Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Whether producing her award-winning novels or working as the screenwriting member of Merchant-Ivory, the film industry's longest-lasting creative team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (born 1927) contributes a respected voice to modern literature.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's perspective as a creative writer is one born of the conflict between East and West, a conflict that mirrors her life as a citizen of both worlds. Born in Germany to Polish parents, Jhabvala, the daughter of a lawyer, began writing stories at age six. In the prewar days, she and her brother attended segregated Jewish schools, which "wasn't pleasant, " as Jhabvala told People reporter Harriet Shapiro. "Other children would scream after us and throw stones."
Jhabvala and her family left Germany for England in 1939, where they survived the London Blitz-the constant blitzkreig bombing of the city by German war planes. But tragedy was to follow: as Shapiro noted, Jhabvala's father, depressed by the loss of many of his relatives to the concentration camps, committed suicide in 1948.
A new life in India
At the time of her father's death, Jhabvala was a student of Queen Mary College. That same year, she attended a get-together in London, where an attentive young Indian man "stayed by my side for the entire party, " as the author recalled to Shapiro. While she admitted that his accent made conversation a challenge, Ruth Prawer and architect Cyrus Jhabvala completed a long-distance courtship and were married in 1951, after Ruth had completed her master's degree in English literature.
The new bride relocated to New Delhi with her husband; she later described her first impression of India as "the most wonderful place I had ever been in my life. India was a sensation. It was remarkable to see all those parrots flying about, the brilliant foliage and the brilliant sky." Indeed, Jhabvala had seen the India of travelogue-"I never noticed the poverty, " she added in the People interview.
The circumstance under which Jhabvala arrived in India-her marriage-is not usually the kind that propels other westerners to the Asian continent. In short, as Time writer Paul Gray remarked, the young woman was not "a do-gooder, a foreign-service careerist or a spiritual pilgrim. But her European background and natural desire to sympathize with her adopted land made her an acute observer."
Writing from "the Inside"
Her adopted country provided Jhabvala with the impetus to begin her literary career. "I was 24, " she told David Streitfeld in a Washington Post Book World interview, "and just at the age when one really starts to write seriously. There was so much subject matter for me. I hardly finished a book before I started a new one. I was so full of energy, I immediately wrote as if I were an Indian, from inside." But even that kind of enthusiasm couldn't mask an underlying conflict: "I wasn't even really anything when I was in India, because I was a foreigner there. People are always asking where my roots are, and I say I don't have any."
Jhabvala's first novel, To Whom She Will (published in the United States as Amrita) was released in 1955. In a New York Herald Tribune Book World review, Nancy Wilson Ross welcomed the publication as "a fresh and witty novel about modern India." Jhabvala's Jane Austen-like take on the mores of middle-class Indians found favor with many critics and readers, and Amrita paved the way for a collection of insightful novels and short stories with an Indian theme.
One of the best-known Jhabvala novels is the 1975 work Heat and Dust, which the author also adapted for film. This story of a young British woman recreating the India journey of her grandfather's wife contains "social comedy … as funny and as sympathetic as it is in Jhabvala's earlier novels, even though she has departed from her more usual theme of middle-class Indian life, " according to Times Literary Supplement critic Brigid Allen. A critical and popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, Heat and Dust won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for fiction.
"More and More an Alien Place"
After two decades in India, Jhabvala faced a growing problem: she was finding it increasingly difficult to write about a country that she was living in. Reviewers began commenting on an ambivalence toward India in her work that was particularly apparent in her short story collection Out of India. One reviewer of this 1986 work, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, wrote that "bit by bit, the stories in Out of India darken, grow denser and more ambiguous." In this way, Kakutani concludes, Jhabvala "gradually moves beyond the tidy formulations of the comedy of manners, and a strain of melancholy also begins to creep into her writing."
As Jhabvala explained in People, "India became more and more an alien place. It is not a place that you can be indifferent to. It absorbs you against your will. You can't live there and eat and be comfortable when you see how others have to live." And so in 1975 the author moved to a New York City apartment. Her husband, who remained in India, is a frequent visitor to New York, while the couple's three grown children live in India, England, and California.
