Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (1927—)

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Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (1927—)

German-born British fiction writer and screenwriter whose works examine the complexities of Eastern and Western mentalities in modern India, and whose status as a "permanent refugee" gave rise to a unique view of cultural traditions. Pronunciation: JAHB-vah-lah. Born Ruth Prawer in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927; daughter of Marcus Prawer and Eleonora (Cohn) Prawer; had two brothers; Queen Mary College, M.A., 1951; married Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, in 1951; children: three daughters, Renana Jhabvala; Firoza Jhabvala; Ava Jhabvala.

Lived in Germany (1927–39), England (1939–51), India (1951–75), New York (1975—); won the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust (1975); received a MacArthur Foundation grant (1984); won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Adaptation for A Room With a View (1986) and Howards End (1992); won the Best Screenplay Adaptation award for Mr. and Mrs. Bridge by the New York Film Critics Circle (1990); nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation for Remains of the Day (1993); received the Writers Guild of America's Screen Laurel Award, the Guild's highest honor (1994).

Selected writings—novels unless otherwise indicated:

To Whom She Will (published in America as Amrita, NY: Norton, 1956); The Nature of Passion (NY: Norton, 1957); Esmond in India (NY: Norton, 1958); The Householder (NY: Norton, 1959); Get Ready for Battle (NY: Norton, 1963); (short stories) Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories (NY: Norton, 1964); A Backward Place (NY: Norton, 1965); Shakespeare Wallah (NY: Grove Press, 1973); (short stories) A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories (NY: Norton, 1968); (short stories) An Experience of India (NY: Norton, 1972); Travelers (NY: Harper and Row,

1973, published in London as A New Dominion, 1972); Autobiography of a Princess, Also Being the Adventures of an American Film Director in the Land of the Maharajas (NY: Harper and Row, 1975); Heat and Dust (NY: Harper and Row, 1974); (short stories) How I Became a Holy Mother, and Other Stories (NY: Harper and Row, 1976); In Search of Love and Beauty (NY: William Morrow, 1983); (short stories) Out of India: Selected Stories (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987); Three Continents (NY: William Morrow, 1987); Poet and Dancer (NY: Doubleday, 1994); Shards of Memory (NY: Doubleday, 1996); (short stories) East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998).


(adapted from her novel) The Householder (1963); Shakespeare Wallah (1965); (with James Ivory) The Guru (1969); Bombay Talkie (1970); Autobiography of a Princess (1975); Roseland (1977); Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978); (with James Ivory, adapted from the novel of Henry James) The Europeans (1979); Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980); (adapted from the book of Jean Rhys ) Quartet (1981); The Courtesans of Bombay (documentary, 1982); (adapted from hernovel) Heat and Dust (1983); (adapted from the novel of Henry James) The Bostonians (1984); (adapted from the novel of E.M. Forster) A Room With a View (1986); Madame Sousatzka (1988); (adapted) Slaves of New York (1989); (adapted from the writings of Evan S. Connell) Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990); (adapted from the novel of E.M. Forster) Howards End (1992); (adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro) Remains of the Day (1993); Jefferson in Paris (1995); (adapted from the memoir of Françoise Gilot) Surviving Picasso (1996).

The experience of exile left an indelible mark on the mind and work of fiction and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She was born in Germany, the daughter of Marcus Prawer and Eleonora Cohn Prawer , on May 7, 1927—six years before the emergence of Hitler's Third Reich—and grew up in the overwhelmingly Catholic city of Cologne, whose mayor at the time was Konrad Adenauer. Her father was a successful lawyer, and the family enjoyed its prosperity and social status. Although Marcus had Eastern European Jewish roots (he had escaped from Russian Poland during World War I to avoid military service under the tsar), Ruth's early years were secure and typical of "a well-integrated, solid, assimilated, German-Jewish family." There was little in the way of anti-Semitism to mar these years. Her grandfather, who was the cantor of Cologne's largest synagogue, was a respected member of the community who prided himself on his friendships with Christian pastors and felt himself to be a highly esteemed citizen of Cologne and "a German gentleman." The seemingly idyllic world of the Prawer family was shattered in 1933 with the Nazi seizure of power. Overnight, Germany's Jews became second-class citizens and pariahs.

Ruth began to attend school at age six, during the first years of Nazi rule. As she quickly learned to read and write, a new world opened to her. She would later recall that when instructed by her teacher to write a composition on the subject of der Hase (a hare) she was "at once … flooded with my destiny; only I didn't know that's what it was. I only remember my entire absorption, delight, in writing about—giving my impression of—der Hase. To think that such happiness could be!" Her family's solidarity in the face of adversity and her discovery of the pleasures of self-expression in writing made the ordeal they faced as Jews easier to bear. During the next few years, the not-yet-teenage Ruth Prawer wrote stories and essays, mostly on religious and Jewish topics, and, like her older brother, attended a segregated Jewish school. As the grim realities of the 1930s bore down on Jews in Germany, members of Prawer's extended family fled Nazi persecution to find refuge in a number of countries. In April 1939, after the horrors of the Kristallnacht pogrom, Ruth and her family emigrated to the United Kingdom.

