interested, in these books, in telling a story than in painting a single broad canvas; she seeks to give us India, it seems, not by offering us a series of discrete connected images but by depicting one image, as it were, from a multiplicity of angles. These later Jhabvala novels are more sensual, experimental, modern; though the later Jhabvala, like her earlier incarnation, has affinities to Waugh and Cary, say, she is closer than the early Jhabvala to the camp of Virginia Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, and Joyce.

Travelers reads like a sort of trial run for the new Jhabvala. In it she moves back and forth between the points of view of four characters whose paths cross in India. Raymond, a pleasant young Englishman, is a Cambridge graduate who lives in New Delhi and is in love with Gopi, a college student; Asha is a rich middle-aged woman who also becomes smitten with Gopi, and Lee is a young Englishwoman who has come to India "to lose herself in order … to find herself," and who spends time in an ashram as a swami's disciple and lover. The stories of these characters' lives, as they develop over a period of several months, are told in brief chapters, many of them no longer than a page or two, some of them in epistolary form; they carry flat, descriptive titles such as "Raymond and Gopi Meet Lee," "Lee Writes to Asha," and "Raymond Arrives in the Ashram."

There is much talk about India and what it means, and in this connection many characters and settings take on symbolic dimensions. Raymond grows very fond of Indian music because it has become for him "a distillation of everything he loved in Gopi and everything he loved in India. These two were now inextricable." Lee notes that her friend Margaret looks down on Miss Charlotte, an elderly English missionary, because

she can't sympathize with her attitude, which she says is old-fashioned and patronizing. She says people just don't come any more to India to do good, those days are over. What they come for now is—well, to do good to themselves, to learn, to take from India. That's what Margaret's here for. Above all she wants to be pure—to have a pure heart untainted by modern materialism. Margaret hates modern materialism. Of course, so do I; that's why we're both here.

It is this hatred of "modern materialism" that leads Lee to the swami, who plans to develop his following into the Universal Society for Spiritual Regeneration in the Modern World, "a worldwide religion uniting men of all creeds and all colors into one family and so bringing peace and harmony into the world." It is Lee's naïve faith in the swami that provides Jhabvala with her biggest opportunities, in this novel, for irony. "[H]e's so phenomenal," Lee exults, "I mean it's so fantastic the way his mind is always alert…. [H]e has this power of knowing people before he's actually physically met them." Contrasted with the swami and his thriving ashram are Miss Charlotte and her mission—an institution that has actually done a great deal of good, but which is closed by the Indian government because "philanthropy is a form of charity that the government of India, indeed I may say the people of India, can no longer allow themselves to accept."

The travellers of this novel are in search not only of a number of great abstractions—truth, enlightenment, spiritual regeneration—but of one thing that is very concrete: family. If Lee is so easily taken in by the swami, it is because he has made it possible, at his ashram, for her to be part of something that resembles a family; likewise, Gopi becomes attached to an old swami-like woman named Banubai of whom he says, "She is my mother. She is everyone's mother." Appropriately, the novel ends with two of its protagonists making travelling plans: Raymond arranges to return to his only real family, his mother in England; Lee—who has left the ashram—decides to return to it, because it is the only real home she has.

Travelers is an odd book. The writing is crisp and vivid throughout, and some of the episodes are wittily done. At a high-toned dinner, for instance, the English host and an Indian minister get into a friendly argument over whether there is a "special relationship" between England and India; it's an absurd argument, because the Indian—who denies the existence of such a relationship—sounds as English as the Englishman. But after the smoothness, concision, and focus of Esmond in India and (even more so) The Householder, Travelers seems choppy, sprawling, meandering. Yes, the directionlessness of its characters and plot is part of the point; this is a book about four confused people meandering through life—and, to an extent, across the landscape of India—in search of something. Such a book can certainly work, but more than anything else it needs particularly appealing and sympathetic characters in order to do so; and the fact is that the characters in Travelers simply are not all that engaging. Even at the end of the book, one does not feel as if one knows them very well or cares strongly about any of them. Interestingly, the words of praise quoted on the back cover of the Fireside paper-back edition point directly to the book's cardinal weakness. The quotation from The New York Times Book Review describes Travelers as a "distinguished psychological survey"; Ved Mehta observes that the "central character in Travelers … is India, which for [Jhabvala] is not so much a country as an experience, after which no one is ever the same." Both Mehta and the Times critic are correct. But to refer to the novel as a "psychological survey" is to suggest—with justification, I think—that Jhabvala's characters seem more like case studies of personality types than they do like distinctive individuals; and to say that India is the novel's central character is plainly to admit that the human characters in the book are overwhelmed by the setting.

Jhabvala's most celebrated work of fiction, Heat and Dust (1975), has several affinities with Travelers, the most important being that it, too, is concerned with Anglo-Indian relations and cross-cultural romances; as with the earlier novel, moreover, it might be said of Heat and Dust that one of its central characters is India itself. Here, too, Jhabvala presents us with more than one protagonist—with a pair of them, in fact—but, unlike the foursome in Travelers, they never meet each other. They are, as it happens, two women who are divided from each other by time, but who belong to the same family and have a great deal in common. One of them, Olivia—whose story is set in 1923, in the Indian town of Satipur and its environs—is the bored young wife of Douglas Rivers, a British officer; she loves him, yet gradually finds herself becoming fascinated by the Nawab, a charming but dissolute (and married) prince whose palace is in the nearby town of Khatm and whose income appears to derive largely from the petty crimes of various sordid hirelings. The attraction is mutual, and in the end Olivia runs off with the Nawab, lives out her days in his house in the remote town of X, and is never seen again. The other protagonist is a young lady—Douglas's granddaughter by his second wife—who, fifty years later, having read through a trove of Olivia's old letters, journeys to India in an attempt to understand this woman whose story is now a skeleton in the family closet. The novel alternates between a straightforward recounting of Olivia's story—as revealed, we are to understand, by the letters—and the granddaughter's successive entries in the journal she keeps of her several months' visit to Satipur, during which time she has her own affair with an Indian.

As is to be expected in a Jhabvala novel, however, the narrator's reasons for coming to India are not entirely related to Olivia. She explains that "many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life." Inder Lal, her lover, considers this attitude a mockery; he is as acutely and painfully aware of his material poverty, as compared with the lot of the typical European, as she is aware of what she considers her spiritual poverty, vis-a-vis the average Indian: "He says, why should people who have everything—motor cars, refrigerators—come here to such a place where there is nothing?"

Esmond in India and The Householder have strong story lines that develop clearly and fluently, and characters that blossom rapidly into life; Heat and Dust is a more elliptical work, its characters more enigmatic, their motives less readily apprehended. Its feel—the tone peculiarly dry, the episodes often crabbed and unyielding, the chronological leaps disorienting, even jerky—is similar to that of Travelers, but it is far more surefooted, almost as if Travelers were the rough draft and Heat and Dust and finished work; there is a symbolic force to the latter book that Travelers doesn't quite achieve. If in Travelers the landscape of India seems to dwarf the characters, in Heat and Dust the characters partake of the country's vastness; the simple, elliptical stories of Olivia and the narrator have an archetypal, a legendary, quality that the muddled, prosaic case histories in Travelers don't.

The stories of Olivia and the narrator are at once similar and different; in this they reflect the similarities and differences between the British India of Olivia's day and the independent India that the narrator visits—connections which Jhabvala draws with a fine subtlety and elegance. Of course it is the differences—especially those between the nature of Anglo-Indian relations in 1923 and in the 1970s—that are most dramatically apparent. The house in which Olivia and Douglas lived now contains Indian government offices; there is a chumminess now between Englishmen and Indians that would have been rare in Olivia's time. But in all essential things the India that the narrator becomes familiar with is the same India that Olivia knew. The heat and dust, for instance, persist. India is the same intolerably hot and dry land that it was half a century ago—or, for that matter, half a millennium ago. India is still a land that "always changes people." Though, in comparison to Jhabvala's other novels, it seems to have received somewhat more than its share of critical attention and praise, Heat and Dust most assuredly represents a high point of Jhabvala's art.

In the same year that this most substantial novel (which became a film in 1982) was published, there appeared a surprisingly slight Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie entitled The Autobiography of a Princess. It is of interest, though, for its thematic similarity to Heat and Dust. Far from the sweeping spectacle that the title might lead one to expect, this film takes place in a modest London house where, one afternoon, a middle-aged Indian princess (Madhur Jaffrey) has an elderly English bachelor (James Mason) to tea. This is, one gathers, an annual ritual; her guest—who was once right-hand man to her late father, a maharajah—has come to celebrate with her the birthday of her father by watching home movies and sharing memories. During most of the film, the princess talks incessantly of Papa, whom she remembers as a great and cultured man, but who—one gradually realizes—was actually very much like the Nawab in Heat and Dust: a tyrant, a criminal, and an adulterer, who romanced a film star and lost his throne as the result of a scandalous affair with a lower-class Englishwoman. It is not till the last minutes of the film that the guest speaks at length of his relationship with the maharajah, which sounds exactly like that between the Nawab and his homosexual English friend Harry (who, in turn, rather reminds one, with his endless letters home to mother and his quiet worship of his Adored One, of Raymond in Travelers). So ends the film.

It is a baffling piece of work: barely an hour long, set in one room in "real time," it has no plot, no action, no dramatic conflict, and consists mostly of one rambling, interminable speech. As for the home-movie-within-a-movie, it is a bizarre compilation containing, among other things, a 60 Minutes-style interview with disenfranchised Indian nobles, grainy scenes of elephants on parade, and truly repulsive footage showing the beheading of goats. Its only apparent points are that daughters often have highly selective memories of their fathers, and that for many high-born Indians who now live in reduced circumstances, British India is a glorious memory and independent India a nightmare. At best, the film is an outré footnote to Heat and Dust—a drastically less effective variation, that is, on the theme of family memories of British India.

The novel that directly preceded Jhabvala's new novel is of interest for several reasons. For one thing, it is the first of her novels written during her residency in New York. For another, it has many similarities to Three Continents. Interestingly, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) is set mostly in America—in Manhattan, to be specific—and takes place over several decades of the mid-twentieth century. At its center are three generations of a well-heeled West Side family. Louise (whose husband Bruno dies young), her businesswoman daughter Marianne (who calls herself Marietta), and the grandchildren, the world-travelling real-estate entrepreneur Mark and the otiose, idealistic homebody Natasha. The family is surprisingly close-knit—more like an Indian family, one cannot help but think, than a typical New York family; Marietta's fulfillment, we are told, lies in Mark, and for the utterly friendless Natasha, her grandmother, mother, and brother are "her home, her life, everything she knew and cherished." Yet family attachments are not enough to sustain and satisfy them. All four—aside from Natasha, who never even has a boyfriend—share a history of unorthodox, intense, and impermanent romantic entanglements, as well as a vague but persistent dedication to spiritual realization. They also share a fascination with a man named Leo Kellerman, whom Louise first meets in the 1930s, recognizes as "a yet undefined genius," and remains enthralled by for the next several decades. Leo is a swami in everything but name: he gives lectures and workshops, has a group of followers, and seeks to establish an Academy of Potential Development—a goal that Louise's family, of which he becomes something of an associate member, helps him to achieve.

Here, as in Heat and Dust, Jhabvala eschews a straightforward chronological structure. Instead, she leaps back and forth through the history of Louise's family, favoring us now with an episode set in the 1970s, now with one set in the 1940s. This practice of skipping around in time has a striking effect: it makes the family's life seem like a fait accompli rather than like something that mysteriously unfolds from moment to moment and can be changed by the characters' actions. This, in turn, makes the characters' incessant spiritual searching seem particularly pathetic and useless: we already know, after all, that they will never find transcendence. (Alas, Jhabvala doesn't get Americans quite right. She has them speak of "laundrettes" instead of "laundromats," of "blocks" instead of apartment houses; she has them drink too much tea and use British colloquialisms.)

This being a Jhabvala novel, there must be at least one Indian in the cast. That quota is filled in part by Ahmed, a musician whose recital at a converted New York porno theater Marietta attends. She is attracted not so much to Ahmed, she insists, as to "his sarod [a sort of Indian lute], his music; and not even that but the world it opened—the world beyond worlds—the promise of peace and fulfilment that was like a hand laid on her restless heart." Marietta hires Ahmed to give her sarod lessons, and she thereafter invites him (as Raymond does Gopi in Travelers) to move in with her. He does so, only to return eventually to India, which Marietta thereafter visits yearly, often passing through ashrams in the course of her travels; on one of her trips she forms an intense friendship with a woman musician named Sujata who represents her "most meaningful encounter there, or her deepest immersion and enchantment." (Like Asha, by the way, Sujata is in love with a boy who is young enough to be her son; she asks Marietta "if it was so wrong to have these feelings, then why were they sent?") Mark, for his part, devotes his life to a series of homosexual affairs. In a conflict over a mutual lover named Kent, an older man stops just short of stabbing Mark with a carving knife: Mark handles the crisis well, but the object of their affections breaks down in tears. Jhabvala explains:

He was still very young, only at the beginning of his career, and knew nothing of what could sometimes happen among people with very strong feelings.

About these feelings: Leo had once likened them to the voices of the great castrati, in which a man's vigour was made to give body to a woman's nervous delicacy. Unhuman voices, Leo called them; unnatural hybrids. "All the same," Mark had replied, "no one ever said they weren't beautiful."

This is what In Search of Love and Beauty is about: the way that unnatural, strong, and beautiful longings can lead people into foolish acts and harmless liaisons. For the truth about Louise, Marietta, and Mark seems to be that, though they cherish the family bond, each of them still hopes for some more transcendent form of human connection than that which they have. Leo, Ahmed, Kent are all ways of trying to build a new kind of family, a more nearly perfect union of souls. But one never really understands why one generation after another of this family should be so restless, so dedicated to the intercontinental search for "inner fulfillment," so devoted to the Leo Kellermans and Ahmeds of the world. Indeed, though one wants very much to believe in these extremely interesting people, one doesn't.

