Biography

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has lived her life as an expatriate—in England, India, and America—and consciousness of this fact has shaped her fiction. Having spent twenty-five years in India and having produced the bulk of her novels, short stories, and film scripts there, it is her personal experience of the East-West encounter that has molded her work. Her observations of Indian life have provided most of her fictional material. Jhabvala has shown particular interest in tracing interactions between Indians and Westerners in various kinds of relationships. Her writing is marked by details of Indian life that only an outsider would notice and remember; this bestows on her fiction a unique character and vision.

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Biography

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The novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (jahb-VAH-lah) was the daughter of culturally assimilated German-Jewish parents who were forced to flee to England in 1939, when Ruth Prawer was twelve years old. She became a British subject in 1948 and married C. S. H. Jhabvala, a Parsi architect, in 1951. The couple moved to Delhi, India, where they reared three daughters and Jhabvala became a full-time writer.{$S[A]Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth;Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer}

In “Myself in India,” the introduction to Out of India: Selected Stories, Jhabvala declares that despite having spent most of her adult life in India and having an Indian family, she remained European. Her early works, set in India, reflect the detached, ironic viewpoint of an alien. After Jhabvala’s first novel, To Whom She Will, critics designated her the Jane Austen of middle-class Delhi urban society; categorized as comedy of manners, her work was praised for its wit and accuracy of observation. The five novels and three volumes of short stories she wrote during the next fifteen years maintained a similar tone, though it darkened considerably as the self-deceptions of her characters deepened. In the 1960’s Jhabvala entered artistic partnership with the newly founded film production team of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory and started writing screenplays and adapting the works of others, among them Henry James’s The Bostonians and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Howards End; this new genre, in turn, influenced the style and structure of her novels. Thus when A New Dominion appeared in 1972, critics noticed resemblances not to the work of Austen but to that of Forster. Heat and Dust, which followed three years later and is even more complex and experimental, juxtaposes two stories, that of a colonial wife who left her husband for an Indian prince in the 1920’s and that of her step-granddaughter, who fifty years later, goes to India to solve an old riddle and herself becomes captivated by the land. Often designated Jhabvala’s masterpiece, Heat and Dust won the prestigious Booker Prize.

In 1974 Jhabvala moved to New York City; from then on she returned to Delhi only for three months each year. In the novels written since her move to the United States, the international theme expanded. In Search of Love and Beauty, for example, examines the lives of a group of German-Jewish refugees to America over a forty-year period. Three Continents, based loosely on the exploits of an Asian serial killer, tracks relationships between an American family and visiting Indians and Eurasians; the setting shifts from the United States to England and finally to India. Jhabvala continued to collaborate with Merchant and Ivory on films that include The Remains of the Day, which was an overwhelming critical success, and the less successful Jefferson in Paris. Jhabvala has won numerous awards, most of them for her screenwriting; Room with a View and Howards End both won Academy Awards for best screenplay adaptation.

Throughout her writings Jhabvala has remained preoccupied with the problem of alienation and the conflicts of individuals who are geographically and spiritually adrift. Even when the locale changes, the themes remain the same. In To Whom She Will, for example, two lovers are separated by the fact that one is an anglicized Hindu, the other a Punjabi Hindu. Heat and Dust features parallel stories of love and betrayal, each involving a Western woman and an Indian man; the young narrator, a British woman, feels more distant from her Western hippie lover than from the Indian man by whom she conceives a child. In the American novels the theme of alienation becomes even more complex. The members of the immigrant family in In Search of Love and Beauty are strangers in New York; the family members in Three Continents on the other hand, are entrenched in Connecticut yet choose to become aliens in India because they hope to find a spiritual reality there. Poet and Dancer explores the dangerous closeness between two cousins, Angel and Lara. Shards of Memory, placed in Manhattan, traces the history of a family of mixed Indians, British, and Americans who follow a charismatic religious leader called only “The Master” over four generations.

Although her writing is rarely autobiographical, it is always generated by the powerful perceptions of a woman born in Germany, reared in England, matrimonially bound to India, and now artistically active in New York City. It is impossible to thrust Jhabvala into any national or ethnic literary category, and few novelists since Henry James have so powerfully explored the international theme.

Biography

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Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927, the second child of Marcus Prawer, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, and Eleanora Cohn. The family left Germany in 1939. Most of their relatives perished in World War II.

In England, Prawer was educated at a grammar school and at Queen Mary College, London University. In 1951, she received her M.A. in English literature; her thesis was on the eighteenth century short story. Soon afterward, she married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, an Indian Parsi, who had studied architecture at the university. They settled in New Delhi, India, where, with her husband’s encouragement, she began producing fiction. Shortly after the birth of their first daughter, Jhabvala completed a novel, To Whom She Will (1955). In 1957, her stories began appearing in The New Yorker.

In 1961, film producers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant asked Jhabvala to write a screenplay of her novel The Householder (1960). Thus began a collaboration that produced some of the most admired films of the twentieth century. In 1975, Jhabvala moved to New York City but continued to maintain a close relationship with her husband.

Biography

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Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927, the daughter of Marcus and Eleonora Prawer; her family’s heritage was German, Polish, and Jewish. She emigrated to England in 1939, became a British citizen in 1948, and obtained an M.A. in English from Queen Mary College, London, in 1951. That same year, she married C. H. S. Jhabvala, an Indian architect, and went to live in India. Jhabvala formed a profound, albeit conflicted, relationship with that country. With her Indian husband and Indian-born children, Renana, Ava, and Feroza, she has had the unique opportunity of seeing the subcontinent from the privileged position of an insider but through the eyes of an alien. Thus, rootedness in a culture and people, an issue with which she is intimate, provides a wellspring for her screenplays, novels, and stories.

Jhabvala has returned to India, for millions a place of ancient wisdom and spiritual equilibrium, time and again. Her exposure to the waves of young foreigners who descended on India in the 1960’s, only to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “mystics,” influenced such books as Three Continents. Indeed, the theme of religious charlatans permeates much of Jhabvala’s work. While she would spend three months of each year in New Delhi, Jhabvala settled in New York in 1975, living near her friends and film colleagues, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. Her work on film scripts with the team, which began in the 1960’s, enriched her technique as a writer of fiction and widened her vision. One may well view this move to New York as initiating the second major influence on Jhabvala’s body of work, giving rise to her collection of short stories East into Upper East. In 1986, Jhabvala made her commitment to her chosen home official by becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States.

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