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HindustanTimes Fri,18 Apr 2014

Jack and Jhabvala

Hindustan Times   April 05, 2013
First Published: 22:08 IST(5/4/2013) | Last Updated: 17:33 IST(6/4/2013)

First published in July 1980, Ian Jack's profile of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died on April 3, remains the best piece on the screenwriter and novelist. It is one of 40 remarkable essays in Mofussil Junction.

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The speaker has just returned from India and is describing a particularly awful time at a railway junction in Bihar. ‘I found it just too much. It was hot, of course, and the platform was full of beggars and there were flies everywhere and everybody just stood and stared at you…'

There’s nothing unusual in this reaction of a western traveller to India. The surprise is that it doesn’t come from a two-week tourist but from a fifty-three-year-old woman who’s spent twenty-four years of her life there; who married an Indian and raised three children in India; who many think of as an ‘Indian novelist’… But Mrs Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is not an Indian. She tried to be one once and eventually realized the impossibility of her attempt... Today she can talk of the experience as a wife might of a failed marriage: it was a mistake but it taught her a lot; of course it would never have worked.http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2013/4/06_04_13_pg_14b.jpg

The metaphor is apt. Mrs Jhabvala often talks of herself “changing countries like lovers”. Now she is at the hand-holding and pledging-troth stage with North America, more specifically New York, where she lives in the same East Side apartment block as her friends and colleagues James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory Film Productions…

Mrs Jhabvala, a small and slender woman who looks to be as fragile as a popadom, does not care for travel or its excitements. In India, she rarely left Delhi. In America, she seldom ventures beyond New York State… She hasn’t set foot on Continental Europe for thirty years. She doesn’t care much for it, either. But the Europe of her childhood gives her very good reason.

Mrs Jhabvala was born Ruth Prawer in Cologne in 1927, the daughter of a Jewish solicitor, Marcus Prawer, who had fled from Poland in the First World War to escape military conscription. Her mother, Eleonora Cohn, came from Berlin… “I was born into what seemed a very solidly based family who had identified with the Germany around them – had been through the 1914-18 War with them – had sung for Kaiser and Fatherland,” she wrote in a fragment of autobiography published last year…

The discovery that believing yourself to be German was not quite enough came with Hitler. Mrs Jhabvala says she doesn’t want to talk about what happened to her family in the years between 1933 and 1939… “My family endured the same as many others,” she says. “I have no wish to write about it and suspect I never shall. Germany I never think of, I wiped it out.”...

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In 1939 the Prawers fled to England… Ruth… immersed herself in English literature. She read, passionately, the novels of George Eliot, Hardy and Dickens… And she wrote… She might have gone on to complete her early novels… But she met a young Indian architect at a London party, a Parsi named C.S.H. Jhabvala. “Not even an ordinary goy,” grumbled the Prawer family, but Ruth married Mr Jhabvala and left Hendon for Delhi. Today, Mrs Jhabvala says she hardly considered her destination… But India, when she came to it, quite knocked her out.

…Mrs Jhabvala adopted the sari, learned Hindi, discovered gurus, sniffed the scent of jasmine on hot nights, grew expert enough to identify every spice in a curry. Later she wrote: “At that time I loved everything there: yes – to my shame I have to say – even the beggars: it was life as one read about it in the Bible: whole, I thought; pure, I thought.”

This delight lasted for ten years, during which she produced three daughters and the first four of her eight Indian novels. These books deal largely with the claustrophobia of Indian family life – its quarrels, weak sons, dominant mothers, the desultory burp-punctuated conversations which follow supper; and, above all, the Family’s ability to endure and overcome any external threat which could disrupt its unity.

Mrs Jhabvala now says that she “pretended” to know this kind of family, and more, that she “pretended” to be one of them… When it seemed that trying to live like an Indian was drowining her, she broke surface and went back to being European... Her last Indian novel, Heat and Dust… won the Booker Prize and coincided profitably with the fashion for Imperial nostalgia…

She left for New York in 1975... She never reads about India... and doubts if she will write another word on it...

Read the unedited excerpt here

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India


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