Settled in London, the young Ruth never looked back, starting to write (and think) in English almost immediately. After graduating from secondary school in 1945, she enrolled at Queen Mary College, London University, and majored in English literature. After earning an M.A. degree in 1951 with a thesis on the short story in English literature, Ruth married an Indian architect, Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, whom she had met while a student at the University. That same year, she and her husband moved to India, where they lived in one of the older and quieter sections of New Delhi. Although she quickly gave birth to three daughters, Ruth Jhabvala also found the time to continue writing about the variety of human behavior she observed. She had moved to India knowing virtually nothing of the country, having done little more than read novels like Kim and A Passage to India, and she initially experienced it as a "paradise on earth. Just to look at the place, the huge sky, the light, the colors. I loved the heat, going round with few clothes, the stone floors." Jhabvala was enchanted.

Although her husband was a Parsi, a descendant of Persian Zoroastrians who moved to India more than a millennium ago, the majority of Indians are Hindus and live in households teeming with extended family. In her 1979 Neil Gunn Lecture, entitled "Disinheritance," she explained her experience of being in exile which made it possible for her to write about a culture so different from the German and English ones she had known; she described herself as feeling "disinherited even of my own childhood memories, so that I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel—till I am—nothing. I'm not complaining—this is not a complaint, just a statement of fact. As it happens, I like it that way. It's made me into a cuckoo, forever insinuating myself into other's nests. Or a chameleon hiding myself (if there were anything to hide) in false or borrowed colours."

In 1955, four years after arriving in India, Jhabvala saw her first novel published in London under the title To Whom She Will (it appeared the next year in the United States as Amrita). In this richly textured book, the young upper-middle-class Hindu woman Amrita falls in love with Hari, a poor Punjabi who works as a part-time radio announcer in New Delhi. By means of complex scheming, both Amrita's and Hari's families keep them from marrying one another, an auspicious outcome as in the end both find happiness with mates chosen in the traditional fashion, by their families. The book was well received both in England and in the U.S. where Time praised the work for its depictions of the bustling everyday life of India—"with all the clatter, chatter and haggling delight of an Eastern bazaar"—and noted the book's message as, "Cultural heritage is not a vice but a virtue."

After the critical success of To Whom She Will, Jhabvala published several more novels over the next few years. In The Nature of Passion (1957), her subject again dealt with the benefits and drawbacks of marriages by arrangement and those based on romantic love. In her review, Indian writer Santha Rama Rau praised the novel for its presentation of the "richly human texture of life as it is really lived in an Indian city." Esmond in India, published in New York in 1958, examines a union between an Englishman and an Indian woman. Jhabvala presents us with Esmond—who is suave, cultured and rotten to the core—and an equally negative character, the Indian Har Dayal, a superficial Babbitt whose life is exposed as being little more than a hollow shell. Jhabvala's next work, The Householder, presented the struggles of Prem, a young Hindu man living through a transitional stage in his life. The author was again praised for her skill in painting a subtle and sympathetic portrait of life in contemporary India. Writing in London's New Statesman, Maurice Richardson enthusiastically recommended this warm and amusing book to readers, noting that Jhabvala had created several characters that were on the level of "an Indian Dickens."

In 1959, Jhabvala visited England for the first time since her marriage. There she experienced the dramatic differences from life in India. In a 1976 New York Times interview, she recalled how shocking it was to compare Europe with an India where "the degradation starts at birth. You have no choice. So after that visit to England, I felt more and more alien in India." Jhabvala's trip to Europe also opened a new

phase of her career with the writing of the screenplay for The Householder. Released in 1963, this film was produced by Ismail Merchant, an Indian, and directed by James Ivory, an American. Jhabvala, the German-born "rootless cosmopolitan," completed the collaborative trio. "We're not interested in just making a film, or just making some money," she told an interviewer. "We want to make what we think, what has impressed us, what has touched us."

In the years to come, she would write screenplays for a great variety of films with Merchant-Ivory, including Shakespeare Wallah (1965), The Guru (with James Ivory, 1969), Bombay Talkie (1970), Autobiography of a Princess (1975), Roseland (1977), The Europeans (with James Ivory, based on the novel of Henry James, 1979), Heat and Dust (based on her own novel, 1983), The Bostonians (based on the novel of Henry James, 1984), Jefferson in Paris (1995), and Surviving Picasso (based on the memoir by Françoise Gilot , 1996). She would win Academy Awards for two of her adaptations, A Room With a View (based on the novel by E.M. Forster, 1986) and Howards End (based on the novel by E.M. Forster, 1992).