Jhabvala's new novel, Three Continents, is in many respects very similar to In Search of Love and Beauty. For one thing, the new novel—which in style and structure is Jhabvala's most conventional in over a decade—centers upon three generations of an affluent American family. The narrator is a young woman named Harriet Wishwell, who begins with a capsule family history: she and her twin brother, Michael, are the product of a broken marriage between a spoiled father, Manton, who has spent his life drawing on a trust fund, and a mother, Lindsay, who lives on the family ranch with a woman named Jean; since neither parent has very strong parental instincts, both Harriet and her brother were brought up largely by their paternal grandparents, a diplomat and his wife, in a number of Asian capitals. This upbringing bred in the children a "restlessness, or dissatisfaction with what was supposed to be our heritage—that is, with America." Neither lasted in college more than a year; both always "wanted something other—better—than we had. Of course people would say that what we had was pretty good, and from a materialistic point of view that would be true."

But, needless to say, theirs is an idealistic rather than a materialistic point of view. And it is not until their twentieth year—when Michael shows up at Lindsay's ranch house, fresh from yet another restless swing through Asia, with a swami and several disciples in tow—that things start looking up for them, idealistically speaking. The Rawul (for so the swami calls himself) is "as idealistic as Michael," the founder of something he calls the Fourth World movement. He has, as Harriet puts it, "this simple but forceful idea of constituting himself the savior of world civilization." In the new world—the Fourth World—"all that was best in the other three would come to fruition." Sharing this goal with him are the Rani, his consort, and Crishi, whom Harriet takes to be their adopted son. Michael himself declares, "This is it, Harriet. Om, the real thing." It is, in other words, what the two of them have been seeking all their lives. Harriet explains:

While our parents were having marital squabbles and adulterous love affairs and our grandparents were giving diplomatic cocktail parties, [Michael] and I were struggling with the concepts of Maya and Nirvana, and how to transcend our own egos. Anything smaller than that, anything on a lower plane, disgusted us. I was used to following Michael's lead, so when he said that the Rawul and Rani and Crishi operated on the highest level possible, I didn't contradict him, although it seemed to me at that time that they were very worldly people.

This impression would seem to be confirmed by the reaction of Manton's girlfriend, Barbara, the daughter of a famous movie actress: the atmosphere around the Rawul, she says, reminds her of the atmosphere around her mother. (Like previous swamis in Jhabvala's work, in short, the Rawul seems to be to idealism what movie stars are to materialism.)

Before long, however, Harriet has become not only the Rawul's disciple but Crishi's wife. It is plain to the reader—though not at all to Harriet—that Crishi's main reason for marrying her is his desire to control the ranch, which the twins will inherit on their twenty-first birthday, and which Michael wants to donate to the movement. And little by little the Rawul's people do take control of the ranch. The gradually increasing sense of domination, as communicated by Jhabvala between the lines of Harriet's placid narrative, is chillingly reminiscent of Animal Farm; these sections of the book represent an impressive accomplishment in mise en scène. But the characterizations give one pause. For why in heaven's name does almost nobody at the ranch notice how chilling these developments are? What is it about Harriet, Michael, and Lindsay that causes them to succumb so readily to the Rawul's empty rhetoric? Why is the only voice of common-sense reality that of Jean, who pleads with Harriet: "How could you allow these people—these strangers—to take over your house? Our house? It's like a nightmare." How is it that Harriet is able to recognize momentarily the truth of Jean's remark, only to drift back into mindless passivity? In short, why has Jhabvala chosen to create a family all of whose members are capable of being swallowed up by a cult in record time? Surely we are meant to understand that the Wishwells have been deprived of a strong sense of family and, like the clan at the center of In Search of Love and Beauty, yearn for a feeling of spiritual transcendence and for something larger than themselves to belong to; in a way, obviously, we are meant to see them as representative of the contemporary decay of the Western family and of family values. But the Wishwells are so grotesque a family that it is impossible to see them as representative of anything in the real world. Though it would be difficult enough to believe in any of them in isolation, to expect a reader to accept them all as members of a single family seems rather too much to ask.

And of all of them, the hardest to believe in is Harriet. She reminds one less of any real individual than of Alice Mellings, the obtuse protagonist of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, who, desperate for a family of her own, falls for a third-rate terrorist group even more readily than Harriet falls for Crishi and the Rawul's cult. In Harriet, Jhabvala has created a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. Things are quite clearly not the way Harriet would have us think they are—or, indeed, the way she herself perceives them to be. Take her marriage, for instance. When the Rawul and his cohorts relocate to London, Harriet and Michael go with them; there Harriet meets Rupert, an art gallery owner who turns out to be the Rani's husband. Though Harriet doesn't realize it at all, the circumstances strongly suggest that the Rani married Rupert for his money, his government connections (which she used to straighten out her visa problems), and his family's seventeenth-century house (which the Rani liquidated soon after the marriage). Just as the Rani has used Rupert, so it is clear that Crishi, in marrying Harriet, is out to use her; indeed, as the party moves (in the book's second section) from America to London, and then (in section three) from London to India, everyone seems to await her twenty-first birthday as if it were the coming of the Messiah.

What's more, Harriet never faces squarely the facts about the Rawul's cash flow: like the Nawab's wealth in Heat and Dust, the movement's money appears to derive largely from crime. And Harriet knows this. She sees Crishi and Michael beat people up: she sees the Rawul's followers being trained in the use of weapons; she hears stories about Crishi's criminal past; and she speaks in passing of the arrest of some of the Rawul's followers "at certain borders," with each arrest representing "a considerable financial setback with the impounding of whatever it was that was being carried from one place to another." But she only mentions these things en passant. What is it that is being carried from one place to another? If Harriet knows, it's apparently not important enough to her to deserve mention. She seems incapable of adding it all up—the violence, the guns, the smuggling—and seeing the Rawul's movement for the sleazy enterprise that it really is. Why doesn't it occur to her to address the movement's blatant criminality as a moral issue? Why can't she see the utter divergence between the brutal reality of the movement and her image of it as a force for peace and love and brotherhood? The answer is, simply, that though her mother refers to her and Michael as the family "intellectuals," actual ratiocination is alien to her; it is not in her nature to think about her experiences. Although she considers herself a devotee of the movement, her understanding of it never progresses beyond the public-relations level; she fails to notice that the "ideas" in the Rawul's "program" are nothing but fuzzy platitudes.

To write a long novel—and this is one of Jhabvala's longest—in the voice of such a character seems an inordinately challenging task, and that Jhabvala does it as well as she does is a tribute to her gifts. This is a very smoothly written book—stately, lucid, and balanced. But the character of Harriet weakens it enormously. Like Shakuntala, Harriet is a heroine created expressly to be looked down upon; her unmitigated stupidity, and Jhabvala's incessant irony, eventually become too much to take. What's more, for all her sarcasm about people who are drawn to swamis, Three Continents seems to me to demonstrate—as if any more demonstration were necessary—that Jhabvala herself is in the grip of an inordinate fascination with them. To read the first few pages of this novel, with its multi-generational swami madness, is to get the mistaken impression that it is set somewhere around 1970, at the height of many Americans' love affair with gurus, mystics, and Ravi Shankar. So narrowly limited is Jhabvala here by her long-time theme of Indians who try to be Westerners and Westerners who try to be Indians that Three Continents comes off as stale and anachronistic, a recycling of dated and familiar motifs. It is encouraging, to be sure, that here, as in her preceding novel, Jhabvala's principal characters are Americans; both novels suggest that she is determined to bring new settings and concerns into her work, to move beyond her usual material. But just as her American protagonists, in these most recent novels, are pulled, as if by some force beyond themselves, to India, so for Jhabvala herself India remains unwaveringly the final destination, the figure in the carpet. In a very real sense, India has made Jhabvala; let us hope now that her preoccupation with the subcontinent is not her undoing as well.

Ramlal Agarwal (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3245

SOURCE: "A Critical Study of Heat and Dust," in Studies in Indian Fiction in English, edited by G. S. Balarama Gupta, Jiwe Publications, 1987, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Agarwal discusses the stories of Olivia and her granddaughter in Heat and Dust, proposing that their tragic fates in India are due to their "liberalism and sensitivity."]

When the Booker Prize for 1975 was given to Heat and Dust the literati in India refused to be impressed. They thought that Jhabvala was awarded the prize for her ruthless damning of India, the country in which she had lived for over a quarter of a century. Naturally they hit back by damning the book. In an article called "Cross-cultural Encounter in Literature," published in The Indian P.E.N. [November-December, 1977] Nissim Ezekiel observed:

I found Heat and Dust worthless as literature, contrived in its narrative structure, obtrusive in its authorial point of view, weak in style, stereo-typed in its characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene. To the distinguished English novelist who was the Chairman of the Jury for the Booker Prize, and to his colleagues, this judgement would no doubt be quite inexplicable, though it was widely shared in India. Indian reviewers dwelt on the India of Heat and Dust on the character of the Indian Nawab or Prince who has an affair with the wife of a British Civil Servant stationed in his town, and on the explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores as well as the Indian setting, things Indian generally. For them, there could be no separation between these and the quality of the novel, its authenticity, its literary substance. English reviewers seemed to ask only how such matters were used within the novel's pattern of events, what light they threw on the writer's perceptions of character and conduct. The intercultural encounter was secondary, minor, interesting but not in any sense disturbing. Heat and Dust did not generate any heat or raise any dust in England. It did both in India, partly because of the Booker Prize which put on the novel the stamp of British approval, naturally without any concern for Indian sensibilities. The gulf between the two viewpoints seems unbridgeable.

Obviously Ezekiel found Heat and Dust worthless, contrived, etc. because of Jhabvala's explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores as well as the Indian setting. One can understand Ezekiel's righteous indignation at what he considers an attempt to ridicule India, but one wonders whether it can stand as literary criticism. Jhabvala's explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores and Indian setting is not extraneous but an integral part of the novel itself. It surfaces by itself though the two heroines of the novel try their best to turn a blind eye to it. The two heroines of Heat and Dust love India perhaps more than Ezekiel does. They give themselves over to it unreservedly. In the end they come to grief because they over-look the fact that it is disastrous to get mixed up with an alien culture however rich or ancient it may be. This is the theme of the novel and once this is clear one can see the reasons for which it was received so enthusiastically in the West.

Heat and Dust tells two stories instead of one. One of them deals with an English woman called Olivia and the other deals with her granddaughter. Olivia is in India because her husband Douglas is a District Officer at Satipur. She loves her husband but he is too busy to keep her company all the time. Soon Olivia finds herself oppressed with loneliness. When she meets the Nawab of Khatm, a small princely state, she finds herself attracted to him. She is impressed by his opulence, his authority, his unfailing hospitality, and above all, by his courteous attention to her. At the first meeting itself, Olivia realizes that "here at last was one person in India to be interested in her the way she was used to." Olivia does not like the English community at Satipur and remains shut up all day. She develops an intimate friendship with Harry, an Englishman living with the Nawab in an undefined position and this leads to a friendship with the Nawab himself. Olivia's assessment of the Nawab's personality agrees in many respects with Harry's:

He is a very strong person. Very manly and strong. When he wants something, nothing must stand in his way. Never, ever. He's been the Nawab since he was fifteen (his father died suddenly of a stroke). So he's always ruled, you see; always been the ruler.

She finds that the English at Satipur do not approve of the Nawab and avoid discussing him in her presence. They do however, make sly remarks about his marriage and about his being connected with dacoits, which displeases and shocks Olivia. Her sympathy for the Nawab is part of her attitude to the Natives which is radically different from that of the others in her community. This sympathy is partly a result of her innate goodness and partly a consequence of her ignorance of the people and customs of India. She develops a critical attitude to her community and to her husband. Douglas' complacency and Olivia's mistrust of it are beautifully illustrated in the following passage:

'Oh goodness, darling, you have seen it hundreds of times … Why were they laughing? What did you say?'

'I just told them, in a roundabout way that they were a pack of rogues.'

'And they like being told that?'

'If you say it in Hindustani, yes.'

'I must learn!'

'Yes, you must,' he said without enthusiasm.

'It's the only language in which you can deliver deadly insults with the most flowery courtesy … I don't mean you, of course.' He laughed at the idea. 'What a shock they'd have!' Why? Mrs. Crawford speaks Hindustani; and Mrs. Minnies. 'Yes, but not with men. And they don't deliver deadly insults. It's man's game, strictly,' 'What isn't it?'

Olivia said. He sucked at his pipe in rather a pleased way which made her cry out sharply:

'Don't do that!' He took it out of his mouth and stared in surprise, 'I hate you with that thing. Douglas,' she explained.

Her refusal to accompany the other Englishwomen, Beth Crawford and Mary Minnies, to the mountains in summer is a characteristic act of rebellion, though it is subtly camouflaged by an exhibition of love and concern for Douglas. On many issues she takes up positions which are repulsive to the other members of her set. For example, she defends Sati, a savage Hindu custom in the eyes of the English people:

'It's part of their religion, is not it? I thought one wasn't supposed to meddle with that.' Now she looked down into her Windsor soup and not at all at Douglas; but she went on stubbornly; 'And quite apart from religion, it is their culture and who are we to interfere with anyone's culture especially an ancient one like theirs…. I know,' Olivia said miserably. She had no desire to recommend widow-burning but it was everyone else being so sure—tolerant and smiling but sure—that made her want to take another stand. 'But in theory it is really, isn't it, a noble idea. In theory,' she pleaded. Without daring to glance in Douglas' direction, she knew him to be sitting very upright with his thin lips held in tight and his eyes cold. She went on rather desperately, 'I mean, to want to go with the person you care for most in the world. Not to want to be alive any more if he wasn't.'

Olivia, unlike the others in her set, treats the Nawab as a friend. She does not believe, in her innocence, that the Nawab is associated with dacoits though it makes no difference to her relationship with him when later she discovers that he had dealings with them.

