Friday, 5 April 2013

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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.

The Householder

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

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Book of the Month: Marrying Anita (Anita Jain)

In 2005 Anita Jain, a second generation Indian in America, published an article in the New Yorker magazine, in which she described her attempts at striking a balance between the New York dating scene and the arranged-marriage set-up that is prevalent amongst the Indian Diaspora spread across the globe. Jain, a graduate from Harvard, wrote:

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that shaadi, the word for marriage in many Indian languages, is the first word a child understands after mummy and papa. To an Indian, marriage is a matter of karmic destiny. There are many happy unions in the pantheon of Hindu gods—Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha.’

Following the publication of the article, Jain was approached to write a book. Jain proposed doing a book that would take her to India, the country of her ancestors. The result is a rollicking, no-holds-barred, memoir, Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in New India.

Jain’s father, a graduate with a degree in engineering from one of the prestigious universities in India, left the country of his forefathers in search of a better life-style. He immigrated to America, where, after years of hard toil and several dead-end jobs and failed money-making schemes, he gained entry into the social class Karl Marx described as petit bourgeois. But, as they say, you can take a man out of India, but you can’t take India out of a man. Having escaped the bucolic town of Meerut (from which he hailed) and several dozen relatives stuck at the lower rungs of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Jain’s father saw little reason to visit India in the decades after he moved to America. He also held the country of his birth, based on his experiences in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh (Northern Province), the most populous state in the Indian Federation, in withering contempt (‘India will never change,’ is his verdict when he visits his daughter in India). However, in his thinking he would appear to be very much an Indian of his generation in at least one aspect: very keen for his daughter to be married to a ‘nice Indian boy’, preferably vegetarian, although—Jain wryly observes—he was prepared to slack the rules if the boy earned more than 200,000 dollars a year. Throughout Jain’s twenties, her father put advertisement in immigrant American newspapers such as India Abroad which went like: ‘Match for Jain girl, Harvard-educated journalist, 25, fair, slim.’ ‘Jain’ is the author’s surname as well as the name of the relatively less known Indian religion to which she belongs. Jain—that is the author— informs us that her religion began its life as an offshoot of Hinduism, but has been absorbed over the millennia by the all-encompassing Hinduism. Although accorded the status of a religion, it is treated, by most Indians, including, perhaps, its followers, as very close to Hinduism. (In literature, ‘Jainism’ gets a mention in American Pastoral, my least favourite Philip Roth novel, where the daughter of the novel’s narrator converts to Jainism and becomes a vegetarian, news the narrator receives as if she has contracted a deadly communicable disease. ‘Jainism’ is a militantly vegetarian religion and its strict followers, Jain informs us, do not eat root vegetables such as carrots.) If he was in a magnanimous mood, Jain’s father would add the line, ‘Caste no bar’. Jain’s brother who, incredibly for someone who grew up in America, never had a girl-friend before he married a girl his parents chose for him, was, happily married with a kid; but his precocious sister was altogether different cup of chai. She refused to settle down into matrimony. Equipped with her Harvard degree, Jain, throughout her twenties, worked in different continents: South America (Mexico City), South East Asia (Singapore), and Europe (England and Spain), and returned to New York just when she turned thirty; single and in search of Mr Right. The problem for Jain was she was leading a life out of the Sex and the City, but harbored notions of love and romance that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Bollywood potboiler. She had had enough of commitment-phobic Americans (and Europeans and South Americans). She did not want to wake up alone in the morning (or in the bed of a man she had no recollection getting in bed with). She was no longer in the first flush of youth and felt that time was running out for her. She wanted a husband, pronto. In a journey that was the reverse of that which her father undertook when he was roughly of the same age as she, more than three decades before, Jain decided to emigrate to India. Her father left his homeland in search of a better job; Jain decided to return to her ancestral homeland in search of a better husband; or a husband.

What follows is a highly entertaining and readable account that is part travelogue and part memoir.