After living in India for two decades and raising three daughters to adulthood, Jhabvala began to seek new directions. In an autobiographical essay, "Myself in India" (1966), published in An Experience of India, she revealed, "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." In 1974, she published Heat and Dust, one of her most memorable and technically innovative novels for which she received the Booker Prize. Clearly influenced by her work in films, the plot moves back and forth between a young Englishwoman in contemporary India and her grandmother in the India of 50 years earlier, when it was the crown jewel of the British Empire. (In the movie, Julie Christie plays the Englishwoman; Greta Scacchi , the grandmother.) The book's theme presented the notion that India's culture, ancient and brilliant in many ways, was nevertheless profoundly alien to Westerners, and that those individuals who became too deeply enmeshed in it would inevitably come to grief. The novel's dominant image was one of disease, decay, and death. The reader is warned that "India always changes people," but these changes are invariably malevolent, stripping one of one's identity and leaving one to wither and die. This book, with all its technical brilliance, signaled her increasing ambivalence toward India, prompting the reviewer of The New York Times to speculate: "I suspect that she is becoming tired of the literary burden of India she has carried for so many years [and] may be ready, as a novelist, to move on."

By the time Jhabvala's short-story collection How I Became a Holy Mother was published in London in 1976, she had become acknowledged by many critics as a major literary figure. Writing in The Observer (June 27, 1976), Paul Bailey praised her for a mastery of nuance and detail that built up "a picture of an entire society, [thus raising] large themes by implication." By the mid-1970s, however, she had made the decision to leave the country that had been a base for her creative exploration. Described as "a frail, birdlike woman" standing only 5'1" and weighing no more than 95 pounds, she was increasingly challenged by the physical realities of living there, and contracted jaundice while writing Heat and Dust. The poverty and injustices she saw around her became harder for her to deal with emotionally and psychologically. To live in India, she wrote, meant that one existed "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise." In a 1980 letter to London's Sunday Times, Jhabvala would admit that in the final analysis India had been for her "too strong, too overpowering a place." Having produced eight novels and four books of short stories set in this landscape, she moved to New York City in 1975.

Although her husband remained in India where he headed an architectural firm and taught, their marriage stayed intact. Her daughters were grown and had independent careers. Jhabvala was productive in America, at the same time starting an annual routine of visiting India for several months. By 1976, she was settled in an apartment on Manhattan's East Side in a city where, as she remarked in an interview, "people like myself, displaced Europeans, found a home." In New York, she met other German Jews like herself, who had made a successful transition to a new life. Significantly, after leaving India, she chose to settle in New York rather than London (her older brother Siegbert Salomon Prawer, was a noted professor of German literature at Oxford). As a permanent refugee, Jhabvala felt at home in the quintessential world city which was swarming with a myriad of refugees. She cautiously explored her rootedness in German-Jewish, and Central European, cultural traditions. "I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis," wrote Jhabvala in "Myself in India." "I am irritable and have weak nerves."

By 1999, she had lived as many years in New York as she had in India. She produced fewer books in Manhattan, but they were all of substance, earning strong if not unanimous critical acclaim. In her first novel published after leaving India, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), the author investigated the battle-scarred emotional landscape of German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees in Manhattan. The main characters are affluent European-born individuals whose lives are filled with yearnings for yet unachieved love and spiritual meaning. One of the best-drawn characters in the book is Leo Kellerman, a con man, "psychospiritual" guru and lecherous sponger, who attaches himself to a wealthy family in various ways, including persuading their daughter Natasha to work in a menial capacity in his "Academy of Potential Development." A profound emptiness in modern family life is summed up by the lonely Natasha: "There just wasn't enough love to go round and never would be—not here, not now—with everyone needing such an awful lot."

By the end of the 20th century, Jhabvala had published a dozen novels, an impressive collection of short stories, and a large number of screenplays. Although much of her writing was set in India, the human situations she described were universal ones. Some critics have compared the body of her work to the tradition of 19th-century English novelists like Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Her wit and focus on courtship and family life has brought comparisons of her work with that of Jane Austen and Henry James. Francine du Plessix Gray noted in The New York Times Book Review in 1993 that Jhabvala's writings, particularly those works with an Indian setting, have become for many critics and readers alike "as rich a metaphor for universal experience as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or the czarist Russia of Chekov's fiction."


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Gray, Francine du Plessix. "The Cult of the Cousin," in The New York Times Book Review. March 28, 1993, pp. 13–14.

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——. "India Overpowered Me," in Sunday Times [London]. August 3, 1980, p. 11.

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Pym, John. "'Where could I meet other screenwriters?': A Conversation with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in Sight and Sound. Vol. 48, no. 1. Winter, 1978–79, pp. 15–18.

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——. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's A New Dominion," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Vol. 12, no. 1. August 1977, pp. 45–55.

Sucher, Laurie. The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: The Politics of Passion. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989.

Tucker, Martin, ed. Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary. NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia