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The creativity wallahs

Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and educationist Ahalya Chari touched thousands of lives - one with her writing and the other with her guidance of the school system. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Apr 06, 2013, 07:13 IST

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ahalya Chari died within a week of each other. The famous writer crossed over in Manhattan, the less-than-should-be known educator in Chennai. Ruth was 85, Ahalya 92.

I doubt if the author of Heat and Dust had ever heard of the woman who gave India's school education systems rare guidance. I have no doubt the sensitive associate of Jiddu Krishnamurti had read almost everything the 'third deity' in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team wrote.

As the granddaughter of a Rabbi, 12-year-old Ruth fled Nazi Germany with her family for Britain. The experience made her a creative introvert. Leaving war-ravaged Burma with her evacuating family made the young Ahalya a profoundly sensitive observer of the human condition.

Ruth became a deep aquifer everyone admired, none fully divined. Ahalya became a wide-spreading pond anyone could reach.

The novelist touched thousands of readers by the shot-silk relationships she described. Ahalya shaped an equal number of lives by the severalised interest she took in students, teachers and persons.

A sense of individuals' uniqueness informed both.

Ruth was married, raised three children. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory permeated her life. Yet she was, if anyone was, a loner. Vikram Seth's line 'I am so lonely, so content' applies to her.

Ahalya never married, a mystery. Looking good at 90, she must have been hugely attractive at 20, 30, and as she greyed and silvered, substituted elegance for charm, dignity for allure. If ever there was 'a man' in her life he has been turned into the back pages of a sepia album behind one of those spider-webbed butter paper separators.

Ruth turned experience into her characters, changed Forster's story-book characters and Henry James' into people who spoke with tone and timbre, smiled with their lips, gestured with their hands and made love - women with the satin slidings of a duvet and men 'with the rough male kiss of a blanket'.

She could and did write of serious and bitter and bright red infractions like abandonment, betrayal, treachery. But more memorably of the tasteless fruit of more familiar trees, plants and weeds, their lesser colours - the canary yellows of malice, the pigeon-neck greens of envy, the penciled-greys of resentment, the stippled blues of embarrassment. Also the rufous browns of a day's many disappointments.

No one who has seen the Merchant-Ivory production of her story, The Householder can forget the chinkara-eyed melancholy of Shashi Kapoor and the 'turned away' gaze of Leela Naidu. They said nothing dramatic, nothing that would singe the soul, but they synched with what happens in the particulated light of an ordinary day's sun.

If the film Shakespeare Wallah, with Satyajit Ray's music, trundled into viewers' hearts, the unsensational but nerve-touching Jhabvala story snuggled into a hollow in its readers' tale-scapes, never to leave.

Ahalya did not write fiction. She was far too raveled by administrative spaghetti to have ever got down to reminisce for reminiscing's sake. But was she surrounded by people who would have made great 'characters'!

The most towering of these was, of course, J Krishnamurti himself. Aside from Annie Besant, several astonishingly crystal-minded women came to know, like, adore, cherish, foster Krishnamurti.

These included Edwin Lutyens' daughter Mary Lutyens, Rosalind Edith Williams (later Rajagopal), Rukmini Arundale, Radha Burnier, Mary Zimbalist, Pupul Jayakar and Nandini Mehta.

Alongside these stars of the Theosophical sky, if someone knew Krishnamurti's mind and thinking, understood his exasperations as much as his aspirations, his impatience as much as his stoicism, his pain no less than his mystic rapture, it was Ahalya Chari.

More, if someone could sense the chemistry of Krishnamurti's relationships with people, especially those whose attachment to him was stronger than their understanding of the philosopher, it was Ahalya. She brought to her study of the anti-Guru Guru a trained pedagogue's discernment.

Ahalya Chari should have written a sharp observer's study of the man who taught that teaching was invariably in error, the philosopher who recoiled from philosophies, the speaker whose books held the concept of 'The Book' in deep disdain. She would have book-ended the soulful life of Krishnamurti that Pupul Jayakar has left for us.

Ahalya would then have given us, as only she could have, a 'Krishnamurti Wallah' like Ruth's Shakespeare Wallah. What fascinations would have lain in such a work! How many transactions of our times would have been re-enacted in its pages!

We know, for instance, that during the late 1930s Krishnamurti and Rosalind Rajagopal had became close friends of Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria and it is believed that Huxley based the character of Virginia in his 1939 novel, After Many a Summer, on Rosalind who was, incidentally, by Huxley's side when he died on November 22, 1963.

What was the thingness bout Krishnamurti's relationship with Huxley?

Ahalya had the taste and sensitivity to have asked and then answered such a question with judgement, tact and critical discrimination. In fact, she had it in her, like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, to have explored the chroma of human relationships.

When does loyalty turn crony? More pertinently, why? Why does affection become possessive, liking incline to desire, love crave, adoration covet? How do Cupid, Venus, Eros enter the proceedings? Why is love, that simple noun of a word describing a simple pulse of emotion, so discrete as to make the word 'lover' impossible to use except with a certain implication? Why should love create not just a lover but so many others like disciple, follower, admirer, adorer, wooer, suitor, amoret, beau, flirt, sweetheart, swain, flame, paramour…? Why are some forms of love licit, others not?

From where does that commonest and yet least 'owned' of human emotions, jealousy, come?

And malice? Of the many forms of dis-kindness, spite has to be the worst. Nothing in all of creation except the human being knows spite. The 'evil eye' is a superstition, the 'cloven hoof' sheer fantasy. But the poison behind those images is real.

Ruth Jhabvala and Ahalya Chari knew enough of human variety to know this. One has given us works that open the mystery of human relationships. The other has carried her understanding to the other shore.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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