When Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died in New York in April 2013, The New York Times published her obituary under the heading: ‘Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85’. Many other obituaries included photographs of Jhabvala along with Ismail Merchant (who died in 2005) and James Ivory, the producer director team with whom Jhabvala had a long, fruitful and acclaimed association, spanning several decades: Merchant was the producer, Ivory was the director, and Jhabvala was the screen writer. She wrote screenplays for more than 20 films for the Merchant Ivory production that saw her win the Oscar for the best screenplay twice. Many of the films were adapted from literary novels, some of Jhabvala and some of others. (She won the Oscars for her screenplays for the films based on the novels of E.M. Forster—A Room with A View and Howard’s End).
One wonders what Jhabvala would have made of the obituaries; a fair number focused on her (admittedly considerable) achievements in films, which she described on more than one occasion as her hobby. (She listed script-writing as a ‘recreation’ in her Who’s Who.)
Ismail Merchant, James Ivory & Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ruth Prawer jhabvala, without doubt, was a talented script-writer (even if she did not take it seriously); she was also an outstanding novelist. She wrote a dozen novels and several short-story collections. One of her novels won the Booker Prize, Britian’s highest literary award, in 1975.
Over the years, I have read several novels of Jhabvala, but, regrettably, not as many short-stories as I ought to have. I loved all the novels that I read, and Jhabvala became a very favourite author.
Below are some of the Jhabvala novels I have loved:
Heat and Dust
This is easily one of my all-time favourite novels. It is a slim novel which slips in and out of the lives of two women—the unnamed narrator, and Olivia, the reprobate first wife of her grandfather, whose name is a taboo in the family circle, for the scandal she caused—who arrive in India, fifty years apart. In some ways it is a predictable, a-Westerner-goes-to-India-and-has a life-changing-experience novel. What makes it a winner for me is Jhabvala’s lucid prose style which manages to convey vividly for the reader the oppressive, claustrophobic climate of India, which affects you in ways you didn’t think possible. It is unsentimental, truthful and unputdownable. Heat and Dust won the 1975 Booker Prize (a strange scenario in which no long-list was announced, and the short-list consisted of only two novels). Heat and Dust was later made into a Merchant Ivory film for which Jhabvala wrote the screenplay.
This is an early novel, first published in 1960. It was the catalyst for the long association between Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. (I read in one of the obituaries that when Merchant and Ivory travelled to Delhi, where Jhabvala was living at the time, to persuade her to write the screenplay for the film they wanted to make based on the novel, so nervous was she that she pretended, upon first meeting them, that she was her mother-in-law!) This novel is a little gem, crackling with dry witticism and humorously perceptive. If Heat and Dust was an outsider’s view of India, The Householder is an insider’s perspective, and depicts for the reader, the pretensions and airs of the Indian middle classes (of the 1950s) in an entertaining, yet warm, manner. Wry and recondite, I will rate this novel on par with some of the highly comic early novels of V.S. Naipaul.
Esmond in India
This is another early novel of Jhabvala, and another comedy of manners that does not fail to delight. The story proceeds in a series of humorous vignettes. The novel is also an oblique commentary on the uneasy relationship between the Indians and the Britishers who ‘stayed on’ (after the title of the Paul Scott novel with a colonial theme, which went on to with the Booker Prize in 1977) in the newly independent India. The novel subtly, but very skilfully, highlights the contrasts in the life-styles of the new Indian elites and the former-ruling-elites. There are some highly amusing set-pieces in the novel, but there is also an underlying seriousness. This is a first-rate novel.
A Backward Place
This novel came out in the 1980s. By this time the wellspring of Jhabvala’s love for India, which couldn’t possibly have been more removed from the place of her birth, had dried out. She had left India, where she had lived for more than two decades, a few years earlier, and relocated to New York; but India, it seems, still haunted her. A Backward Place, which tells the story of Bal whose grand ideas and visions do not sit well with the life he lives with his jaded English wife, in India, has its comic moments, but there is an edge to the humour. Some of the scenes in the novel are very delicately nuanced. This is a novel, while comic in parts, has a darker theme. (I find a similar trend in the novels of V.S. Naipaul. His early novels brim with innocent humour and depict simple lives of simple folk; the themes begin to get very sombre in his later novels, most of which do not show a trace of humour. Many of Jhabvala's later novels have a melancholy strain to them, but, unlike Naipaul's later novels, they are not totally devoid of humour.) Jhabvala was German Jewish by birth and spent the majority of her life in India and America, but the style of her writing, the chilling humour and witticism, very much on display in this novel, are very British, in my opinion.