It is her interest in him as a human being which draws her closer to him, but in the end she is totally captivated by him and her surrender to him is complete. The Nawab's approach to the relationship is different. He finds Olivia attractive and sympathetic to him and deliberately sets out to win her. His talk about his daring ancestors and past glory is calculated to impress her. The tale of his present difficulties draws out Olivia's sympathy. The conquest of Olivia is for him, as for his ancestor Amanullah Khan, a subtle way of avenging himself on the English community. Even as the Nawab is closing in on Olivia, he recounts a story of how Amanullah Khan took revenge on a Marwar prince:

"Listen," he said. Once it happened that a Marwar prince did something to displease him. I think he did not offer opium out of the correct silver chalice—it was only a small thing, but Amanullah Khan was not the man to sit quiet when insulted…. He invited this Marwar Prince and all his retainers to a feast. A ceremonial tent was put up and all preparations made and the guests came ready to eat and drink. Amanullah Khan greeted his enemy at the door of the tent and folded him to his heart. But when they were all inside he gave a secret sign and his men cut the ropes of the tent and the Marwar prince and his party were entangled within the canvas. When they were trapped they were like animals, Amanullah Khan and his men took their daggers and stabbed with them through the canvas again and again till there was not one enemy left alive. We still have that tent and the blood is so fresh and new, Olivia, it is as if it had happened yesterday.

What the Nawab does to Olivia is not very different from what Amanullah Khan did to his guest. Olivia becomes pregnant by the Nawab, undergoes a painful abortion because she comes to know that the baby might show the signs of its origin. The primitive method of abortion used by the local maids makes her sick and she is finally treated by the English doctor who sees through everything. Naturally Olivia quits the English camp. From this point onwards, she recedes to the background of the Nawab's zanankhana. What happens to her there is only a matter for guess. She spends her last days somewhere in the Himalayas.

Douglas' granddaughter by his second wife is fascinated by Olivia's story, which she gets from old relations and letters, and comes out to India to reconstruct Olivia's story. What happens to her in India has a close parallel in what happens to Olivia.

By the time the young woman arrives in India, the palace in which the Nawab lived has become a derelict place. All its splendour has gone. Its riches have found their way to Europe. But the township of Satipur has grown, though in an amorphous manner. The places where the English lived have been converted into government offices. She rents a small room from Inder Lal, a government official. Inder Lal also acts as her guide to the places around Satipur. The young English woman keeps a diary in India. She meets a trio of Westerners, a young man and his girl and another youth. The diarist asks the girl why she is in India. The girl laughs grimly and says: "To find peace. But all I found was dysentery." One of the two men had taken the Indian name of Chidananda. After a few days, the diarist finds Chid lying in an old tomb, dying of diseases and hunger. She takes him home, in spite of Inder Lal's protests. In the course of her research tours, the diarist goes to the shrine of Baba Firdaus. The shrine is famous because it is said that there the peoples' wishes are heard. At the shrine the diarist and Inder Lal, very much like Olivia and the Nawab in the past, develop physical intimacy which results in the diarist becoming pregnant. But unlike Olivia, she does not terminate her pregnancy. She accepts responsibility for her action and wants to have the child. In the end she too, like Olivia, goes to the Himalayas, which are to her a symbol of the spiritual mystery that India offers to the seeker beyond the heat and dust, the spiritual presence of India's mystery:

Mountain peaks higher than any I have dreamed of, the snow on them also is whiter than all other snow—so white it is luminous and shines against a sky which is of deeper blue than any 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.

The ending of Heat and Dust, in terms of the careers of both the heroines, Olivia and the Diarist, is full of ambivalence.

Heat and Dust is remarkable for its structural innovations. Though the two stories are very much like each other, the manner of telling them is different. The first one is dramatic. It tells itself. One episode follows another. The author just brings characters with different attitudes and backgrounds together and leaves them to depict themselves by their behaviour and by the way they interact upon one another. Psychology is telescoped or taken for granted. So little of what goes on inside the characters is ever mentioned that they seem empty or flat. But this is a deliberate fictional strategy on the part of the novelist. Olivia's story presents a cool reconstruction of bygone days with multiple points of view. The novel derives its authenticity from the truthfulness of their points of view and not from the objective reality of the Indian scene or character. Douglas, for example, represents the typical view held by British officials that they were here to rule the country and that they could not rule it unless they learnt to discriminate between the rulers and the ruled. Douglas, like his colleagues, wants to preserve the identity of the English in India. Harry represents the Englishmen who had been closer to the Indian Maharajas and Nawabs. Harry is an extension of Raymond in A New Dominion but he is not detached as Raymond was and he is not in tune with the Englishmen in India. He belongs to the Nawab's camp and is, therefore, hated by his compatriots. Harry, like Raymond, goes back to England and starts hating his Indian experience. When he meets the Nawab in England he gets the shock of his life:

Harry said that he had a shock when he saw him again in London. Fifteen years had passed, the Nawab was fifty years old and so fat that there was something womanly about him. And the way he embraced Harry was womanly too: he held him against his plump chest with both arms and kept him there for a long time. And then all the old feelings came back to Harry. But afterwards he found that his feelings towards the Nawab had changed—probably because the Nawab himself had changed so much. He seemed softer and milder, and with many troubles of a domestic nature.

Major Minnies represents a more balanced view based on an understanding of Indian climate and Indian character. If Douglas represents one extreme view, Olivia and her granddaughter represent the other. They are too sympathetic and liberal in their outlook. If Douglas and others like him show a sneering attitude to India, Olivia and her granddaughter show an understanding one. Olivia knows that religion and culture are not to be mocked at. The second story uses the first person narrative. The narrator-heroine records what she sees or what happens to her in the most matter-of-fact style. Here too psychology is telescoped. Naturally the story is pictorial. It presents the picture of India in which the English are no longer the ruling class and if they are there, they are there as visitors or seekers, very different from their predecessors, and very much at the mercy of their Indian hosts or Gurus. The story presents the picture of India seen through a single subjective point of view. The stories dealing with the objective and the subjective points of view are so structured as to reinforce each other. They are also brilliantly interlocked. One offers a distant perspective, the other a close view. As such, the novel moves on two levels in time. It shuttles between the past and the present. Though the two heroines are separated by half a century, they are not unlike each other in their sensitiveness and receptiveness to India and both of them go through identical experiences. The novel moves backward and forward. This is because time is assumed and the action is a static pattern continuously redistributed and reshuffled in space. Jhabvala follows this device to show the timeless aspects of the country. The spatial reality of India is conveyed through the descriptions of the dry, parched up land, smouldering rubbish, mud-thatched houses, lying beggars, over-crowded hospitals and hysterical people. This spatial reality is, as she sees it, still operative even though the temporal reality has changed inevitably. The India of princes and palaces has made room for the India of petty government servants and overcrowded huts and hospitals, but the heat and the dust are still there, and they still affect people as they affected people fifty years ago.

'The novel,' says Trilling, 'is a perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always manners as the indication of the direction of man's soul' [The Liberal Imagination, 1970]. The quest for reality through the study of manners has been Jhabvala's preoccupation. We know the Nawab through his preoccupation with his ancestor, and the old legend of the British community. What is true of the Nawab is also true of Inder Lal and other characters. We know Inder Lal through his preoccupation with his office work, his relationship with his mother and wife and with the diarist. Jhabvala's characters are set in a crowded country where the pressures of its climate and complicated tradition of manners are great. To say that those who are not born in such a country find it overwhelming is not to malign India.

In Heat and Dust Jhabvala shows that the two English heroines of the novel lack moral realism. They become victims of illusions generated by their liberalism and their sensitivity. They are carried away by their generosity. Therefore, they do not perceive the dangers of excess of feeling for a country they love but do not understand. Olivia admits that she does not understand India but she is not deterred from responding to the country unreservedly:

I enjoy being here. I enjoy your company. We have a good time. Don't look like that, Harry. You're being like everyone else now: making me feel I don't understand. That I don't know India. It's true I don't, but what's that got to do with it? People can still be friends, can't they, even if it is India.

Heat and Dust is Jhabvala's last novel with Indian setting. Naturally it sums up her experience of India, an experience reinforced and refined over the years. Small wonder if the novel has a pure gem-like quality about it.

Charmazel Dudt (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2859

SOURCE: "Jhabvala's Fiction: The Passage from India," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 159-64.

[In the following essay, Dudt examines four of Jhabvala's novels—Amrita, Esmond in India, Travelers, and Heat and Dust—and discusses the ways in which her views of India have changed over the course of her writing.]

It is a truism that woman today is caught between old strictures and new possibilities. She is well aware of her historical role and, therefore, struggles to establish a consistent, reliable identity as a member of a world which has not yet absorbed her as an integral part. When this struggle with temporal change is compounded with spatial and cultural challenges, what is written must be considered carefully for what it reveals of the struggle itself, and for the end it prophesies. The novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, thus, have an immediate poignancy, for they reflect her personal journey from illusory myth to dusty reality.

Born of Polish parents in Germany in 1927, she went to England as a refugee at the age of twelve, achieving an easy transition from writing in German to composing stories in English about the lower-middle classes in England. She met an Indian architect while she was studying English Literature at Queen Mary College, London University, and married him. They moved to Delhi, where she has lived from 1951. "I have lived here for most of my adult life," she says [in Contemporary Novelists, 2nd edition, 1976], "and have an Indian family. This makes me not quite an insider but it does not leave me entirely an outsider either. I feel my position to be at a point in space where I have quite a good view of both sides but am myself left stranded in the middle."

According to Jhabvala, her books are an attempt "to present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of foothold. My books may appear objective, but really I think they are the opposite: for I describe the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine…. My work can never claim to be a balanced or authoritative view of India but is only one individual European's attempt to compound the puzzling process of living in it." A survey of four of her novels, written over nearly twenty years, from 1956 to 1975, reveals through her reaction to India, the difficulty in establishing a personhood and the price one has to pay for it.

When she first went to India, she wrote easily about the country and its people: "I did this quite instinctively…. It never struck me at that time that there was anything strange in my writing in this way about Indians as if I were an Indian" [in World Authors, 1950–1970, 1975]. In her first book, Amrita, the central character is the new woman who clashes directly with the old world. She is fiercely determined to keep her job at the radio station despite her mother's desperate attempts to arrange for her marriage within her pseudo-European circle of friends; Amrita, however, is in love with Hari, a fellow-worker from a different caste. Yet she is neither a Nora nor a Hedda. Amrita delights in shocking her elders, but hesitates to go to a local restaurant in the company of two men. When compelled to go, she "kept her eyes lowered, and listlessly crumbled a small cream cake on her plate." The boys enjoyed themselves thoroughly. One cannot avoid the impression that the westernized characters in the book are so only superficially. Her grandfather lives in a musty house surrounded by a litter of tastelessly chosen objets d'art, and dreams of the good old days when he was a barrister. One aunt has a wealthy husband who does nothing but affect boredom, while another aunt can only indulge her appetite for clothes and sweets. Both women are incapable of action, exactly like the grandfather's music box from Baden-Baden in Germany whose insides have long since ceased to move.

Hari's family, on the other hand, is life itself; simple and unspoiled, their ways are traditional. They are boisterous Punjabis who live in the center of town, and they are determined to marry their son to a "good" girl. Sushila Anand is their choice, for she knows how to cook and sew, and has wisely chosen to marry instead of developing her voice for the record market. The contrast between the feverish activity connected with the wedding and the languid humidity of Amrita's house where the servants do nothing but count and recount the silver cutlery, is almost too obvious for comment. The bias of the author towards the ancient and ritualistic seems undeniable in the last sentence of the novel: "It was all over, a high pitched voice sang a hymn …; he had led her round the fire seven times and now she was his; and though he still could not see her … he was suddenly so happy, he felt he had/never been so happy in his life."

In 1958, seven years after her own marriage, Jhabvala introduced into an increasingly bitter portrait of India, the theme of an East-West marriage. Each of the characters in Esmond in India is led by dreams towards destruction, and the conflict arising from Western influences is given strong statement. Ram Nath, the center of an admiring Cambridge crowd long ago, has sacrificed his life as a lawyer for the emergence of new India. His wife, prepared to live in a large house with many relatives and servants, does not understand the cause for which he forfeited his property and subjected himself to prison. He is no longer the bright, sharp little flame that conveyed a sense of urgency; instead, he has grown old, and his sister notices that life itself seems to have withdrawn from him. The degree of his present ineffectiveness is emphasized in his inability even to arrange a marriage between his only son and the daughter of his once-best friend. "His past had been so full; and his present was nothing. He had lost contact, not with the world of affairs, of politics, meetings; he did not mean that, because that he had relinquished deliberately—but with all the world, all life."

If Ram Nath represents the old world, then it is an unsatisfying one. Adherence to the classical prescription for Indian behavior that demands a retreat from things of this world has not brought an enlargement of the mind, but rather a narrow isolation. Can we then assume that those who throw themselves into the affairs of life have any sense of satisfaction? The answer again is "No." Har Dayal, the successful politician-litterateur is devoted to the Public Cause. He presides over never-ending meetings, advises Ministers, and allows himself to be garlanded at public functions. Surrounded as he is by adoration from friends and family, and busy as he may be with lectures and meetings and "many things to be arranged" he is, nevertheless, aware of the absence of spiritual satisfaction within. There is an ever-present sense of futility, and as he walks away from a successful lecture, he reminds himself of Shelley's Ozymandias.

That which has once served to inspire man, now appears to Har Dayal illusory and leaves him with little consolation. Even the central character, Esmond, is enticed into marrying India only to be trapped by her reality. His wife, whose eyes he had once thought "full of all the wisdom and sorrow of the East" was merely a dumb animal who did not even react to his brutality. "His senses revolted at the thought of her, of her greed and smell and languour, her passion for meat and for spices and strong perfumes. She was everywhere; everywhere he felt her—in the heat saturating the air which clung to him and enveloped him as in a sheath of perspiration … in the faint but penetrating smell of over-ripe fruit; everywhere, she was everywhere, and he felt himself stifling in her softness and her warmth." His only recourse is to escape, not into himself as Ram Nath has done, nor into frenetic activity as does Har Dayal; for Esmond the only escape is from India herself—furtively and secretly.

