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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014
In her, the twain met
First Published: 21:59 IST(4/4/2013)
Last Updated: 22:02 IST(4/4/2013)

The writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has died aged 85, achieved her greatest fame late in life, and for work she had once dismissed as a hobby - listing "writing film scripts" as a recreation.

Her original screenplays and adaptations of literary classics for the film producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory were met with box-office and critical success. The trio met in 1961, and almost immediately became collaborators, as well as close and lifelong friends.

Soon after Merchant and Ivory themselves met (in New York), Merchant proposed that they make a film of Jhabvala's early novel The Householder (1960). The pair then went to Delhi and asked her to sell them the book and write a screenplay of it in eight days flat.

Over the next five decades, she wrote 23 screenplays. The collaborations included adaptations of EM Forster's A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992), for both of which Jhabvala won Academy Awards.

Jhabvala's two Oscars put her in the incongruous company of Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor - journalists reported how odd the gilt statuettes looked in her plain New York flat.

She did not care. Her own fiction was what mattered to her, whether or not it did to anyone else. She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time's revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage.

Her vision was bleak, her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.

Her dozen novels and eight collections of short stories won Jhabvala the admiration of the sternest critics of her time. Raymond Mortimer thought she beat all other western novelists in her understanding of modern India. Her literary awards included the 1975 Booker prize for her eighth novel, Heat and Dust. Jhabvala spoke with an unclassifiable accent in an idiosyncratic drawl.

The wit, economy and detachment that she achieved in her fiction also played in her personality, and there, too, they masked contradictory qualities. Her characters surge with violent emotions (which they often suppress) and pursue voracious appetites (for food, sex, love) with a relish their creator seems to share.

In 1951, she married Cyrus Jhabvala ("Jhab"), a Parsee architect whom she had met in London, and went to live with him in Delhi. She plunged in "total immersion" into India - the jasmine, the starlit nights, the temple bells, the holy men, the heat.

She bore three daughters, wore the sari and wrote of India and Indians as if she were Indian herself. But her passionate love for India changed into its opposite. By 1975, she found she could no longer write of it nor in it.

"There need never be a dull moment," she admitted in a rare autobiographical piece describing her difficult feelings about India by the time she left it.

"Yet all my moments are dull. It is my own fault, I know."

In this place where her beloved family flourished - "my husband is Indian and so are my children" - her complicated makeup asserted itself with increasing intensity.

"I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves," she admitted.

Her husband and daughters - Renana, Ava and Firoza-Bibi - survive her.

Shortly before her own death, she accepted a visit from a rabbi. After performing a blessing, he asked her for the best thing she could recall in her life.

"Without any hesitation," Ava wrote afterwards, "she pointed to papa."


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