new york times book review
May 25, 1986
Selected Stories.
By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. 2
88 pp. New York: 
William Morrow & Company. $16.95.

By Rumer Godden

To anyone who admires and honors Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's writing ‑ and who does not? ‑ the most interesting part of this book of her chosen short stories, choice though they are, is her introduction. It may be she has told before something of what lies behind her work, but I do not remember it, as, surely, I would have done.

We know she is Polish, was brought up in England and married an Indian architect, C.S.H. Jhabvala; it is he who did the evocative jacket illustration and end‑ papers of this book. How wonderful, for a writer, to be married to an artist who can do this for her! She went with him to Delhi, had children and, besides writing her novels, became part of a remarkable film trio with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. She wrote the scripts from her own books and those of other renowned writers, including Henry James and, most recently, E. M. Forster ("A Room With a View"). She hardly alludes to any of these personal ties, yet the introduction is intensely personal and deep ‑ writing of this caliber does not come from a life lived on the surface.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala at her home in Delhi, 1982: "Balance, subtlety, wry humor and beauty are her hallmarks."

A percipient critic once wrote of her tussle with India, but "tussle" is too vigorous and superficial a word, and it was against, not with, India. Mrs. Jhabvala is almost too sensitively aware of India's vastness ‑ India is a continent, not a country ‑ and of the vastness of the problems: "Not for one moment should we lose sight of the fact that a very great number of Indians never get enough to eat ... From birth to death they never for one day cease to suffer from hunger. Can one lose sight of that fact? God knows, I've tried." It is significant that she does not write about the extremes of poverty ‑ she probably could not bear to. The milieu of her books is middle class, in itself unusual, as the world does not think of Indians as being in any way middle class, yet millions  upon millions are, from those who remain entirely Indian to the Westernized, whose children call them Mummy and Daddy (when Mrs. Jhabvala uses these words, they are not a translation). Her knowledge of India seems not to be geographically wide nor multifarious ‑the stories are Hindu, intimate and concerned with everyday domestic scenes, if an ashram can be called domestic ‑ but behind them is this constant awareness.

"So I am back again alone in my room with the blinds drawn…I cannot describe the oppression of such afternoons. It is a physical oppression ‑ heat pressing down on me and pressing in the walls and the ceiling and con­gealing together with time that has stood still and will never move again. And it is not only those two ‑ heat and time‑ that are laying their weight on me but behind them, or held within them, there is something more, which I can only describe as the whole of India... India swallows me up." And as she goes on, she is driven, as she says, to hyperbole, something quite foreign to her. "I am using these exaggerated images in order to give some idea of how intolerable India ‑ the idea, the sensation of it- can become. A point is reached where one must escape."

Perhaps if she had come to India as a child and had a root of acceptance, she would not have been as torn. Acceptance is not passive; how can you be passive, or content, if you live in a crucible? Nor is acceptance necessarily born of a belief in reincarnation; we may only have one life. It is an inner wisdom that looks beyond the ups and downs of life ‑in India, chiefly downs. But Mrs. Jhabvala came to India as a grown alien and was rent apart. "To live in India and be at peace," she writes, "one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality." But we are humans, not chameleons, and, thank God, Mrs. Jhabvala (though at the expense of inner peace) managed to remain herself. Now, it seems, she has in a measure escaped. The introduction opens with: "I have lived in India most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year.” Less so every year. Is it a farewell?

These 15 stories, written after the notable earlier books ‑like "Esmond in India" and "The Householder," already show signs of this withdrawal. Reading them is like watching a scene through an exceptionally clear telescope where every detail is distinct and exact; the book could have been called "India Observed," so little does the author seem involved. This does not take away from the stories' sureness of touch. Mrs. Jhabvala seems as much at ease in this medium as she does in her novels ‑ it may be that the writ­ing of so many scripts has given her the necessary pith ‑ and they are short stories in the classic manner in that they are not "studies," as many so-called short stories are nowadays. They have a beginning, middle and end, but fused so subtly we drift into them ‑ and are immediately at home ‑ and drift out again, the end seldom being a conclusion in the sense of a pat answer.

It is the circumstances rather than the happenings, that imprint themselves on the memory ‑in some of the stories, almost nothing happens ‑ and the characters too stay with us long after the last page is turned: Durga in "The Widow," poor, willful Durga and her fiendishly cunning old maidservant, Bhuaji, who defeats her; Shakuntala in "The Housewife," torn between her house duties and her singing (this story seems closer, warmer than the others ‑ is it because Shakuntala is like any of us women who has a gift?). I also think of the old Uncle in "Bombay," caught through love of his niece in the toils of the intolerable Pamwala family, and of my favorite of all, the woman "I" of "Rose Petals," sweet, indolent, unambitious as she contemplates, exactly and quite without malice, indeed with love, her important government minister husband, her clever, organized daughter, Mina ‑ one of the Westernized young Indian women Mrs. Jhabvala so wittily and unerringly describes ‑ and the cousin who is "I's" other self.