In 1959, Ruth Jhabvala, too, returned to England for the first time since her marriage. The impact of the visit was profound: "I saw people eating in London. Everyone had clothes. Everything in India was so different—you know, the way people have to live like that, from birth to death…. So after that visit to England I felt more and more alien in India [in The New York Times, May 15, 1976]. It is, therefore, not surprising that her next novel, written in 1973, is entitled Travelers. She is increasingly interested in those who seek enlightenment in India, for the country seems to have become a stronger and stronger adversary and travelers in it seem to get nowhere. The novel is an account of the journeys made in search of that spiritual core which seems to elude modern man. Some characters, like the Englishman Raymond, are prevented by their own Stoic background from ever becoming a part of India. That he should return to England disappointed, even frustrated by the realities of caste and dirt and bigotry is not surprising. What affects us is what happens to those who surrender to the demands of Indian life.

Asha, the spoiled sister of a successful politician, seems only to wish to indulge in the satisfactions of the flesh; surrounded by silk and lace negligés, swathed in foreign perfume, and gratified by a young boy, she seems too obviously in need of guidance. She flees to an old friend who has gained the reputation of a seer, only to feel uncomfortable if left alone with her, and to witness the indifferent advice given to those who suffer. To parents whose son has mysteriously disappeared, Banubai says: "If He [the One who has willed that it should happen so] wills it, He will bring him back; if not, then not." Perhaps this detachment is commendable, for classical texts enjoin disinterest in action, yet one is compelled to question the fatalistic attitude recommended. Though it is one traditionally associated with India, it is empty of promise.

The other characters meet with similar discouragement. Lee, a young American, is free to travel in any direction, to stop at any station, and walk down any street. She allows herself to be taken to an ashram headed by a Swami of supposedly limitless power and knowledge. Here, Jhabvala succeeds brilliantly in creating the embodiment of brute power. The Swami compels his disciples to lose themselves in singing hymns to God—an action normally innocent, but here carefully controlled to create unusual excitement. Each of his devotees thinks he speaks only to him, looks only at her. One is literally mesmerized into his being for he will not brook any individuality. He is a loath-some character who demands abject surrender, and when questioned about its necessity, replies in a strange passionate way: "I want her [Lee] to be mine. She must be mine completely in heart and soul and … in body also, if I think it necessary." When the surrender occurs, we feel only vile pain, and hear Lee's whimpering sounds against his animal breathing.

It is significant that though India is a country romantically associated with light and truth, travelers seeking those find neither. It is not as if the country identifies a wrong or a right path—what is devastating is that no path, no alternative proves satisfying. The soul, seeking itself, succumbs, eventually to futility. Jhabvala's novel, written in 1975, is delineated in its very title: the dominant image in Heat and Dust is that of disease, its smell is of decay. The spirit is whirled around in the duststorms of late March and succumbs to the heat of midsummer. Early in the novel we are warned, "India always changes people," but they are not transformed into Shakespearean objects strange and new, but seem to be stripped of everything that is their identity and left to die, as if life itself is indifferent to their destiny. The cruelty of India seems more terrible, because it is inhuman. In this novel, most of all, we are reminded of the horrible aspect of Kali who dances on the bodies of her victims, who devours their very entrails in a macabre vision of the life cycle.

"Nothing human means anything here. Not a thing." A young English couple seem merely to repeat a never-changing experience: they came to find peace and all they get is dysentery. "They had been robbed of their watches in a house of devotion in Amritsar; cheated by a man they had met on the train to Kashmir who had promised them a cheap house-boat and had disappeared with their advance;… in Fatehpur Sikri the girl had been molested by a party of Sikh youths; the young man's pocket was picked on the way to Goa …" If this seems a pathetically amusing account of naïve tourists, we are soon assured that similar "robberies" have taken place before, and the victims have been those who know India.

The very structure of the novel reminds us that history is, indeed, repeated. The narrator comes to India in search of the truth about her grandfather's first wife who ran away with an Indian prince in 1923. Clutching the journals she has inherited, she relives in fact and memory, the earlier journey. The English characters in the earlier story are puppets pulled by the strings of duty, stiff-upper-lipped propriety, and all the other shocks Empire was heir to. Amongst this sober lot of petty officials, Olivia seeks to "feel" India. She cannot understand how, surrounded by the exciting life outside, her circle can be satisfied discussing this year's trek to the hills or the washerman who ruins a crepe-de-chine blouse. She is gradually wooed away from this lifelessness by the Nawab who seems to promise her the excitement she craves. He is the charming sensualist who, in order to maintain his lifestyle, relies on thugs to plunder neighboring states. Olivia will not admit to this, and succumbs to him, even to the demand that her pregnancy be terminated in a primitive abortion. Ultimately, all that is left of her is a forlorn house in the hills containing an out-of-tune piano, and some tattered yellow cushions and curtains.

The story of her granddaughter is similarly disillusioning. As she retraces Olivia's journey, she is caught up in the charm of prayer-threads tied for fertility, and gets involved in the delicate problems of caste and personal relationships. Finally, she escapes to the mountainous village where Olivia spent her last days, but here there is no consolation or source of strength. As she looks out of the window of the old house, she can see nothing for it is raining heavily; "it might have made a difference to know that," she murmurs, "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."

If she has attained a solemn peace instead of a grand fulfillment, it may be because she has attained the only degree of contentment offered by contemporary India, and has acquired this only by a stark confrontation with, recognition, and rejection of the old. Is the Doctor's analysis correct that India is only for Indians? Does the Mother Goddess destroy any other who trespasses on her territory? Or does she enjoy a challenge? In a memoir written after his retirement, the English advisor to the Nawab warns, "The most vulnerable are those who love her best … India always finds out the weak spot and presses on it … Yes, it is all very well to love and admire India but one should never, be warned, allow oneself to become softened by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens—the moment one exceeds one's measure—one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side…. She always remained for him an opponent, even sometimes an enemy, to be guarded and if necessary fought against from without and, especially, from within; from within one's own being."

This last sums up the journey made not only by Jhabvala's characters, but by the author herself. "India will exhaust physically and morally, any Westerner that tries to stay … the squalor, heat, indifference, smells and poverty will destroy those not born in the place." In self-defense, Mrs. Jhabvala left the country in 1976 and settled in New York. Significantly, she did not return to her home in England but chose the New World, not because of its promise, but because she feels it is a home for displaced persons. This sense of "immigrant awareness" is her inheritance—an absence of any nostalgia for what is left behind; she feels no ties to any particular country. Those who study her novels cannot avoid their lesson—the individual is left to shift for himself, for the old world provides little strength and the new mutters few words of consolation.

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 25 March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955

SOURCE: "Family Life," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, March 25, 1993, pp. 22-3.

[Fitzgerald is a British novelist and biographer. In the following review of Poet and Dancer, which she calls "the saddest of Jhabvala's books," Fitzgerald discusses the strained relationship between the two main characters, Lara and Angel.]

The poet is not a poet in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's new novel [Poet and Dancer], and the dancer is not a dancer.

'Although her movements were always the same—she waved her arms above her head, she ran now to the right of the room, now to the left—her audience obligingly saw what she wanted them to see. She was pleased, she ran faster, she attempted to spin round; her tread was not light, and she was flustered and breathing hard.'

The dancer aims to impress, but she is also self-deluded. The poet is not.

'When she came upstairs she sat at this table and tried to write poetry. It came very hard. When she was small, words had flown out of her like birds; now they fell back into her like stones. Their hardness seemed to lacerate her, and often she had to rest her head on the table to recover before she could go on.'

These two girls, Lara and Angel, are first cousins. Angel's grandparents, Anna and Siegfried Manarr, arrived from Germany in the Twenties to run the New York branch of the family business. 'Every day Siegfried left for an office and Anna saw him off, helping him into his coat.' There is an exact shade of meaning in 'an'; they were not really interested in the business, they were interested in each other. 'They were two separate, large, plump bodies, but in everything else they were one. Music was their principal interest,' and though Jhabvala, with characteristic dryness, tells us that Siegfried was unable to sing a note in tune, we recognise something beautiful, a lifetime of soothing courtship of which later generations will lose the secret.

The Manarrs have two children, Helena and Hugo. Helena marries Peter Koenig, son of the formidable Grandmother Koenig, who lives enshrined with her ancient German maid among massive furniture. Angel is Helena and Peter's only child, a bespectacled little girl who has to endure the ordeal of solitary luncheons with her grandmother, perched opposite her at a table which once seated 20. Hugo's wife, on the other hand, always seems to be away. His daughter, Lara, left more or less to his care, is very pretty, and 'knew the attendant obligation to be charming. She fully accepted it. She kissed her relatives with her lips thrust far forward to show the pleasure this gave her.' If Jhabvala, the wisest and sanest of writers, ever allows herself to show dislike, it is for young women like Lara Manarr.

The relationship between the cousins is obsessive from the first time they meet, when Lara invites the plain and serious-minded Angel into bed with her and teaches her to masturbate. After Peter deserts the family, Angel lives with her mother and helps her to run her boutique. Like Anita Brookner's dutiful daughters, she seems to have the disposition to obedience. She is prepared for slavery, but she becomes a slave not to Helena but to Lara, forgiving her everything, or rather feeling there is nothing to forgive. Lara, in fact, needs to be needed as much as her cousin does. She is promiscuous, magpie-like in her greed for jewellery, monstrous in her insecurity which takes refuge in a battery of drugs and pills, equally monstrous in her demands on Angel. She gets the expected response. 'I'm never going to leave you alone, ever again. Wherever you are, I'll be with you.'

Very effectively, Jhabvala shows that Angel does have some times of happiness, and even of peace, with Lara. One aimless Sunday evening they go out to the riverside suburbs to see where Peter now lives. He is out, and in the end they do nothing but drive about with a kindly young taxi-man and catch the last crowded train back to Grand Central. 'After a while Angel and Lara were too tired to stand and they slid to the floor. Lara fell asleep, and she, too, was smiling like the other sleeping passengers.' In this eventless interlude the dangerous friendship becomes, for a while, intelligible.

The background of Poet and Dancer is the Manhattan of the recent past, still almost as pastoral as Scott Fitzgerald makes it in The Great Gatsby. Angel gets her early vision of the city from the attic of her grandparents' brownstone, 'looking down into the little paved garden with the brilliant new towers rising above and round her'. All through the first part of the book she catches glimpses of mysterious points of light, the streetlights and the stars together, forming a 'fabulously shifting panorama' whose reflection shimmers in the depths of the East River. It is only towards the end that she perceives the city as oppressive.

For forty years Jhabvala has been respected as an interpreter of cultures and of human beings stranded or transplanted; in particular, of course, the European in India. In 1975 she left India for America. In In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) she considered the German and Austrian refugees in New York, along with her own heritage and identity. In Poet and Dancer the Germanness of the Manarrs and the Koenigs is not the most important element, but it is a very distinctive one. As she first did in A Backward Place (1965), she contrasts, or at least brings close together, the German and the Indian understanding of life in exile. Both Helena and Angel find consolation—which, it's suggested, might have been something like salvation—in their friendship with Mrs Arora and her son Rohit. The Aroras, whose tiny apartment seems always full of visiting relations, have the insistent, engaging charm which Jhabvala has always known so well how to express. Mrs Arora, who goes into business partnership with Helena, importing Indian convent embroideries for the boutique, is sympathetic and caressing. 'Gliding in her sari, she seemed not so much to enter a room as to insinuate herself into it; the same was true of her manner of establishing relationships, which slid subtly over the dividing line between acquaintance and intimacy.' She makes little presents of spicy food covered with lace mats, sprinkles rosewater, withdraws instantly at the slightest hint of rebuff. Rohit, who works in an airline office, is a good boy, a devoted son, and, when she has time for him, a loyal friend to Angel. But in the Aroras' recent memory there is a cruel scar. The elder son Vikram, a delinquent, was stabbed to death in jail while still awaiting his sentence. For that reason Mrs Arora has felt it necessary to emigrate. When Rohit at last tells the whole story of the family disgrace to Angel, sitting beside her in a crosstown bus, she feels an impulse not to go back to Lara, but to give way to 'an opposite desire' and to get off and walk away with him. However, the 'moment of friendship' passes and comes to nothing. This is the unemphatic way in which Jhabvala prefers to record tragedy.

She has suggested herself that her success as a screenwriter has had its effect on her work as a novelist, and certainly the structure of her stories, since Heat and Dust, has become more complex. Poet and Dancer begins with a detached narrator, a woman patient of Hugo Manarr's (he is a psychiatrist). She gets to know Helena, now an eccentric old woman living in a musty apartment on the West Side—living alone, for Angel, it seems, is dead. The narrator, who is a novelist, is asked to write the truth—that is, the story of Angel's life. It is to be (Helena insists) the life of a poet, but there are no poems to be found, except for childish verses, only a collection of Angel's old books, in one of which she has underlined the words:

'And this truly is what a perfect lover must always do, utterly and entirely despoiling himself of himself for the sake of the thing he loves, and that not only for a time but everlastingly. This is the exercise of love, which no one can know except he who feels it.'

This is a passage which might describe not only Angel, but Mrs Arora and her passion for her criminal son. But, the narrator reminds us, she herself has never written anything but fiction, and 'it is not for me to ascribe an epigraph to someone else's life-story.'

Love hasn't much in common with other emotions—fear, anger, pride—because the question of justification hardly arises. Love for the unlovable, as we know, transforms the object from a toad into a prince. But there is no miracle for Angel. Her fate is a wretched one, and there is an overwhelming sense of waste which makes this the saddest of Jhabvala's books. At the very end

'her principal feeling was that a great promise had been made and broken, although it was not clear whether she herself had made and broken it, or whether this had been done to her.'…

Francine du Plessix Gray (review date 28 March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137

SOURCE: "The Cult of the Cousin," in The New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, pp. 13-14.

[Gray is a Polish-born American journalist, novelist, and critic. In the following negative review of Poet and Dancer, she laments the absence of the "talismanic force of the subcontinent" that energized her previous novels.]