Jain is in a unique position to offer insights into what she described in an interview as the sexual revolution sweeping through the young people in the big Indian cities, very similar to the one the US experienced in the sixties (amongst other things). She is both an insider and outsider: an Indian born and raised in the USA, who has not severed the links to the country and culture of her parents. What she also has, as becomes increasingly apparent as the memoir progresses, is a refreshingly open mind shorn of preconceived stereotypes about India. In the year (that is described in the memoir) Jain goes out on dates with many men. Her tastes, when it comes to men, are Catholic. Ethnicity is no bar (although she meets more Indians than Westerners), caste is no bar, language is no bar (some of the men she agrees to go out with are referred to by the hip, English-speaking crowd as ‘vernac’—short-hand for ‘vernacular’, as they can’t speak English), background is no bar (some of her dates have escaped grinding poverty in India’s hinterland to come to the metropolis), religion is no bar (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians—all are welcome), earning capacity is no bar (she ends up paying for some of her dates after realizing that the evening’s bill is probably equal to their monthly salaries), and, finally,  dietary habits are no bar (flesh-eaters have as much a chance as grass-eaters of getting to know Jain). It would be fair to say the girl is not picky. The young in Delhi, Jain discovers, are not all that different from their counterparts in New York. They wear designer clothes, smoke hash, drink alcohol (Old Monk seems to be the favourite in the circles Jain moves in), think nothing of pre-marital sex, and—this would surely shock Jain’s father—are prepared to end marriages and relationships on grounds such as they have fallen out of love. (In a dry tone—that raises its head from time to time throughout the book—Jain observes, ‘These days it takes a lot less than wife-beating to trigger a divorce; mere temperamental differences will do.’) They also have a very relaxed attitude towards issues like religion, ethnicity, and sexuality. Jain gets to know a vibrant gay community in Delhi. She makes friends amongst gay men many of whom, Jain would have us believe, are in happy, stable relationships. India, you get the impression from the memoir, has an ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality. Hinduism, the main religion of the country—the only surviving religion of the Antiquity—has no position on homosexuality; indeed, one of the names of Shiva, one of the Gods of the Hindu trinity, Jain informs us, is Ardhnarinateshwar— a Sanskrit word, the meaning of which is ‘half a man and half a woman’. So homosexuality is not a religious taboo, but it is definitely a cultural taboo and is rarely discussed openly in households. Indeed Jain meets gay men (she does not meet lesbians; all of her homosexual friends are men) whose families were prepared to turn a blind eye to their sexualities so long as they married and procreated. One of Jain’s acquaintances did not ‘come out’ until he was thirty, and spent most of his adolescence groping servant boys.

So much for the metropolitan city with its gaggles of young men and women for whom life is a mélange of parties, discos, and posh restaurants serving haut cuisine (at prices which would put you in the mind of a second mortgage). What about the mofussil? Jain discovers that outside of the emancipated (if that is the word) womenfolk in Delhi, things have not changed a great deal for women, if the life-stories of two of her cousins are anything to go by. Jain visits her mother’s hometown of Gaziabaad, a mere forty minutes drive from Delhi and described once by the Newsweek as one of the ten fastest growing cities in the world. Jain sees no evidence of that (although admittedly she does not venture outside of the area where her aunt lives). At her aunt’s place, she meets her two cousins who married when they were twenty-one—arranged marriages, of course—and have been living with the joint families of their husbands. They have to seek permission from their mothers-in-law in everything they do. They rarely leave homes and, inside of their homes, spend most of their waking hours in the kitchens. (We also learn that traditional ‘Jain’ households in which Jain’s cousins live, have interesting rituals around defecation and cleanliness, which they have to observe.) Their days (and lives) revolve around cooking, cleaning, and looking after their children and husbands. And both the women, bedecked in gold and jewelry from head to toe, are very happy with their lives. They are perplexed, amused even, when Jain tells them about the life she leads in Delhi, less than an hour’s drive from Gaziabaad—the life of staying out all hours most nights, drinking and smoking in bars with men—, but are not pitying or envious.

Jain is a sharp and non-judgmental observer of what goes around her and effortlessly throws into sharp relief some of the less well-known (or advertised) facets of Indian psych: such as the Indians’ preoccupation with the fair skin. This frequently manifests as what Jain describes as inward racism, and the goras (Indian colloquial—not pejoratives— term to describe the Westerners—literal meaning: ‘white’) get preferential treatment over their own. Jain recounts stories of two Australian girls who do not strike you as excessively burdened in the talent department, and who (funnily enough) start off by working in the Indian call centres (so that, for a change, when your call is answered by a person who introduces herself as ‘Amy’ is indeed ‘Amy’ and not, say, ‘Amita’), getting good jobs thanks to their skin colour.