"[Mina] asks 'Don't you want to do something constructive?'
"Biju thinks about this for a while. He examines the tip of his cigar while he is thinking; then he says 'No.'
"Well you ought to. Everybody ought to."
But ought is a bully word; gracefully “I,” and Biju, evade it.

Mrs. Jhabvala is as modern as she is traditional, and here are all the modern phenomena of India: the footloose young Westerners who so scandalize the orthodox; the ashrams to which they and their elders go, spiritually questing, and that are so often phony. The stories of these last are, to me, the least likable in the book, even the famous "How I Became a Holy Mother"; there is glibness about them, as if they had been smeared, oh so lightly, by the oil with which the swamis anoint their bodies. She is not at all afraid of the sexual drive, the core of most of the stories, but even when writing of its culmination Mrs. Jbabvala is matter‑of-fact, almost laconic. "I didn't like sleeping with all these people," says the wandering young woman in "An Experience of India," "but I felt I had to. I felt I was doing good, though I don't know why." She observes of Indian men: "You'd think that with all those ancient traditions they have -like the Kama Sutra, and the sculptures showing couples in every kind of position‑ you'd think that with all that behind them they'd be very highly skilled, but they're not. Just the opposite. Middle‑aged men get as excited as a fifteen-year‑old boy, and then of course they can't wait, they jump, and before you know where you are, in a great rush, it's all over." You can hardly be more frank than that, or less emotional. The adjective for this writer is "cool"; she makes the rest of us seem overblown.

A certain wistfulness can be discerned; the same woman adds, "and when it's over, it's over, there's nothing left." Is it all illusion? Maya? Disillusion?

I remember that when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala first came on the literary scene, the critics chorused in praise, “a new voice from India," but her voice was not only new, it was unique. Time has proved that; she has written nine novels and four books of short stories of which "Out of India" is the pick, and I could wager there is not in any of them one shoddy line or unnecessary word, a standard few writers achieve. Each book has her hallmark of balance, subtlety, wry humor and beauty, yet now something has gone, is missing. I go back to "The Householder," which is about Prem, the young schoolmaster, and his naughty, seductive wife; Indu. To me it is the most perfect of all the books, and perhaps, in its simplicity, the best of the films. The scene where, at the headmaster's stiff, polite tea party, oblivious of Prem's anguish and the other guests' pained astonishment, Indu guzzles sweetmeat after sweetmeat and will not give up her plate is as quietly comic as anything in literature, and though told with the same ironic light humor, it has a tenderness that goes straight, not to the head, but to the heart.

In the eternal paradox of life, perhaps Mrs. Jhabvala had to go away to come back again. Toward the end of the introduction, she writes, "At the point where my ashes are immersed in the Ganges to the accompaniment of Vedic hymns who will say that I have not truly merged with India?" But in spite of herself, has she not already done that in her books?

The Indian concept of truth is that it changes and flows so fast that you can only hope to catch a few drops in your hands, and these drops that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has caught for us are pure, unalloyed Indian and crystal clear.

Rumer Godden, the British novelist, wrote "Black Narcissus," "The River" and other books set in India.

Sapphires and Solitude.

It was the 7th of May ‑ Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 59th birthday. Someone had sent her two pots of azaleas, and James Ivory and Ismail Merchant‑her friends and film‑making partners, who live in the Manhattan apartment beneath hers- gave her an expensive bracelet. She held up her thin wrist: platinum and sapphires. The sun fell through the match‑stick blinds. Mrs. Jhabvala lives alone much of the time, as quietly as some of the characters in “Out of Africa”‑ a title she borrowed from another storyteller's "Out of Africa." Where did she run into so many characters?

"Indians always ask me that," she said softly. "You never go out,' they say. My answer is that when I do go out, people make tremendous impact on me. One party is worth two years. "She laughed, ‑and her teeth showed like a child's.

Mrs. Jhabvala is small and fragile looking, but of course she has not been exactly sheltered. She was born in Germany of Polish Jewish parents and fled with them to England in 1939. After the war she married an Indian architect. They moved to India, and she lived there for 25 years. She had three daughters and wrote about her vast, poor, beautiful land. But India became too much. "I just found the place so overwhelming. I was desperately homesick, but I didn't know…" Her voice trailed off. She felt she would die there, like the two European heroines in one of her novels who finally go up into the mountains. Instead she moved to New York in 1975. Now she spends three months each winter with her husband in Delhi and nine months here.

She was going to a party that night, but just then, sitting still in a blue‑and‑white print dress she seemed very solitary. You need a great deal of solitude to understand anything at all," she said.

- Colin Campbell