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 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In novels like Travelers and Heat and Dust, Ms. Jhabvala's portrayals of the subcontinent's Zeitgeist—its puzzling composite of emotional prodigality and glaring inequalities, mysticism and materialistic greed—were deft and firm. Critics began to note that her India had become as rich a metaphor for universal experience as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or the czarist Russia of Chekhov's fiction.

Ms. Jhabvala's insights into India have been based on an acquaintanceship far more extensive than Forster's. A Central European Jew whose family fled to Britain just before the outbreak of World War II, she married a Parsi Indian in 1951 and moved to New Delhi. There she brought up three daughters, wrote her first 13 books of fiction and began her fruitful collaboration with the film makers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. She continued to live on the subcontinent until 1975, when she felt she could no longer struggle, as she put it, with "the tide of poverty, disease and squalor rising all around … the alien, often inexplicable Indian character." She settled permanently in New York City, where she has lived ever since, returning to India every year for a few months in the winter.

Such a relocation is bound to have a deep effect on any writer's work. The first two novels Ms. Jhabvala published after leaving India—In Search of Love and Beauty and Three Continents—were predominantly set in the United States. Albeit far more minimally, Indian themes and locales continued to inform both these works, which featured Westerners who travel to the subcontinent to seek meaning and redemption with bogus swamis.

This is where Poet and Dancer makes a radical break with all of Ms. Jhabvala's earlier fictions: India as place is totally absent from it; and even India as spirit makes but a brief cameo appearance, in the form of a mother-and-son duo who are merely accessory to the narrative. Indeed, the only perceptible link between Poet and Dancer and her preceding works is that theme of transcendence-through-submission that incited Ms. Jhabvala's previous cult seekers, a motif that this novel's saintly heroine, Angel, exemplifies in her submissive love for her diabolical first cousin, Lara.

Angel is a homely, gauche, introverted girl who early abandoned the precocious, wondrous gift for poetry she possessed as a child. She is plagued by a need (read it as either pathological or angelic, as her name implies) to sacrifice herself to others, to experience that perfect love in which the lover "utterly and entirely [despoils] himself of himself for the sake of the thing he loves" (a quote from a medieval text Angel scribbles in her journals as an adolescent).

In her youth Angel found such blissful subservience in her passion for her mother, the prosperous divorced business-woman Helena, and for her maternal grandparents, German Jewish émigrés settled in Manhattan's Upper West Side. Patterns of bonding in Poet and Dancer are all matriarchal or Amazonian; the novel's principal male characters—Angel's father, Peter, a feckless country-club suburbanite who divorced Helena shortly after Angel's birth, and her mother's brother, Hugo Manarr, a philandering psycho-spiritual guru who wishes to "fashion a new humanity"—are strikingly shadowy and ineffectual.

After the death of her parents, Helena goes into a sorrowful decline and Angel dedicates herself to taking care of her mother, so elated by her selfless devotion that she goes through school and college "waiting for the moment when she could return home." Helena is also brought out of her doldrums by benevolent Indian émigrés, Mrs. Arora and her son, Rohit, who not only revive her spirits but also rebuild her business and ultimately move into her house. In her early 20's Angel finds a new medium of self-negation in her infatuation for her beautiful cousin, Lara, an erstwhile dancer. The young women met just once, when they were 8 years old, and indulged then, at Lara's instigation, in some memorable genital foreplay.

From the moment the monstrously narcissistic, self-indulgent Lara enters the scene, we know that Angel has found the self-immolating love she has sought since childhood. Angel moves in with her cousin and, blinded by passion, becomes mere putty in Lara's invidious hands, abetting all her lies, condoning her most violent tantrums, admiring her lavish shopping sprees, overlooking her demonic egotism, even sanctioning Lara's tempestuous affair with Angel's own father.

As Lara gets increasingly stoned on her pill binges, wounds Angel by throwing a laser disk at her face and brings home innumerable male strangers into their flat, Angel's infatuation with her cousin (a lesbian relationship is implied) only grows more masochistic and obsessive. Angel's mother, Helena, Helena's Indian companions (the only likable and benevolent figures in this grim narrative) and Lara's own hapless psychotherapist father vainly warn Angel of Lara's destructiveness. And when Lara's family decides to hospitalize her, Angel, true to her promise of never leaving Lara's side, must bring the novel to its unspecified but clearly implied and tragic end.

What are we to make of this fable, in which a symbol of absolute evil—the satanically manipulative and egotistical Lara—is pitted against an emblem of absolute good—the self-immolating, saintly Angel? The clearest clue to the author's moral intent is given by one of Lara's victimized lovers, who says years later: "She wasn't mad. Just bad. People are, believe it or not. You can call it by all the fancy names you please."

But the lusterless predictability of this novel's allegorical figures, and their monotonously described Manhattan setting, make it all the harder to take that platitude to heart. Angel and Lara's wooden supporting cast—devoid of any vivid characters like the buffooning guru and picturesque dowagers of In Search of Love and Beauty—brings no respite or relief. The prose of Poet and Dancer is as pristinely sparse and finely honed as that of Ms. Jhabvala's earlier fictions, but one misses her wry humor and her rapier eye for detail.

It is significant that the only characters in Poet and Dancer who begin to come to life are Helena's Indian help-mates; deprived of the mythic undertow and talismanic force of the subcontinent, the damaged creatures who populate Ms. Jhabvala's bleakly two-dimensional Manhattan can be viewed only with horrified detachment. Given the splendor of her previous work, one can only hope that she will eventually re-endow her American terrain with a vigor analogous to that of her Indian novels.

Claire Messud (review date 16 April 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853

SOURCE: "Tainted by Misery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4698, April 16, 1993, p. 20.

[In the following review of Poet and Dancer, Messud claims that Jhabvala's depiction of New York City is less compelling than her portrayals of India in her previous works, and ultimately regards the novel as a failure for its inability to persuade the reader to care about its tragic characters.]

Unlike her past fictional triumphs, such as Heat and Dust or The Householder, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first novel for six years, Poet and Dancer, is not set amid the beautifully conjured complexities of India. It is, rather, a New York novel, but one in which location is important only in so far as its protagonists—Angel, the poet of the title, and Lara, her cousin, the dancer—refuse to engage with it.

New York appears a disordered place, where "there were Japanese businessmen moving in shoals, and stout blond Israelis who ran around on short legs with speed and purpose"; but it is a city where (as in the actual New York) characters glide between apartments or brownstones or restaurants, indoor oases of significance where the world outside does not enter or matter. This is a novel about people rather than about a place—about people's existence despite a place rather than because of it. There is no better setting for such a novel than New York.

Angel and Lara are first cousins. Angel, who has always lived with her mother Helena in a cosy brownstone belonging to her grandparents, the Manarrs, is contented, reclusive, plain and adored by her family. Lara, the daughter of Helena's brother Hugo, spends her childhood being taken round the globe; when she surfaces in New York, she is glamorous, dazzling, beautiful and mysteriously tainted by misery.

Jhabvala captures Lara's nature perfectly when she writes of her as a child visiting the Manarrs in New York:

"She threw herself into her performance. To help the audience, she called out 'Now I am a flower!' 'Now a princess!' 'See the deer!' Although her movements were always the same … her audience obligingly saw what she wanted them to see. She was pleased, she ran faster, she attempted to spin around; her tread was not light and she was flustered and breathing hard …".

As the reader might expect, Angel, to whom Lara appears an exotic and precious butterfly, devotes herself adoringly to her cousin; but Lara proves dangerous and ultimately mad, and the result of their closeness is their mutual destruction. Up to a point it is a familiar scenario—the intimacy between doomed creatures of beauty and devoted observers is a powerful literary convention, from Brideshead Revisited or The Great Gatsby to Donna Tartt's The Secret History—although in most cases side-kicks do not perish alongside the objects of their affection.

Angel, sadly, is not as fortunate as most, and though an observer, she does not survive to narrate the novel (had she done so, it would presumably be called simply "Dancer"). Rather, the narrative is framed by a prologue, in which an unnamed writer explains how she has pieced together the tale that follows from the outpourings of Angel's grief-stricken but now deceased mother, Helena, and from snippets told by Roland, a former bellhop in a hotel Lara inhabited, and her sometime lover.

The prologue's failure is, ultimately, the failure at the heart of the novel; despite Jhabvala's precise and often lovely prose, the premiss does not persuade the reader. Helena is too murky a figure for us to comprehend the narrator's obsession with her story. The dispassionate tone (for example: "Unfortunately it was impossible to tell whether the daughter ever developed as a poet, for there was nothing beyond the juvenilia I had seen on the park bench") does not bring any urgency to Angel and Lara's bond.

That the relationship at the book's core does not come alive is all the more disappointing because of the emotion and skill with which Jhabvala draws the surrounding figures: the Aroras, an Indian mother and son who befriend Helena and Angel, overflow with intriguing detail; the book follows Grandmother Koenig, Angel's paternal grandmother, through a decline into senility (which parallels Lara's descent into madness, but is more affecting); and Rose, the maid who tends her, is rendered charming in her slovenliness. Even the thumbnail sketches of Hugo, Lara's father; of Peter, Angel's father and Lara's lover; of his wife Lilian; and of Roland, the bellhop, suggest more complexity and animation than do the poet and dancer themselves.

It is, on one level, inevitable that this should be so; the bond between any couple is unknowable from the outside, and as long as it is imagined from a distance rather than told from within, it must lose focus and immediacy. It is not mere coincidence that Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby and The Secret History are first-person narratives. Perhaps Ruth Prawer Jhabvala intended to convey the mystery, puzzlement and dissatisfaction about Lara and Angel's relationship with which those characters around them were left. But she seems unaware that her readers are likely to share those sentiments.

Judie Newman (essay date Spring 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5919

SOURCE: "Postcolonial Gothic: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the Sobhraj Case," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 85-100.

[Newman is a British educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, she discusses the Gothic elements of Three Continents and its main character, the multi-national murderer Crishi, who resembles the real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj.]

Gothic motifs are exceptionally prevalent in postcolonial fiction, even from very different locations. Classic post-colonial transformations of Gothic emanate from the Caribbean (Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea), Africa (Bessie Head's A Question of Power) and India (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust). In Canada, Gothic is almost the norm, whether in Margaret Atwood's comic Lady Oracle, or Anne Hébert's Héloise (the Québecois tale of a vampire who haunts the Paris Metro), or Bharati Mukherjee's Asian-Canadian Jasmine. Not surprisingly, when the heroine of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women thinks of writing about Jubilee, Ontario, she promptly chooses to begin a Gothic novel. Nearer home, ghosts wander the pages of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, and J. G. Farrell begins his Empire Trilogy in a decaying Great House, complete with mysteriously fading heroine, demonic cats, and an ever-widening crack in the external wall. Further afield, what is Isak Dinesen doing on a coffee farm in Kenya in 1931 but writing Seven Gothic Tales?

It is Dinesen's activity which first raises the question of the ideological consequences of the transfer of a European genre to a colonial environment. Gothic does not always travel well. As Eric O. Johannesson was swift to note, Dinesen creates a fictional Africa which is the counterpart of the eighteenth-century European feudal world of her tales. Setting out into an African forest, she writes: "You ride out into the depths of an old tapestry, in places faded and in others darkened with age, but marvelously rich in green shades" [Out of Africa, 1937]. One suspects the Kikuyu did not share her view of a leopard as "a tapestry animal." Dinesen exemplifies here the tendency of the West to textualize the colonial, to transform the Other into a set of codes and discourses which can be recuperated into its own system of recognition, as hegemonic discourse accomplishes its project of endlessly replicating itself. The consequences of generic transfer suggest, then, the difficulty implicit in any counter-discourse—the danger of reinscribing the norms of the dominant discourse within its own apparent contestation, as (to quote Richard Terdiman), "the contesters discover that the authority they sought to undermine is reinforced by the very fact of its having been chosen, as dominant discourse, for opposition" [in Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth Century France, 1985].

Rewritings, counter-texts, run the risk of slippage from oppositional to surreptitiously collusive positions. Post-colonial Gothic is therefore Janus-faced. At its heart lies the unresolved conflict between the imperial power and the former colony, which the mystery at the center of its plot both figures and conceals. Its discourse therefore establishes a dynamic between the unspoken and the "spoken for"—on the one hand the silenced colonial subject rendered inadmissible to discourse, on the other that discourse itself which keeps telling the story again and again on its own terms. As a European genre, Gothic cannot unbind all its historical ties to the West. Conversely, its ability to retrace the unseen and unsaid of culture renders it peculiarly well-adapted to articulating the untold stories of the colonial experience. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has analyzed the Gothic emphasis on the "unspeakable," both in the intensificatory sense of "nameless horrors," and in the play of the narrative structure itself, with its illegible manuscripts, stories within stories, secret confessions, and general difficulty in getting the story told at all. As Sedgwick puts it, Gothic novels are "like Watergate transcripts. The story does get through, but in a muffled form, with a distorted time sense, and accompanied by a kind of despair about any direct use of language" [in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, 1986].

In her analysis a central privation of Gothic is that of language. When the linguistic safety valve between inside and outside is closed off, all knowledge becomes solitary, furtive and explosive. As a result dire knowledge may be shared, but it cannot be acknowledged to be shared, and is therefore "shared separately," as the barrier of unspeakableness separates those who know the same thing. This Gothic apartheid is almost a classic definition of Imperialism's hidden discourse—the collaboration in a surreptitious relationship, never openly articulated, which is that of colonizer and colonized.

It is possible, however, for a novel to exploit both strategies—to politicize Gothic by overcoming the taboo on speaking, without slipping into the dominant discourse. A symptomatic reading of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Three Continents is instructive. Three Continents is situated at the sharp end of the Gothic generic transfer, both because of its Indian subject matter, and because of its relation to one of the West's more recent horror stories: the Sobhraj case. Jhabvala indicates the relationship of the "unspoken" of Gothic with the activity of "speaking for" of culture by firmly connecting the "unspeakable" nature of events (dark hints, half-told stories) to a story which has already been told so often as to be recognizably a product of Western hegemonic discourse. In modeling her central protagonist, Crishi, upon Charles Sobhraj, the Asian serial killer, Jhabvala contests a dominant cultural narrative while she avoids buying into the cultural stereotype of the exotic Gothic villain. Rather than shifting the problem of violence onto universal grounds (Gothic evil), Jhabvala emphasizes the mutual implication of literary, cultural and political texts in its production. Social dislocation and socioeconomic dispossession in the wake of the end of Empire become determining factors in the representation of the Gothic protagonist.