Now in the United States, Jhabvala was not lacking in challenging work opportunities. As a longtime collaborator with the filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory-indeed, the two were even neighbors, living in the apartment below Jhabvala, as Shapiro's article reported-she produced scripts on an average of almost one per year through the 1980s and 1990s. Merchant-Ivory Productions gained fame as a leading proponent of period dramas, many of them bearing the stamp of India as provided by Jhabvala.
A Thriving Film Career
Beginning with Shakespeare Wallah and Bombay Talkie, and continuing through Autobiography of a Princess, Heat and Dust, and A Passage to India from the E.M. Forster novel, Merchant-Ivory pictures brought to the world Jhabvala's visions of the East. But as successful as those films were, the moviemaking trio would gain their largest audiences with more "mainstream, " Western-themed productions, including the smash hit A Room with a View. This tale of a naive-but-pragmatic young Englishwoman torn between her hot-blooded true love and her dull, sensible fiancee struck a chord with audiences and critics, whose acclaim helped propel the independent film to three Academy Awards, including one for Jhabvala in adapting another Forester book to the screen.
A Room with a View ushered in an era of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films that caught popular attention. The release of Howards End (1992) prompted Time columnist Richard Corliss to dub the three artists "a nuclear family, a multinational corporation and a tight little island of quality cinema." Corliss also noted that Merchant-Ivory films "have often been admired, and reviled, for their dogged gentility, the Masterpiece Theatricality of their style. Even the soggy films proceed at a confidently leisurely pace." But with Jhabvala's tight script for Howards End, he added, "you get the sense of an entire novel, its characters and character, unfolding in 140 minutes."
Kazou Ishiguro's 1988 novel, Remains of the Day, was the basis of another well-received Merchant-Ivory film. In adapting the story of a butler whose lifetime of selfless dedication to the denizens of Darlington Hall is tested when Lord Darlington becomes allied with the Nazi Party during World War II, the filmmakers also faced industry gossip. "As is widely known, a screenplay by Harold Pinter was discarded in favor of one by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, " as Stanley Kauffmann reported in a New Republic review. "Jhabvala is certainly no crude hack, but she has underscored some matters and has altered the tone of the original." That sits fine with Corliss, who wrote in his Time review that with this film the creative team has "gone their source one better, or one quieter: the film is more discreet … than the book." Also in agreement is National Review writer John Simon: "It is to Jhabvala's credit that she has managed to objectify and animate what in the novel is mostly internalized, point-of-view reflection."
Less successful for Merchant-Ivory Productions was the team's 1995 film, Jefferson in Paris. Simon, in another National Review article, singled out Jhabvala as "culpable" for what he termed a lifeless study of Thomas Jefferson's years as an ambassador.
In the view of Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala "have turned civility into a kind of middlebrow fetish. Their films have come most alive when the characters are most repressed." With another adaptation, Surviving Picasso (1996), the filmmakers "have now achieved a certain slickness and fluency, but without the spark of inspiration that makes the whole world kin, " in the words of John Simon. This film dramatizes the affair between the aging Pablo Picasso and his young protégé, Francoise Gilot. "Never less than watchable, " said Gleiberman, the production "is also a cinematic paradox, a movie that works to capture Picasso from every angle yet somehow misses the fire in his belly."
However the critics may react to their films, there is no denying the success of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala partnership-in fact, the three were cited in one reference source as the longest-lasting filmmaking team ever. Discussing their formula for success with People's Harriet Shapiro, Ivory singles out Jhabvala's contributions. "Most screenwriters are not fueled by any real creative gifts as writers. They are not proper storytellers. Unlike so many people who adapt classic novels, Ruth is not down on her knees before them, not daring to change anything."
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 29, 1984.
Entertainment Weekly, September 27, 1996.
National Review, December 13, 1993; May 1, 1995; November 11, 1996.
New Republic, December 6, 1993; April 24, 1995.
New Statesman & Society, April 9, 1993.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, January 15, 1956.
New York Times, August 30, 1973; July 19, 1983; September 15, 1993; August 2, 1984; August 5, 1984; March 7, 1986; May 17, 1986; July 5, 1986; August 6, 1987.