In Search of Love and Beauty
This may be the only novel of Jhabvala that is not set in India. It has an American setting, New York to be precise, the city where Jhabvala came to live after she had had enough of India, and where she lived the longest. Like many of Jhabvala’s other novel,s the momentum of the story builds up gradually through a series of scenes and incidents. The theme, here, is of uprootedness (something which Jhabvala carried with her at the core of her soul all her life; in an interview given to The Guardian a few years ago, she described herself as a refugee), thwarted lives and unfulfilled ambitions. As in A Backward Place, there is a brilliant juxtaposition of comedy and pathos.
My Nine Lives
This was the last published full-length novel of Jhabvala, which came out in 2004. It had a subtitle: Chapters from a possible past, which suggested that the novel was autobiographical. This novel, which, I think, comes in the category of fictionalized memoir (a genre exploited expertly by the Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee, in a series of books, starting with Boyhood, in the last ten years) is an utterly fascinating read. The story proceeds in a series of tales, told in nine chapters, through nine possible lives, which unfold on the backdrop of what might (or might not) be Jhabvala’s own past. In common with many of Jhabvala’s later books, the theme unifying these lives is of sorrow and loss of promise.
Going through the obituaries I learned that Jhabvala was born as Ruth Prawer to German Jewish parents in 1927, in Cologne, Germany. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany the family, throughout the 1930s, experienced harassment and discrimination. Her father was a solicitor and found it impossible to get work as the anti-Semitism grew. The father finally managed to persuade his wife to leave Germany in 1939; the Prawers were one of the last Jewish families allowed out of Germany. Ruth Prawer was 12 when she arrived in England along with her parents and older brother, and could not speak English. (She never went back to Germany or spoke German. Indeed she very rarely spoke about her childhood. Her brother, on the other hand, became a professor of German and European languages at Oxford.) The Prawers were the only ones to survive from the extended clan; the rest, numbering almost 40, perished in the Holocaust. Her father, when he finally discovered the fates of all his near and dear ones, committed suicide in 1948. In 1951, while studying English in London, Prawer met a young Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala. She married him and went with him to India, where she lived for the next 25 years. It was while she was in India, in the mid-1950s, that she began writing novels. Indeed, so accurate was her depiction of the Indian lives in her novels that many critics in India (so I read in one of the obituaries) thought that she was an Indian writer. Heat and Dust, for me her most complex and satisfying novel, which came out in 1975, was the last novel she wrote in India. By this time she was tiring of India. She had mixed, often contradictory, feelings towards the country which was her home for more than two decades, but which was now exhausting her. Her husband was Indian, and she accepted that her children were Indian; but she was a central European 'with a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis'. (In their adult lives Jhabvala’s three daughters would settle in the three continents which, at various times, were Jhabvala’s homes: Europe (England), India, and America.) Her health was suffering, and she decided to move to New York. She would live in America for the remainder of her life. After she moved to America, Jhabvala and her husband (who stayed back in India because of his work commitments) had a long-distance relationship across the two continents for more than a decade. Jhabvala would spend several months every year in India while her husband took long vacations in America. After his retirement Cyrus Jhabvala, too, moved to America. I read in (a moving) obituary of Jhabvala in the Guardian that shortly before her death Jhabvala accepted a visit from a rabbi. After performing a blessing, the rabbi asked her what was the best thing she could recall in her life. One of her daughters wrote afterwards, “Without any hesitation she pointed to Pappa.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a brilliant writer. Her writing was witty, wry, funny, and distinct; her prose style was straightforward, yet evocative; and she had the knack of getting to the core of things with minimum of fuss. She wrote stories that were compelling, enjoyable and utterly credible. May her soul rest in peace.
Jhabvala with her daughters and director James Ivory in Mumbai in the 1960s