A strong strain of Gothic has been identified in the works of Jhabvala, which feature demon lovers, mysterious Indian palaces with intricately concealed secrets, ruined forts, poison, willing victims, and the eroticization of spirituality, with gurus standing in for sinister monks and ashrams for convents. Jhabvala is, of course, influenced by eighteenth-century European literature. Her London University M.A. thesis concerned "The Short-Story in England 1700–1753," and among other topics discussed are the Oriental tale and the falseness of its "East," which was based on preconceived literary notions. Jhabvala also lamented the prevalence of the tale of the "unfortunate maiden fallen into the hands of a dusky seducer." This is nonetheless precisely the plot of Three Continents, in which Harriet Wishwell, the scion of a wealthy, if now declining, American clan, stands to inherit a fortune with her twin, Michael, on their twenty-first birthday. When the pair fall under the spell of the mysterious Rawul, one of Jhabvala's ambivalent guru figures, the possibility looms that their legacy will pass swiftly through his hands and into those of his charismatic second-in-command, Crishi, Harriet's husband, whose sexual favors she shares with homosexual Michael and the Rawul's mistress, Rani. In the novel Jhabvala conflates historical Gothic with the plot of modern Gothic. As defined by Joanna Russ [in The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann, E. Fleenor, 1983], the latter involves a young, shy, passive heroine, with absent or ineffectual parents and a friend or ally in the pale, bloodless "Shadow Male." She travels to an exotic setting, forms a connection with a dark, magnetic "Supermale," finds herself up against "Another Woman," and has to solve a "Buried Ominous Secret," usually in modern Gothic a criminal activity centered on money. The plot generally ends in attempted murder. In Three Continents the exotic area is India; the persecuted Harriet is totally passive and after an initial ambivalence towards dark, super-phallic Crishi, becomes his sexual slave, disregarding sinister rumors. (There was, of course, a first wife with a nameless fate.) Rani features as the other woman. Harriet's family includes a conventionally vapid mother and a pathologically spendthrift father, neither of whom is much help to her. The pallid Michael fulfills the textbook role of the Shadow Male, apparently representing the security of childhood, but actually inducting Harriet into the Rawul's "Sixth World" movement. The Buried Ominous Secret turns out to be an international smuggling ring, masterminded by Crishi who transports jewels and objects d'art across borders under cover of the movement. Throughout the novel the reader is afforded glimpses of the real situation, with recurrent dark hints and a veritable anthology of half-told stories and half-heard conversations in the wings, creating an atmosphere of sustained menace. Elements of historical Gothic are self-consciously introduced, often in a fashion which suggests the conditioning force of the literary genre on Harriet. Her first encounter with Crishi in her brother's room is presented as an erotic shock, "as of a live wire suddenly coming in contact with an innermost part of one's being," though the demon-lover has appeared only to borrow some shaving cream. Later he succeeds in binding Harriet to him, forcing her body to move in unison with his "as if my body obeyed him more than it did me" until she makes good her escape and flees, in true Gothic heroine mode: "I didn't stop running till I was in the house." The scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that what Crishi was enjoying was a three-legged race at a Fourth of July party. Nonetheless, Harriet soon awakens in the night "suddenly as if someone had called me." As a matter of fact, somebody has—Crishi—who is standing by her bed (no Jane Eyre long-distance telepathy here). The couple repair to the emblematic locale of the ruined Linton house, where, after peering through the windows at its ruined splendors (Cathy and Heathcliff), Crishi seduces Harriet. Later, exulting in passion, Harriet describes herself as "a woman savage running to her mate" when in fact she has been dispatched to fetch Crishi's trousers. Quite clearly Jhabvala is consciously exploiting Gothic conventions while underlining the distinction between the conditioning force of literary genre and the resistant fact of Crishi. A group of "bhais," the Rawul's henchmen, rival any eighteenth-century group of banditti, and Rani takes to haunting Harriet's bedroom by night, "her reflection ghostlike in the mirror", like some madwoman in the attic. After a journey through "uncharted regions" sealed in a small chamber lit by a ghostly blue light (the sleeping coupe of an Indian train—an interesting variation on the Gothic image of live burial), the novel ends with the ascent of a winding stair to a crenellated roof terrace, reminiscent of Thornfield Hall, where all is revealed by the villain. The twist in the tale lies in Harriet's transition from victimhood to complicity. At the close, Harriet joins with her demon-lover to conceal Michael's murder and to forge the suicide note which will ensure that his fortune passes to them.

As a smuggler of art objects, Crishi is explicitly connected to the cynical and exploitative transfer of art from one culture to another, in his case via the plundering of the East to the benefit of the West. The questions raised by generic transfer are therefore thematized within the action itself. Artistic transfer is nonetheless a two-way traffic, as Jhabvala's exploitation of European conventions in a post-colonial environment demonstrates. Is this use of "Asian Gothic" merely a Eurocentric, Orientalist strategy, to adopt Edward Said's terminology? Or does it offer the postcolonial writer opportunities to criticize European textual and ideological practices by strategies unavailable to the realist novel? Does it merely contribute to the already abundant literature of India as horror story? Or can it illuminate the roots of violence in the postcolonial situation?

The answer to these questions depends upon an informed awareness of the other story within the novel. Sobhraj's early life stands as emblematic of all those who have been displaced, whether by war, the redrawing of territorial boundaries, changes in cultural sovereignty, political oppression or economic dispossession: all are factors which interact in the production of his story. As the illegitimate offspring of a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, born in Saigon when it was under Japanese occupation administered by the Vichy French regime, Sobhraj's early experiences included capture by the Vietminh, rescue by the British, abandonment by his mother who married a French lieutenant, and life on the streets of Saigon. When French defensive activity reintensified and the lieutenant returned, his mother reclaimed him, only to move to Dhakar, French West Africa, then France. Sobhraj ran away by ship to Saigon, only to be promptly sent to Bombay by his father in a vain attempt to gain Indian citizenship. Stateless, institutionalized at various points, Sobhraj shuttled between countries until adulthood, excluded from the dream of nationality, economic security or family identity.

In the 1970s Sobhraj left a trail of bodies across India, Thailand and Nepal; he specialized in smuggling gems for which he needed a constant supply of fresh passports, bought or stolen from overlanders on the hippie trail. He then graduated to the modus operandi of a "drug and rob" man, first surreptitiously administering laxatives and other drugs, then "medicines" which reduced his victims to helplessness. Many of his targets, like Harriet and Michael, were seeking mystic enlightenment in the East. While planning to rob the jewelry store in Delhi's Imperial Hotel in 1976, Sobhraj was finally caught when he drugged an entire package tour of sixty French graduate engineers, whose instantaneous and simultaneous collapses in their hotel lobby finally aroused suspicion. Sobhraj was at various points arrested and jailed in Kabul, Teheran, Greece and Paris, and made several daring escapes, notably following an unnecessary appendectomy, from which he bore identifying scars. A man of considerable charisma, he often gained the sympathy of his victims and accomplices by tales of his awful youth (as Crishi does with Harriet). His main female accomplice, a young Canadian, appears to have been kept in total sexual thrall to him. Other parallels with the fictitious Crishi are legion. Both men spend part of their youth in Bombay, live by jewel smuggling and participate in murder. The hotel jewelry shop is the locus of mystery in Three Continents. Crishi goes in for martial exercises (for Sobhraj, it was karate), has abdominal scars, prison sentences in Teheran and elsewhere and has carried out jailbreaks. Both Sobhraj and Crishi relish media exposure, the former after his arrest, the latter in connection with the "Sixth World" movement. For both, mobility is all. Harriet tends to assume that Crishi is somewhere around the house, only to receive phone calls from New York or Zurich. (Sobhraj once walked out saying that he would be back in an hour, then sent a telegram from Iran.) At the close, when Harriet is looking for Michael, she encounters Paul, one of the Westerners, who is clearly very unwell. Like others in the group, he has given Crishi his passport and is begging for its return. It is an exact replication of the means by which Sobhraj surrounded himself with couriers, targets and accomplices. Paul came to India "to get away from home, from his family, from himself … not to be bound by anything." Boundless freedom has left him, however, without the means to move on, in a position of statelessness.

Charles Sobhraj's story has already been told several times, in two works of "faction," one since revised and updated, in a T. V. mini-series, and in various newspapers and magazines, quite sufficient to suggest that the Sobhraj case is one of those "Orientalist" horror stories which the West likes to repeat. From the first, the story served ideological purposes. In India it broke at an opportune moment during the Emergency Rule powers of Indira Gandhi, when the Maintenance of Internal Security Act meant that anyone suspected of "subversion" could be jailed indefinitely. In India the international dimension of the story was insisted upon: "India's newspapers, subdued and fearful under Indira Gandhi's dictatorial powers, relished a story that had no political overtones. The 'notorious gang' and 'international killers' were profiled endlessly, mug shots decorating Sunday feature pages" [Thomas Thompson, Serpentine, 1980].

In the West the evolution of the story was classically hegemonic, its political complexities steadily watered down in favor of a stereotypically Orientalist tale. One of the first in the field, Thomas Thompson, in his "faction," Serpentine, drew explicit parallels between the events of Sobhraj's life and the dismantling of the French colonial Empire. Thompson's portrayal of him as a casualty of colonialism, lacking roots, security and identity, ends on a note that appears to have offered Jhabvala the cue for the American opening of her novel. In jail in India Sobhraj was apparently considering his future:

He required a country in which he was neither known nor wanted by police, one in which riches abounded, one whose boundaries were easy to traverse illegally, one whose residents were generous with attention and applause. At last report, the serpentine roads of destiny—he believed—would lead him to the United States.

Thompson's implicit recourse, here, to the "invasion scare" model of Gothic is very much the emphasis of other works, which have tended to minimize the post-colonial background. In Bad Blood Richard Neville and Julie Clarke read Sobhraj in terms of a paradigm of early deprivation. Neville went to Delhi to interview Sobhraj with a theory "of Charles as a child of colonialism, revenging himself on the counterculture" [in Shadow of the Cabra: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj]. He concluded, however, that Sobhraj's claims to anti-lmperialist motivation were groundless, and read his story in terms of individual psychological rejection. Updating the book ten years later for a television mini-series, Neville revealed that his relationship with his co-author had been severely threatened by his involvement in the case, and that the pair had come close to being polarized into victim and accomplice. Julie Clarke's sympathies had remained with the killer's victims; Neville however admitted that when interviewing Sobhraj he came to feel "like a conspirator." The mini-series, Shadow of the Cobra, developed the hint, focusing its plot on the threat to one romantic relationship (two young journalists) and transforming Sobhraj from child of colonialism to diabolical villain. In an artistic trajectory which says much for the extent to which the rage for the Raj has been transformed into the redemonization of the East, the role of Sobhraj was taken by Art Malik, veteran of The Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavillions and Passage to India. The blurb to the reissued tie-in said it all: "An audience with psychopathic mass murderer Charles Sobhraj. It was like having supper with the devil." Reviewers concurred that Sobhraj was a "plausible, Bruce Lee style, Asian flend" operating in the "dangerous jungle" of Asia. There, this "diabolically charismatic" villain took his victim on a "descent into hell." The evolution of the various accounts shows the West writing and rewriting Sobhraj into the norms of the snaky Oriental villain, with socio-economic readings excised in favor of (at best) popular psychoanalysis, and (at worst) elements of Vathek, Milton's Satan and Fu Man Chu.

In contrast, Jhabvala's understanding of the socioeconomic dimension of the story is already evident in her first attempt at the theme. In her short story "Expiation," the plot centers upon a nouveau riche Indian family who have made a fortune in textiles, and their son's fatal involvement with Sachu, a criminal from a deprived background. Sachu's target for kidnap, ransom and murder is the child of an Indian military family, described as light-skinned educated gentry who speak Hindi with an accent "like Sahibs." Arrested, Sachu boasts of his philosophy to the press, much as Sobhraj did. In "Expiation," the crime is less the product of a fiendish Oriental torturer than a revenge across both class and race, against the preceding Imperial norms (the Sahibs) and their replication in a newly industrialized India.

The account chimes with recent research on the serial killer, which contextualizes his motivation in socio-economic terms. Anthropologist Elliott Leyton has argued that serial killers are intensely class conscious and obsessed with status [in Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer, 1986]. The majority are adopted, illegitimate or institutionalized in youth, and seek a sense of identity in international celebrity. Typically their victims are drawn from a social category above that of the killer, and the prime mission is to wreak revenge on the established order. (Ted Bundy, for example, took the most valuable "possessions" of the American middle class, their beautiful and talented university women.) In "Expiation" the fictitious Sachu wreaks revenge simultaneously on the Eurocentric army officers and the new entrepreneurial class via the deaths of both their offspring. For Layton, as for Jhabvala, serial killers are the dark consequences of the social and economic formations that pattern our lives. Killings of this nature are a protest against a perceived exclusion from social discourse, and constitute a form of utterance on the part of those who have looked at their lives and pronounced them unlivable:

The killings are thus also a form of suicide note (literally so with most mass murderers, who expect to die before the day or week is out; metaphorically so for most serial murderers, who sacrifice the remainder of their lives to the "cause"), in which the killer states clearly which social category has excluded him.

The act itself is therefore the "note," an unspeakable crime which is nonetheless a message that society must learn to read. Unlike mass murderers, serial killers tend to want to live to tell their stories and bask in fame. Once society has read the message, the story will be retold by press and media, and become a means to identity. Two other factors cited by Leyton in the formation of the serial killer have a bearing on Three Continents: firstly the inculcation of a dream or ambition which society betrays, and secondly the necessary existence of cultural forms that can mediate killer and victim in a special sense, ridding victims of humanity and killer of responsibility. (Leyton cites the social validation of violent identity in modern films, television and fiction. Jhabvala employs a totalitarian political movement.)