People, September 28, 1987.
Publishers Weekly, July 17, 1995.
Time, May 12 1986; March 16, 1992; November 8, 1993.
Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1965; November 7, 1975; April 15, 1983; April 24, 1987; November 13, 1987; April 16, 1993.
Washington Post Book World, September 12, 1976; September 18, 1983; May 25, 1986; February 21, 1993; March 28, 1993.
"Ruth Prawer Jhabvala." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruth-prawer-jhabvala
"Ruth Prawer Jhabvala." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruth-prawer-jhabvala
Modern Language Association
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American Psychological Association
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer
JHABVALA, Ruth Prawer
Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Cologne, Germany, of Polish parents, 7 May 1927; emigrated to England as a refugee, 1939; naturalized, 1948; became U.S. citizen, 1986. Education: Attended Hendon County School, London; Queen Mary College, University of London, M.A. in English literature 1951. Family: Married Cyrus Jhabvala, 1951, three daughters. Career: Lived in India, 1951–75; published her first novel, To Whom She Will, 1955; began her association with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, by scripting The Householder, 1963; moved to New York, 1975. Awards: Booker Prize, 1975; Best Adapted Screenplay British Academy Award, for Heat and Dust, 1983; Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Academy Award, Writers Guild of America Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, for A Room with a View, 1986; New York Film Critics Circle Best Screenplay, for Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990; Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Academy Award, for Howards End, 1992; Writers Guild of America Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, 1994; Writers Award Gotham Award, 1997. Address: 400 East 52nd Street, New York, NY 10022, U.S.A.
Films as Writer for Director James Ivory:
Autobiography of a Princess (co)
Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures
Jane Austen in Manhattan
Heat and Dust
A Room with a View
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
The Remains of the Day
Jefferson in Paris
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (co-sc)
The Golden Bowl
Other Films as Writer:
The Courtesans of Bombay (Merchant) (doc)
Madame Sousatska (Schlesinger) (co-sc)
By JHABVALA: fiction—
To Whom She Will, London, 1955, as Amrita, New York, 1956.
The Nature of Passion, London, 1956.
Esmond in India, London, 1958.
The Householder, London, 1960.
Get Ready for Battle, London, 1962.
Like Birds, Like Fishes and Other Stories, London, 1963.
A Backward Place, London, 1965.
A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories, London, 1968.
An Experience of India, London, 1971.
A New Dominion, London, 1972, as Travelers, New York, 1973.
Heat and Dust, London, 1975.
How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories, London, 1976.
In Search of Love and Beauty, London, 1983.
Out of India: Selected Stories, New York, 1986.
Three Continents, London, 1987.
Poet and Dancer, London, 1993.
Shards of Memory, London, 1995.
East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi, Washington, D.C., 1998.
Travelers, Washington, D.C., 1999.
By JHABVALA: other books—
Meet Yourself at the Doctor (nonfiction), London, 1949.
Shakespeare Wallah (screenplay), London, 1973.
Autobiography of a Princess (screenplay), London, 1975.
By JHABVALA: articles—
Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1978–79.
Interview (New York), December 1983.
On JHABVALA: books—
Williams, H. M., The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Calcutta, 1973.
Shahane, Vasant A., Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, New Delhi, 1976.
Gooneratne, Yasmine, Silence, Exile, and Cunning: The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, New Delhi, 1983.
Pym, John, The Wandering Company, London, 1983.
Sucher, Laurie, The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, London, 1989.
Bailur, Jayanti, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Fiction & Film, 1992.
Chakravarti, Arauna, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study in Empathy & Exile, Delhi, 1998.
On JHABVALA: articles—
"Quartet Issue" of Avant-Scène (Paris), 1 October 1981.
Film Dope (Nottingham), July 1983.
Firstenberg, J., "A Class Act Turns Twenty-Five," in American Film, September 1987.
Variety (New York), 28 October/3 November, 1996.
Yunis, Alia, "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Writer With a View," in Script (Baldwin, Maryland), vol. 5, no. 6, 1996.