Jain does not speak much about India’s much reviled caste system, but maybe that is because explaining the complexity of it would have been beyond the scope of the book. (I once heard British author Louis de Berniers in a literary programme where he said that the Indian caste system was so complex that even the Indians probably did not understand it fully; the British class system, he said, was not a patch on India’s Byzantine caste system). However, here too, you get the impression that a big gulf exists between the urban areas and the hinterlands. In the cosmopolitan ambiance of Delhi, caste does not matter: when you are traveling in the overcrowded metro or gyrating to the latest Bollywood ditties or singing along to Simon & Garfinkel (It seems the artists who went out of fashion years ago in the West still captivate Indian youth; they even listen to Judas priest), you have neither the time nor the inclination to be curious about the cast of the person next to you. However, in the hinterland where communities are more closely knit and (for want of better phrase) traditional, these things matter a lot more. There are interesting titbits of information provided, such as Jain, although technically belonging to a religion different from Hinduism, which does not have caste system, also talks about her ‘Bania’ (Merchant) caste. Jainism, Jain informs us, started its life as an opposition to the hierarchical nature of Hinduism, but over millennia, has been reabsorbed into the parent religion. Those who converted to Jainism thousands of years ago belonged to the ‘Bania’ cast. And the modern day Jains consider themselves belonging to both their religion (which is anti-hierarchical) and ‘Bania’ caste, apparently without any internal contradiction. You get the impression that the origin of the caste system was probably socio-economic and dictated by what people did to earn their living before the system got fossilized.

Jain makes only oblique references to India’s Achilles’ heel, the festering secessionist movement in Kashmir, and is careful to be scrupulously neutral in her comments and observations. Muslims form almost a fifth of India’s population, and the relations between the Muslims and the majority Hindus periodically reach flash points, resulting in the kind of carnage that would leave Ashurbanipal speechless. Despite this, the two communities seem to have learned to live in relative harmony and peace, side by side (until riots break out). Certainly the attitude of the Hindus towards the Muslim dress code, to give just one example, seems to be far more tolerant than that of many in the West. 

All this is very well. Does Jain find true love in India? I will not give away the game by spilling the beans here. However, you might be excused for wondering, as the book progresses, whether Jain’s attempts at finding a soul mate aren’t desultory. Jain goes to India thinking that her options of finding a husband would be more plentiful there. She could, for example, go in for a strict arranged marriage, or an ‘assisted’ marriage, or she could merely date in a pool far more oriented towards marriage than the one she was dating in New York. As it happens, Jain, unsurprisingly, is not too keen on the first option. Indeed, when her increasingly impatient parents announce their intention to descend upon her in Delhi and ‘marry her off’ in their six weeks’ stay, she tries her best (unsuccessfully as it turns out) to dissuade them. However, when he turns up, Jain’s father is disappointed: firstly, when he is not flooded with offers from doctors and engineers—the only two ‘real professions’ in his books—wanting to marry his Harvard-educated daughter after he puts an advertisement in the matrimonial section of broadsheets; and secondly, by the attitudes of the men who do turn up. (In her deadpan style, Jain narrates an incident when she meets an executive, earning astronomical sums, who drives in a Mercedes to meet Jain and her father in a posh hotel. In the meeting, Jain’s father, an unsophisticated feminist, asks the man what he would do if Jain was unwell and could not cook. The man tells him that it wouldn’t be a problem as he has a maid. Jain’s father asks him what he would do if the maid too was unwell. Unfazed, the man replies that in fact there were two maids in his house. Clearly agitated, Jain’s father wants to know what the man would do if the second maid was unwell too. The man gives him a tolerant smile and says, ‘I shall order food from restaurants unless you think all the restaurants in Delhi close down simultaneously.’) Jain spends long hours on and meets a few men who answer her ads. Her (mostly gay) friends try to set her up with ‘eligible’ men (so it is a bit of a non-starter). Many of these men are simply not in her league (some of them cannot speak a word of English, and Jain is not very fluent in Hindi, which, you’d have thought, would be a tad problematic). Indeed she agrees to go out with some men, you suspect at times, not so much because she is romantically attracted to them as because she is interested in their life stories; they are good material for her book (she is in India not just to find a husband, there is a book to complete). She occasionally meets men whom she finds interesting to begin with, but these relations invariably follow the same pattern: either she loses interest in them or they lose interest in her.

Jain, who, we learn, has a degree in journalism, has a gift for spinning out gorgeous sentences that flow smoothly. The tone of the narrative is frequently drily acerbic, but never demeaning or condescending; the writing is witty but not slapstick. There are several memorable characters in the book, the most memorable of which, surely, is Jain’s father, the wheeler-dealer from Uttar Pradesh, who, by hard work, made a success of his life in America. The only book he has read, Jain tells us, is ‘How to Make Money’. When Jain gives him Bill Clinton’s autobiography as a present, she is informed by her mother, a few months later, that he just skimmed through it until he stumbled upon the salacious bits, which he read in detail. He is ‘money-obsessed’ and is convinced that doctors and engineers are the only two professions worth taking a note of. Jain is clearly very fond of him, and treats his attempts to ‘assist’ her in marriage not as irritating interference but as hilarious capers. 

Marrying Anita is not just a riveting story of a young woman looking for love in a country of her ancestors, it is also a refreshing and honest look at a country that is waking up from its decades of socialist slumber and modernizing at a breakneck speed. Recommended.