Ruth Jhabvala was an unusual author-screenplay writer

  • Amisha Chowbey, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 07, 2015 18:07 IST

Would you have anything by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala?” The bookseller at the Midland bookshop looks up from his cash register, smiles and says, “I haven’t heard that name in a long time. Where did you hear about her?”

At a recently-held exhibition and retrospective of the author-screenplay writer’s works in Delhi, I tell him. He enthusiastically leads me to the books. Hours later, lost in the world of Olivia and her Nawab (from the Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust) I understand his nostalgic affection for the author. observer

Jhabvala was an outsider everywhere she went, but she adapted to each of the three continents she lived in during her lifetime. Born in 1927 in a Jewish household in Cologne, Germany, she lived her formative years with the mandatory Yellow Star during the rise of Hitler.

Then she fled to England at the age of 12 with her family, never to return to Germany again. England not only provided her with a refuge but also introduced her to English language and literature.

"She always remembered the first time she was asked to write an essay at school," says her daughter Renana Jhabvala, "It was almost as though she was destined to write."

Married to a handsome Parsi boy, architect Cyrus Jhabvala, she moved to India in 1951 where she lived and worked for the next 24 years. He was the only person who was allowed to read her manuscripts before they went out.

Jhabvala was a keen observer and would gather a year’s worth of writing material by attending just one dinner-party. Time and again, she emphasised on the lack of roots as a strong creative force behind her successful writing.

Be it Olivia from Heat and Dust or the snooty Etta from A Backward Place, her female characters are usually a reflection of her own experiences in India where she struggled to constantly "fit in."

The partnership
Initially, Jhabvala was reluctant to enter the sphere of writing screenplays, says Renana. “She never wanted to get into movies because of the limelight and repeatedly refused a persistent James Ivory when he came to her with the idea of turning The Householder into a film. Finally my father convinced her to give it a try.”

And so began one of the longest partnerships in the history of filmmaking: Jhabvala, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant. They worked on over 20 screenplays for four decades.

Filmmaker Meera Dewan, who curated the film retrospective, says, “They won two Oscars, one for A Room with a View in 1986 and the other for Howard’s End in 1992, both of which were adaptations of EM Forster novels.”

It was a friendship that lasted till the very end; they moved into the same apartment building in New York in her final years.

What makes Jhabvala stand out is the honesty with which she wrote about being a wanderer.

From HT Brunch, January 18, 2015
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