* * *
Since the 1960s, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has enjoyed a unique position among screenwriters as one of the principal collaborators in Merchant Ivory Productions, the independent film company headed by the Indian producer Ismail Merchant and the American director James Ivory. Jhabvala has supplied the scripts for a majority of the company's productions, in a happy blend of narrative styles and thematic concerns that has proven so seamless it is often difficult to tell where the writer's influence ends and the filmmaker's begins.
Jhabvala was born in Germany and emigrated with her parents to England in 1939. She later married the architect Cyrus Jhabvala and moved with him to India, where she lived for 24 years. (She eventually was to divide her time between India and New York City.) Her life in India became the source of many of her richest earliest works, and fostered within her a fascination with the country that she shares with Ivory. Beginning with The Householder, an adaptation of one of her own novels, Jhabvala wrote a series of films for Merchant Ivory Productions which helped establish both the company itself and James Ivory's reputation as a director. All of these films are set in India and deal with cultural clashes of one kind or another, a theme that would become a hallmark of the company's output. The best known of the group, Shakespeare Wallah, follows the fortunes of a British touring theatrical company, sadly out of place in modern India yet determined to hang on to their traditional way of life. Conflicts between East and West, tradition and change, or simply different strata of the same society recur throughout the Jhabvala-Ivory collaborations, with the stories' characters trying—and often failing—to reconcile themselves to their differences in culture and class.
Ivory's films are exquisite, leisurely portraits of minutely observed people and places, and Jhabvala's screenplays lend themselves admirably to the director's style. Subtle nuances of dialogue reveal shifts in a character's thoughts or emotions, while the story is allowed to unfold through delicately sketched character interaction rather than dynamic physical activity. The themes that mark the team's earliest films were applied on a more diverse scale in their collaborations between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, with The Europeans, adapted from Henry James's novel, exploring the conflicts between British and American culture; The Bostonians, again adapted from James, examining the problematic interplay between men and women; and Roseland depicting the gulf between reality and imagination in its stories of the people who frequent an outmoded New York ballroom. Autobiography of a Princess and Heat and Dust find Jhabvala and Ivory returning again to the Anglo-Indian cultural conflict, with a particular emphasis on the differences between present-day India and the India of the British Raj.
Merchant-Ivory's 1986 adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View introduced new audiences to the style of filmmaking that had won them a hitherto select—but devoted—following. Its story of a young Englishwoman's emotional and sexual awakening in the face of the beauty and passion of Florence was ideally suited to Ivory's and Jhabvala's long-standing concerns. The latter's witty, literate script is alive with carefully shaded characterizations. The same can be said for Howards End, also based on Forster, which explores class distinctions in 1910 England (and is considered the penultimate Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaboration); and The Remains of the Day, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, about an efficient, mindlessly selfless professional servant, in which most of the narrative occurs between the world wars. Less successful (but no less ambitious) were Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (about the manner in which the passage of time affects a Midwestern couple); Jefferson in Paris (chronicling Thomas Jefferson's experiences while serving as the U.S. ambassador to France); and Surviving Picasso (the based-on-fact account of Francoise Gilot, a young artist who becomes the lover of an egotistical, womanizing Pablo Picasso). Jhabvala's final Merchant-Ivory film of the 1990s, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, is an improvement over their most recent collaborations. Based on the autobiographical novel by Kaylie (daughter of James) Jones, it is the heartfelt, though somewhat episodic, account of a famed expatriate novelist and his familial bonds. Despite its flaws, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is a rarity in contemporary cinema in that it offers a portrait of a loving, non-dysfunctional family.
In the 1990s, the ever-thinning line between Hollywood and the world of independent cinema may be best symbolized by Merchant-Ivory's inking a three-film pact with the Walt Disney Company. Nonetheless, despite their artistic lapses, Merchant-Ivory—and Jhabvala—have sustained the conviction that the tradition of the intelligent, thoughtful film, brimming with observations on the complexities of human nature—a conviction that seems so out of place in contemporary Hollywood—remains safe and alive in their hands.
—Janet Lorenz, updated by Rob Edelman
"Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jhabvala-ruth-prawer
"Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/jhabvala-ruth-prawer
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer
JHABVALA, Ruth Prawer
Nationality: American. Born: Ruth Prawer in Cologne, Germany, of Polish parents, 7 May 1927; sister of the writer S.S. Prawer; moved to England as a refugee, 1939; became British citizen, 1948; now U.S. citizen. Education: Hendon County School, London; Queen Mary College, University of London, 1945-51, M.A. in English literature 1951. Family: Married C.S.H. Jhabvala in 1951; three daughters. Lived in India, 1951-75, and in New York City from 1975. Awards: Booker prize, 1975; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1978; MacArthur fellowship, 1984; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award for screenplay (Oscar), 1987, 1992. LHD., London University, 1995; D. Arts, London University, 1996. Agent: Harriet Wasserman, 137 East 36th Street, New York, New York 10016. Address: 400 East 52nd Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
To Whom She Will. London, Allen and Unwin, 1955; as Amrita, New York, Norton, 1956.
The Nature of Passion. London, Allen and Unwin, 1956; New York, Norton, 1957.
Esmond in India. London, Allen and Unwin, and New York, Norton, 1958.
The Householder. London, Murray, and New York, Norton, 1960.
Get Ready for Battle. London, Murray, 1962; New York, Norton, 1963.
A Backward Place. London, Murray, and New York, Norton, 1965.
A New Dominion. London, Murray, 1972; as Travelers, New York, Harper, 1973.
Heat and Dust. London, Murray, 1975; New York, Harper, 1976.
In Search of Love and Beauty. London, Murray, and New York, Morrow, 1983.
Three Continents. London, Murray, and New York, Morrow, 1987.
Poet and Dancer. London, Murray, and New York, Doubleday, 1993.
Shards of Memory. New York, Doubleday, 1995.
Like Birds, Like Fishes and Other Stories. London, Murray, 1963; New York, Norton, 1964.
A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories. London, Murray, 1968; New York, Norton, 1969.
An Experience of India. London, Murray, 1971; New York, Norton, 1972.
Penguin Modern Stories 11, with others. London, Penguin, 1972.
How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories. London, Murray, and New York, Harper, 1976.
Out of India: Selected Stories. New York, Morrow, 1986; London, Murray, 1987.
East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Parasites," in New Yorker, 13 March 1978.
"A Summer by the Sea," in New Yorker, 7 August 1978.
"Commensurate Happiness," in Encounter (London), January 1980.
"Grandmother," in New Yorker, 17 November 1980.
"Expiation," in New Yorker, 11 October 1982.
"Farid and Farida," in New Yorker, 15 October 1984.
"The Aliens," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Summer 1986.
A Call from the East (produced New York, 1981).
The Householder, 1963; Shakespeare Wallah, with James Ivory, 1965; The Guru, 1968; Bombay Talkie, 1970; Autobiography of a Princess, 1975; Roseland, 1976; Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures, 1978; The Europeans, 1979; Jane Austen in Manhattan, 1980; Quartet, 1981; Heat and Dust, 1983; The Bostonians, 1984; A Room with a View, 1986; Madame Sousatzka, with John Schlesinger, 1988; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990; Howard's End, 1992; The Remains of the Day, 1993; Jefferson in Paris, 1995.; Surviving Picasso. Warner Brothers, 1996.; A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, 1998.; The Golden Bowl, 2000.
The Place of Peace, 1975.
Meet Yourself at the Doctor (published anonymously). London, Naldrett Press, 1949.
Shakespeare Wallah: A Film, with James Ivory, with Savages, by James Ivory. London, Plexus, and New York, Grove Press, 1973.
Autobiography of a Princess, Also Being the Adventures of an American Film Director in the Land of the Maharajas, with James Ivory and John Swope. London, Murray, and New York, Harper, 1975.*
The Householder, 1963; Heat and Dust, 1983.
The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by H.M. Williams, Calcutta, Writer's Workshop, 1973; "A Jewish Passage to India" by Renee Winegarten, in Midstream (New York), March 1974; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Vasant A. Shahane, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1976; Silence, Exile and Cunning: The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Yasmine Gooneratne, New Delhi, Orient Longman, and London, Sangam, 1983; Cross-Cultural Interaction in Indian English Fiction: An Analysis of the Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya by Ramesh Chadha, New Delhi, National Book Organisation, 1988; The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Laurie Sucher, London, Macmillan, 1989; The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Rekha Jha, New Delhi, Prestige, 1990; Passages to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala edited by Ralph J. Crane, New Delhi, Sterling, 1991, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Crane, New York, Twayne, 1992; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in India: The Jewish Connection by Ronald Shepherd, Delhi, Chanakya Publications, 1994; The Challenge of Cross-Cultural Interpretation in the Anglo-Indian Novel: The Raj Revisted, a Comparative Study of Three Booker Prize Authors: Paul Scott, the Raj Quartet, J.G. Farrell, the Siege of Krishnapur, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust by Gerwin Strobl, Lewiston, New York, E. Mellen Press, 1995; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study in Empathy and Exile by Aruna Chakravarti, Delhi, B.R. Publishing, 1998.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala comments:
(1972) 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. Sometimes I write about Europeans in India, sometimes about Indians in India, sometimes about both, but always attempting 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. This excludes me from all interest in all those Indian problems one is supposed to be interested in (the extent of Westernisation, modernity vs. tradition, etc! etc!). 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.
(1981) 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.
(1986) I have now lived in the U.S. for ten years and have written one novel, several stories, and several film scripts about the experience. I cannot claim that India has disappeared out of—synonymously—myself and my work; even when not overtly figuring there, its influence is always present. But influence is too weak a word—it is more like a restructuring process: of one's ways of thinking and being. So I would say that, while I never became Indian, I didn't stay totally European either.* * *
In a writing career that now spans five decades, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has successfully combined the writing of novels, short stories, and screenplays. She is perhaps still best known as a novelist of India, even as a novelist who interprets India for the Western reader; yet for almost twenty years now her novels have focused less on India than on America and England, revealing the author's desire to combine her own triple European, Indian, and American background in her fiction.
Jhabvala's life of exile and expatriation has placed her in an unusual position among novelists who write about India, and has enabled her to write about that country from the ambiguous position of an outsider who is also an intimate insider. All of Jhabvala's fiction up to Heat and Dust (with the exception of two short stories) is set in India. For the most part Jhabvala has avoided the harsher problems of post-Independence India (the communal violence, the political unrest, etc.) in these novels, and, except in Heat and Dust, she has also avoided the subject of the British Raj. In her early work Jhabvala focuses on the domestic and social problems of predominantly middle-class urban Indians living in Delhi in the years following Independence. Her first two novels, To Whom She Will and The Nature of Passion, both deft comedies of manners in an Austenish vein, treat the subjects of arranged marriage and romantic love and explore the conflicts that arise as the modern, Western views of characters like Amrita (in To Whom She Will ) or Viddi and Nimmi (in The Nature of Passion ) clash with the traditional values of their families. Both novels express the author's obvious delight in all she found in the West. But she was never blind to the overwhelming social problems facing India. In Get Ready for Battle, those problems are confronted as far as the limits of her domestic drama will allow; this is Jhabvala's darkest portrait of modern India, and the last of her novels to deal primarily with Indian characters.
In her next three novels, A Backward Place, A New Dominion, and Heat and Dust, Jhabvala moves away from the presentation of India to a portrayal of the Westerner in India, a subject she had previously broached in Esmond in India, and an interest in the effect of India on her Western characters. She explores the problems faced by expatriate Westerners (mostly women) and the world of often-fraudulent gurus encountered by the young Western seekers who flocked to India in the 1960s and 1970s. This shift in emphasis is also reflected in her short stories—all nine stories in A Stronger Climate are concerned with Westerners in India—and in her screenplays—in such films as Shakespeare Wallah, The Guru, and Autobiography of a Princess.