In recasting events in the Gothic mold Jhabvala is able to re-politicize the story, revealing its horrors without stereotypical demonization by insisting on the interrelationship of the Gothic "unspeakable" and the "spoken for" of culture, the discourse from which the postcolonial is excluded, the discourse into which the Other can break only by violence.

Where the Sobhraj case was used in India as a diversion from the increasingly dictatorial nature of the political settlement, Jhabvala supplies a public political dimension by the introduction of the Rawul's militaristic "Sixth World" movement, which dehumanizes its followers and legitimizes brutality on the basis of a vaguely transcendental cult. Ostensibly devoted to the unification of the globe by "Transcendental Internationalism," the Rawul plans its transformation into a "stateless, casteless, countryless" world by transcending not so much spiritual as national and political bounds, and with them "the tiny concepts, geographical or other, of an earlier humanity." Linda Bayer-Berenbaum has connected the resurgence of twentieth-century Gothic with the waning of Sixties cults, arguing that both movements were motivated by the search for an expanded and intensified consciousness. She therefore likened the Gothic revival to "a variety of religious cults that have grown in popularity, be they Christian fundamentalist, Hari Krishna, the Sufis, or most recently, the Moonies. Unlike these movements though, Gothicism asserts that transcendence is primarily evil."

In Three Continents the Gothic "secret" provides an ironic revelation of the real import of the Rawul's transcendental activities in the political world and the extent to which they operate as a legitimizing cover for Crishi, the excluded. Natural and political boundaries are crossed, but for criminal reasons. The movement towards being citizens of the world depends heavily for its day to day activities upon stolen passports. The plan to unite the best of all civilizations translates into the pillaging of material artifacts. Harriet and Michael throw off Western materialism, only for it to come back to haunt them from the Third World. Mobility is the mark of both the Western truth-seeker—and the serial killer. Just as the latter links the culturally spoken and the unspeakable, so Crishi reveals in his actions the revenge of the excluded. Sobhraj, the stateless exile, killed those whose willful deracination parodied his own state, just as Crishi, who has had disinheritance forced upon him, sees to it that his condition is shared.

In addition to reflecting the Rawul's project in a dark mirror, so the Gothic structure dramatizes Harriet's surreptitious slippage from a countercultural to a collusive position, from victim to accomplice, and implicitly from a readerly to a writerly role. At the beginning of the novel Harriet's stunned silence as the Rawul takes over is such as to make her almost a voyeur, watching her story unfold and guessing its outcome from the same hints available to the reader. Again and again the text tells us that Harriet can get no explanations from the men: "What was it all about? Who were they, and why had they come? I waited for Michael to tell me, but he had no time to tell me anything. 'You'll find out,' was all he said." The reader is thus brought into close affective proximity to events, while being simultaneously warned off from any uncritical suspension of disbelief. Originally Harriet and Michael communicate wordlessly, the one often completing the other's thoughts. Crishi, however, appropriates their private language (specifically the term "neti" meaning "phony") and deprives them of it. Though each is enjoying Crishi's sexual favors, neither feels able to discuss the matter, converting their former spiritual communion into a shared secret, separately held. When Harriet shares her bed with Rani as well as Crishi, she feels Michael "willing me not to speak" so that the act remains "unmentioned, rather than unmentionable." The prohibition on speech even extends to Crishi's marriage proposal. He manages to propose by proxy, through Rani, so that Harriet becomes "spoken for" without ever being spoken to.

The secret engagement and muffling of events is in strong contrast to the ever more publicity conscious Movement, which develops to the point at which "interviews became the central activity of the house." The Rawul has a tendency to convert all his utterances into speeches for public consumption, even those delivered to his small daughters. Linguistic and political structures evolve together. A chat with the Rawul becomes "more in the nature of an audience. Everything around the Rawul was taking on more formality." The movement to transcend all boundaries begins to use security guards and checkpoints and to beat up intruders. Even Michael's speech patterns change so that instead of groping for thoughts he becomes brisk and unreflective: "he no longer had to think…. It was all there, all formulated." Where Gothic mystery preserves the possibility of unvoiced stories, the Sixth World movement accretes everything to one public formulation, assisted by Anna Sultan, a journalist who provides their first "major media exposure." Harriet's difficulty in getting at her story contrasts with Anna's ease. Harriet notes that "Everything I had only guessed at Anna seemed to know for sure." Anna's account nonetheless includes a highly fanciful tale of the Rawul's initial encounter with Crishi, first in his dreams, then promptly discovered asleep in a poet's tomb. Over the others' protests, Rani and Crishi endorse the story: "'[I]t's what the common reader wants,' Crishi said. 'Ask Harriet…. Harriet liked it and she's a very common reader. You have to give them these sort of stories.'" The incident provides an explicit comment on the way in which cultural formations function to legitimize exploitation. Anna Sultan herself turns the personal into the public, making her reputation with a daring profile of a Lebanese leader: "daring because she had recorded his private along with his public activities, and had not drawn back from chronicling her own affair with him."

For Anna any assignment involves a love affair, which is speedily terminated when her story is finished. In Crishi, however, she meets her match, as the postcolonial subject refuses textualization except on his own terms. Crishi's only interest is the book which will publicize, authenticate and create his identity, whereas Anna becomes personally attached and exploited in her turn—the fate which threatened Richard Neville at Sobhraj's hands. It is a telling image of the revenge of the excluded subject, who turns his own exploitation against his exploiters to write his own social message.

It is not for nothing that the group is compared to a movie company; their lives are being swallowed up by public performance. The Rawul even stages appropriate public ceremonies to authenticate the movement. Harriet's wedding is briskly converted into a symbol of the synthesis of East and West, so symbolic that Crishi spends the wedding night with Rani. From perceiving herself with Michael as "blank pages no one had ever written on," Harriet is being steadily scripted into a public role. A second ceremony which involves the public weighing of the Rawul against a pile of books, supposedly representing the wisdom of the ages, reveals both the totalizing project of the movement, and its amorality. Like Crishi, the Rawul intends to textualize himself on his own terms. Michael had wanted to buy bound sets of volumes as counterweights, but Crishi exercises a financial veto so that the Rawul is actually outweighed by a motley collection of tattered secondhand copies of the Bible, Plato, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda and Kierkegaard. The form of this attempt to appropriate all cultures to one universal meaning is ludicrously parodic; several volumes have to be removed from the scales to balance the Rawul. Significantly "it was at Kierkegaard that the Rawul started to swing up"—appropriately, given Kierkegaard's separation of the religious and the ethical spheres. The twins, however, react uncritically. For Michael the event is a summation of "everything he had thought and read and experienced…. It was all summed up for him in the pile of books on the one hand … and the Rawul on the other." Meanwhile Harriet uses the mythologizing process in order to put a high gloss on Crishi's activities, reflecting that "it doesn't seem to matter that sometimes these gods don't behave too well, Venus running off with Mars, Krishna cheating on Radha—they still remain gods."

Once on Indian soil however, Crishi lives up to Krishna, his trickily elusive namesake, and naked power emerges from behind the myths and legends as the Rawul's movement swiftly modulates into a conventional political party. Harriet and Michael are now linguistically isolated—they speak no Indian languages. Michael's death is the direct result of the clash between the spoken and the unspoken. Impatiently he demands that the Rawul make a religious oration, rather than merely entertaining influential politicos: "'When's he going to speak? He's got to speak,' he insists." Michael is slow to realize that: "everyone knows that real power, whether political, economic, social, psychological or even mystical, functions silently and has no need of the semblance of speech, even though it never ceases to use that semblance to persuade that we participate" [in A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic, by Christine Brooke-Rose, 1983]. Secure in his power base, the Rawul dispenses with the mediating forms which had previously legitimized him. Instead, his wife speaks, giving secret instructions in her own language to her henchmen who promptly remove Michael. The power to which Michael contributed by his rhetorical formulations is unleashed to silence him, and to consign him to the unspoken of Gothic.

In contrast, Harriet's movement into collusion with crime is rendered as a progression from the unspoken to the fully discursive, as Jhabvala demonstrates that the final horror is equally located in the process of "speaking for." Harriet's collusion is dramatized at the close in the suicide note which she co-authors with the presumed killer. Harriet knows very well that Crishi's account of Michael's suicide is a lie (the supposed suicide note is too badly spelled to be his). She collaborates nonetheless in rewriting the note in more convincing fashion, revising a visibly false story to make it more believable. Revision becomes replication-as-falsity. Harriet would have been truer to the facts of murder if she had allowed the gaps and absences in the original to speak for themselves. No longer a common reader, Harriet has progressed to writing as complicity and betrayal. She writes "with ease," almost with enjoyment, as if becoming Michael, speaking for him, constructing a fiction of defeated dreams as his motive:

I said that I—that is, I, Michael—was going away because there was nothing in this world that was good enough for me…. I said that if once you have these expectations—that is, of Beauty, Truth, and Justice—then you feel cheated by everything that falls short of them; and everything here—that is, here, in this world—does fall short of them. It is all neti, neti.

As that last word indicates, Harriet uses their private language to authenticate a public document. Spiritual communion has become the unspeakable. Framed to meet legal requirements, the note is multiply authored—ostensibly by Michael, actually by Harriet, partly at Crishi's dictation. It is the product of multiple silencing: that of the postcolonial subject, of the woman excluded from knowledge and, fatally, of the representative of the society which excluded them. At the close Crishi has carried out the action which communicates a social message of defeated hopes, while Harriet, writing as a male and at the same time "writing off" a male, has produced a socially legitimizing text. The note therefore conceals—and sanctions—an act of violence.

This essay began with a question—whether the Gothic novel is an accomplice in the process of Eurocentric textualization of the East, or whether it may serve to reveal the sources of violence in the colonial encounter. In counter-cultural Harriet, who slips into the position of accomplice, Jhabvala provides a searching investigation of the psychopathology of power, the process of domination and its relation to mediating cultural forms. The complicity of the writer in generic manipulation and transfer may indeed amount to collusion in violence and exploitation, but may also reveal the bases of such violence in silencing and exclusion. The duplicity of Gothic—its propensity for crossing boundaries, violating taboos, transgressing limits, together with its sense of blockage, privation and prohibition against utterance—makes it the perfect means to dramatize the horrors of the relationship between the social group which sanctions its actions by cultural forms, and the excluded from discourse who speak by deeds. The Gothic undermines the Rawul's pretensions to one-ness and totalization at the same time as it preserves the unspeakable quality of the killer's actions. By its intertextual nature, its ability to translate from one text to another and back, it prevents the univocal from holding sway. At the close, therefore, Jhabvala offers a multiple text, a piece of writing which conceals a secret and reveals a silenced story, which demonstrates the writer's complicity and—by highlighting issues of fictionality—separates the reader from affective collusion. As the original suicide note showed, truth for the postcolonial writer may be measured as much by its failure to represent itself as by its social production. What the Gothic does not say, its half-told stories, constitute the evidence of a contrary project undermining public formulations. By preserving the unspoken within the text, Jhabvala remains true to the events of both political and social history.

Molly E. Rauch (review date 11 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

SOURCE: "Other Voices, Other Rooms," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 261, No. 7, September 11, 1995, pp. 244-5.

[In the following mixed review of Shards of Memory, Rauch calls the complex relationships of the novel part of a "paradox that … lacks depth."]

In her twelfth novel, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala once again addresses the themes of family and history through the premise of a set of old papers. It's a method she cultivated many books and screenplays ago in her Booker Prizewinning Heat and Dust (1975), in which a woman discovers her late step-grandmother's scandalous letters and goes to India to investigate. As in Bharati Mukherjee's more recent Holder of the World (1993), the double-time plot can make for a refreshing reclamation of the past.

But not always. From a cache of scraps and scrawlings, Shards of Memory traces the lives of an American/British/Indian clan with Jhabvala's familiar multicultural ease. A pianist-turned-devotee travels from her lavish New York home to London, where she meets a young Bombay native reciting sticky poetry. They both want to sit at the feet of the Master, their spiritual teacher, who, typically, never shows up. No matter: The disciples marry and have a child, Baby. Baby becomes a wise woman who routinely flies to London to rescue needy relatives. In time, her grandson Henry, crippled by a near-fatal car accident, inherits several trunks stuffed with the Master's polyglot scribblings. His parentage uncertain—the Master may have been his father—Henry delves into the documents in search of this elusive, mango-loving charismatic.

In bits and pieces—shards, of course—Henry learns not only about the Master but also about his family. True to her title, Jhabvala manages to leave out whole chapters of crucial information. Take the Master. Strange thing this: His teachings and preachings are practically absent from the book. For instance, Henry sums them up: "Overcome your self." And Henry's mother, Renata, wanders for so much of her life and this novel is a "vague mist" that we never know what she's thinking, or even if she can.

With gaps such as these, Jhabvala is waving an impatient hand at us. Shoo, she may be saying, I have three more generations to go. And it's true, she occasionally guns the engine of her saga: Three main characters die, one is crippled for life and ten years pass all in the space of three pages. But she also means the gaps.

Her shrewd satire implicates her characters—if not her skill—in the allowance of such holes. Kavi, for example, the patriarch of the family, is a "shriveled sage in white muslin." After he sinks into his "final darkness," his progeny trek to the Hudson River and scatter his ashes, which "seemed to disappear not into the water but into the blaze of light reflected on its surface." Compare this holy departure with the death of the Master, who gorges himself on a decadent feast and drinks bottle after bottle of liquor until, bulging and sweating, he chokes on a piece of meat. "He clutched in his agony at the tablecloth, bringing all the plates, dishes, glasses, bottles, and decanters crashing down with him…. He heaved and retched and swelled till, unable to explode, he imploded." Ugh. His devotees hardly blink at this debauched ending. They are desperate for spiritual fulfillment, and their blind attraction to the Master requires a disregard for details and reasons that mirrors Jhabvala's own disregard for such particulars.

The devotees nevertheless persist in their quest for enlightenment, thwarted by their ambitious dreams of master-hood and their stubborn resistance to change. So many male centerpieces: Besides the spiritual Master, there is Kavi, the florid poet, as the literary master; Henry, the leader of the future, as the intellectual master; and stodgy Graeme, Baby's husband and a rather cloistral Brit, as a patriarchal master.

Women? Well, yes, and women of extraordinary strength. But they all have their masters, spiritual or nuptial, and their masters are men. Even the most tenacious and determined of them all, Baby, speaks her first words in self-deprecating subservience: "I'm not really the right person to tell you anything because my thoughts—if I have any at all, my husband would have said—are not very orderly." That she then goes on to explain immensely complex relationships in a lucid and amusing manner is a paradox, but a paradox that, like much of the novel, lacks depth. If Jhabvala were remarking on such patterns, or exploring their implications, there might be provocative insights borne of this male-centeredness. Instead, themes such as Baby's self-effacement are made to seem inevitable. Thus Jhabvala's fictional family ends up, four generations later, where it started: still crossing signals, still passive in the face of disappointment, still befuddled by missed opportunities. How unmasterly of them all—except the one winking mischievously, waving her hand at us, shooing us on our way.

C. K. Stead (review date 30 November 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1895

SOURCE: "The Master," in The London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 23, November 30, 1995, p. 12.

[Stead is a poet, fiction writer, and critic from New Zealand. In the following review of Shards of Memory, he suggests that when Jhabvala does not attempt "to represent India truthfully, accurately, in all its complexity," her novels, like this one, lack energy and focus.]

Henry James's injunction to the novelist was 'Dramatise! Dramatise!' Ezra Pound advocated 'the presentative method'. A dozen lesser but important voices have urged that modern fiction must enact, not tell. The strongest intellectual pressures on the serious novelist in this century have all been, that is to say, in the direction—the ultimate direction—of the playscript or the screenplay and away from the elaboration of prose as prose. But what does the writer do in her novels who finds herself engaged outside them in writing screenplays? Does her fiction push back in the opposite direction, against the flow of history? Does the novel become a space for the kinds of writing which screenplays forbid—a large loose bag into which she can pop odd pieces of narrative embroidery?

Such questions may help to explain the unsatisfactoriness of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's recent novels. Or simpler explanations may be more pertinent: waning energy, for example, and the loss, or abandonment, of her real—her serious—subject.

Polish-born, English-educated, married to an Indian, and living, at least until the Eighties, most of her adult life in India, Jhabvala has been a writer with a subject. She has been able to put India into Western drawing-rooms in a way that made it almost intelligible. She has belonged to India, but not entirely. In an essay she once described the three stages of a Westerner's reaction to that country: 'first stage, tremendous enthusiasm—everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable.' For some people, she says, the cycle goes on: 'I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself as strapped to the wheel.'

The result has been a special kind of detachment. All her views of India are provisional. She can present its manners and people comically without mocking or demeaning them; she can present them tragically, while preserving a few grains of irony. And there has been a gradual sense of deeper understanding. The view from the outside has become (especially, perhaps, in the short stories) a view not just from within Indian society but almost from within the Indian temperament and sensibility.

Her subject has been, of course, not so much India as India in Westerners' perceptions of it; and there are certain things which she will not let us forget. It is 'a backward place' (the title of one of her novels) where poverty, violence and injustice exist on a scale too huge to be corrected, are impossible to escape from and depressing to the sensitive soul, not least because in time they come to be accepted. It is also a place of great physical discomfort, especially of 'heat and dust' (another title). It is a society which baffles the Western mind, combining a terrible passivity with a mysterious and even dangerous power. It is a place of contrasts—ugliness and beauty, sensuality and spirituality.

I suppose it was inevitable that as Jhabvala's life changed (she now divides her time, the blurb tells us, between New York and Delhi), the fiction would change too; and Three Continents, the novel before the last, signalled that it was to be a change entirely for the worse. Shards of Memory continues along the same lines. What is lost, I suspect, is the discipline of trying to represent India truthfully, accurately, in all its complexity. Without that effort, Jhabvala's imagination appears to have few clear reference points and little ballast. The Indian novels impressed because they were real, truthful, observant, conscientious, witty and plausible. Three Continents and Shards of Memory seem by comparison like a child's game of 'let's pretend'.

The new novel is set mostly in New York with some scenes in London and a few flashbacks to Delhi. It covers an ill-defined but considerable timespan which, given the generations passed through, ought to be even greater than the novel's few defining points allow. American Elsa, daughter of Dorothy Kopf, while visiting London in search of a guru known as the Master, meets and marries an Indian poet, Hormusji Bilimoria, known as Kavi. Their child, known throughout the novel, even in her old age, as Baby (she has a name but unlike her father's it is not divulged), tells the opening 40 pages of the story, after which it continues in the third person. Elsa leaves Baby with her mother in New York and returns to London to live in a warring lesbian relationship with Cynthia Howard, another devotee of the Master. So there are two households: in New York, Kavi with his mother-in-law and daughter; in London, Elsa and Cynthia.

In the flip of not many pages (with sections beginning, 'Several more years passed …') Baby has grown up and married English diplomat Graeme, a nephew, as it happens, of Cynthia. These two stay together only long enough to engender a daughter, Renata, after which Graeme goes on his philandering way, and Baby on hers. In not too many more pages Renata has grown up and gone to London to stay with her grandmother Elsa and great-aunt Cynthia. There she meets and is almost imperceptibly (in the sense that neither he nor she seems to notice) impregnated by Carl, a young German who carries about with him a manuscript entitled 'Education as Elevation', attempting to interest people he meets in the street in its ideas. This he will continue to do without success for the novel's next 20 years and 40 pages—long enough for Henry, his child to Renata, to grow up in New York, receive terrible injuries in a car crash in London while visiting his great-grandmother Elsa and great-great-aunt Cynthia, and learn that he is the spiritual child of the Master. This is so, it seems, because it was the Master who, while idly touching Renata's breasts and belly during her first visit to him, perceived that she was pregnant—something she had not guessed; and also because the Master's death (he chokes on a piece of meat) and Henry's birth are more or less simultaneous.

Parallel to this blood-line, which passes through five generations in 100 pages while losing only great-great-grandmother Dorothy, there is another, that of Madame Richter, a Russian immigrant piano teacher in New York, and her female descendants. Madame Richter lives with her daughter in one room in a rundown house on the West Side; and with the appalling and implausible stasis which afflicts the characters in this novel, 'she lived there for years, her granddaughter was born and brought up there."

By page 47 the granddaughter is giving the piano lessons, but Madame Richter is still present, making sure it is done right. The old lady 'seemed not to have changed, except that she had only a few strands of her white hair left and almost no teeth. Even her black coat looked the same, green with age and threadbare.' Here one must feel sympathy with the novelist labouring under contradictory pressures. Madame Richter is 'hardly changed' because she has only been around for forty pages; but the passage of time, which is considerable, has robbed her of hair and teeth. This seems to me only just short of saying someone was hardly changed except that she was dead.

Much further on in the novel, in a retrospect on this female line, we learn that Madame Richter's daughter Sonia was almost certainly fathered by the Master. Sonia's daughter Irina was in turn fathered by Madame Richter's landlady's son, who then went to jail and was not seen again. And Irina's daughter Vera was fathered by an itinerant Irishman beside whom Irina carelessly came to rest one afternoon in Central Park. Thus when Henry inherits the Master's papers and takes Vera as his assistant to work on them, there is an appropriateness in that she is the great-granddaughter and he the spiritual son of the papers' author.

What is in these papers? Not much, it seems, since the Master gave little away, and perhaps had little to give. In any case such esoteric truths as gurus deal in are difficult for the novelist to invent—they have to be suggested rather than presented. But we have to accept that there is enough to make it necessary for Henry to need an assistant—this, of course, because the plot needs Vera—and enough to keep Henry and Vera occupied while Jhabvala jams into the bag, or tacks onto the patchwork, one or two fictions that she perhaps had no other place for. One of these, in two parts, is extraordinary; and not surprisingly it takes us back to her old subject, India.

Cynthia's nephew Graeme appears first on page 35, marries Baby on page 39, fathers Renata on page 42, and having done the service which is the males' sole, or chief, function in this novel, disappears until page 92, by which time he is already retired: 'Now, fifty years later and at the end of his career, Graeme came [to Cynthia's and Elsa's house] every Sunday for the traditional roast beef lunch.'

But a hundred or so pages further on Jhabvala decides to bring him back into the story. He suffers a heart attack and is returned to Baby, who looks after him until the final page. By this device he is made the source and revealer of information and reminiscences, some of which concern the Master and are thus part of the story, others of which are there simply for their own sake.

Two of these are from Graeme's varied love life. One concerns a single sexual encounter with a woman in a poor quarter of Delhi; the other is a prolonged affair of the mind with the niece of an Indian leader who herself rises to fame and leadership in later years, and is assassinated. Coming close to the end of a novel in which the sense of real life, real human character, is so thin, these fifteen or so pages are a fatal mistake. They leap out and take one by the scruff of the neck, and become the measure by which all the rest is found wanting. They confirm for the self-doubting reader that it is not he but the novelist whose batteries have needed recharging.

Stories are commonly designed to make us hope for a particular ending; sometimes our wish is granted, sometimes not—either outcome, the happy or the sad, is equally conventional. In this novel the conventional hope is that Vera and disabled Henry will declare their deep but secret feeling for one another. The hope is disappointed on the final page. But if you care to reread, you will be rewarded with (more or less) the hoped-for ending, which will have meant nothing when you first encountered it—a brief jump into the future on page 40. 'Henry checked with everyone else still alive—his parents, and also Vera (Mme Richter's great-granddaughter), though that was not until several years had passed, after Vera's marriage broke down and she more or less came back to him.'

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908


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 annotated list of reviews and essays on her work.


Lassell, Michael. "The Passionate Observer." The Los Angeles Times Magazine (28 November 1993): 30-4, 62.

Recounts Jhabvala's youth, mentioning her family's flight from the Nazis, her unpopular reputation in India, her film career, and sense of cultural rootlessness.

Streitfeld, David. "Cool Candidate." Book World—The Washington Post (28 March 1993): 15.

Brief overview of Jhabvala's career following the release of the Merchant-Ivory film Howards End and the publication of Poet and Dancer.


Agarwal, Ramlal G. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study of Her 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 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, Of Whom She Will, and The Nature of Passion, concentrating on how the characters conduct themselves in society.

Craig, Patricia. "Those for Whom India Proves too Strong." The London Review of Books 10, No. 31 (31 March 1988): 27.

Positive review of Three Continents, which Craig summarizes as being about "the dangers inherent in not adopting a properly sceptical attitude to strangers who come proclaiming unity and amity."

Cronin, Richard. "The Hill of Devi and Heat and Dust." Essays in Criticism XXXVI, No. 2 (April 1986): 142-59.

Comparative essay focusing on E. M. Forster's The Hill of Devi, an account of the author's relationship with the Maharajah of Kohlapur in the 1920s, and Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust, parts of which take place in the same period.

Dudar, Helen. "In the Beginning, the Word; at the End, the Movie." The New York Times (8 March 1992): H15, 20-1.

Discusses the making of Howards End with Jhabvala and James Ivory. Jhabvala states that "the first rule [of screenwriting] is not to be reverent. The only thing is to be disrespectful."

Freeman, Judith. "Cousine, Cousine." The Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 March 1993): 3, 9.

Positive review of Poet and Dancer, which calls the relationship between cousins Angel and Lara a "guru-disciple relationship run amok."

Gooneratne, Yasmine. "'Traditional' Elements in the Fiction of Kamala Markandaya, R. K. Narayan and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala." World Literature Written in English 15, No. 1 (April 1976): 121-34.

Comparison of several contemporary writers of Indian fiction, whose writing Gooneratne contends is influenced by English fiction as a result of colonialism.

―――――. "The Expatriate Experience: The Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Paul Scott." In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson, pp. 48-61. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Comparative analysis.

Gray, Paul. "Tribute of Empathy and Grace." Time 127, No. 19 (12 May 1986): 90.

Reviews Jhabvala's short story collection Out of India.

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. "Eastward Ho!" The New York Times Book Review (17 September 1995): 12.

Mixed review of Shards of Memory.

Jenkins, Victoria. "Two Obsessed Girls Observed." Chicago Tribune—Books (28 February 1993): 3.

Positive review of Poet and Dancer, comparing Angel's and Lara's unhealthy relationship to a psychological case study.

Lenta, Margaret. "Narrators and Readers: 1902 and 1975." Ariel 20, No. 3 (July 1989): 19-36.

Comparative essay which relates the similarities and differences of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published in 1902 and intended for a primarily European audience, with Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, published in 1975 and geared towards a more cross-cultural readership.

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.

Sastry, L. S. R. Krishna. "The Alien Consciousness in Jhabvala's Short Stories." The Two-Fold Voice: Essays on Indian Writing in English, edited by D. V. K. Raghavacharyulu, pp. 164-73. Guntur: Navodaya, 1971.

Discusses stories from Like Birds, Like Fishes and A Stronger Climate.

Towers, Robert. "Breaking the Spell." The New York Review of Books (8 October 1987): 45-6.

Review of Three Continents, stating that though the novel takes place in the United States and England, Jhabvala has infused it with an Indian theme, that of "the relationship of a circle of needy and demanding disciples to the authoritarian guru at their center," though he complains that the novel contains too many stereotypical characters and complicated events.


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.

Freedland, Jonathan. "The Books of Ruth." The Washington Post (7 November 1993): G4-5.

Discusses her 32-year association with Merchant and Ivory.

Fuller, Graham. An interview with James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Interview XX, No. 11 (November 1990): 130-5.

Discussion of the making of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

May, Yolanta. An interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The New Review, No. 21 (1975): 53-7.

Discusses the awarding of the Booker Prize to Heat and Dust. The author comments on her insights into Indian community life from the perspective of a European.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 8)