In A Backward Place Jhabvala considers whether or not it is possible for some Europeans to live in India and survive, and through the character of Judy she shows that it is possible if one is willing to adopt Indian values, to accept India on its own terms. In A New Dominion and Heat and Dust Jhabvala again shows that Westerners can remain in India and survive, as Miss Charlotte does, and as both Olivia and the unnamed narrator of Heat and Dust do, but the question of whether this is desirable remains largely unanswered in her fiction. For the first time, these two novels move out of Delhi and beyond the confines of the largely domestic, interior settings of her earlier novels. The landscape, the heat and the dust, become increasingly important metaphors that show how unsuitable India is for most of the Westerners who populate Jhabvala's fiction. Quite different narrative techniques are employed, too—the straightforward realist narrative method of the earlier novels gives way to a more experimental form in which the reader is addressed directly, through monologues, letters, and journal entries, both by characters and the author herself. Jhabvala attributes these innovations to the influence of her writing for the cinema.
Heat and Dust contains two parallel stories, skillfully interwoven to contrast two time periods fifty years apart. The earlier of the two stories, Olivia's story, set in 1923, invites comparison with E. M Forster's A Passage to India. The later story, that of the unnamed narrator, which began in response to her reading of Olivia's letters, updates the 1923 story, and reveals Jhabvala's postmodernist interest in the effect of text on life.
Since moving to America, Jhabvala's interest has moved away from Indian subjects and settings. In In Search of Love and Beauty, which focuses on a group of German and Austrian refugees in New York, Jhabvala writes for the first time on a sustained level about the German-Jewish background she knew as a child. At the center of this novel and her subsequent novel, Three Continents, is a concern with the search for identity and heritage—and an attempt to explain and understand the sense of alienation and expatriation that has been her own experience as well as that of many of her Western characters. While these novels mark a new phase in Jhabvala's writing career, it is clear to the reader familiar with her oeuvre that the concerns of her Indian fiction have not been entirely left behind; both novels share much in common with her later Indian fiction. The guru figures, Leo of In Search of Love and Beauty and the Rawul of Three Continents, recall, among others, the unprincipled Swami of A New Dominion, while the seekers of these novels are variations on the young questing figures like Lee of A New Dominion and Katie of "How I Became a Holy Mother," for example. An interesting development is that for the first time in her fiction Jhabvala explores the backgrounds of the Western characters who populate her Indian fiction.
In her 1993 novel Poet and Dancer, India as a locale is altogether absent, and the presence of an Indian mother and son is too peripheral to the main narrative to bring the spirit of the place into the work. And so in some ways Poet and Dancer marks the greatest single shift in Jhabvala's career as a novelist. In other ways, though, there is still common ground between this work and her earlier fiction. At the heart of this novel is an exploration of the dichotomy between good and evil—played out through the destructive relationship between Angel and her cousin Lara, whose love Angel obsessively pursues—that is reminiscent of the destructive relationships between the many seekers and bogus gurus found in her earlier work.
Maintaining the shift away from India begun with In Search of Love and Beauty, India as a literal landscape exists only in the recollections of a few characters in 1995 novel, Shards of Memory, where the principal settings are again New York and London (specifically the limited geographical locations of Manhattan and Hampstead). Yet in other ways, India, like continental Europe, pervades the very core of this novel, and is literally in the blood of the Kopf family. Shards of Memory is intrinsically a family saga, concerned with four generations of the Kopf and Keller families and their involvement with "the Master"—the latest in a long line of such spiritual leaders to appear in Jhabvala's fiction. Here, though, the question of whether or not the Master is a charlatan is of less consequence than it is in earlier novels and stories. Instead, Jhabvala's focus is entirely on the bonds of family.
The oriental and occidental locations that characterize the two major phases of her novel writing career are effectively juxtaposed in her 1998 collection of short stories, East into Upper East, which carries the Kiplingesque subtitle, Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi. Six of the stories in this robust collection are set in New Delhi, a further seven in New York's Upper East Side. The final story, "Two Muses," the only exception to the two-town pattern promulgated in the title, deals with the German-Jewish community in North-West London between 1939 and 1951. Its only companion in Jhabvala's writing is "A Birthday in London," included in her first collection of short stories, Like Birds, Like Fishes, almost 40 years ago.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's reputation as a writer of fiction has been built around her Indian novels, particularly the Booker prize-winning Heat and Dust. Her later novels show that she can write equally well about America and Europe, and suggest that she is an international writer who deserves to be numbered amongst the best novelists writing in English today.
—Ralph J. Crane
"Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jhabvala-ruth-prawer
"Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jhabvala-ruth-prawer