Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: An Unsung Anglo-Indian Woman Novelist in the 20th Century

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Basudeb profiles Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an unsung Anglo-Indian woman novelist, penned 18 novels, short stories, many screenplays, anthologies, and encyclopedias, etc., between 1955 and 2011. Known as the Indian Jane Austin, her writings show influences of many other novelists. Read more about her, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Another woman novelist who was contemporary to Kamala Markandaya was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013). Some of her well-known novels are, To Whom She Will (1955), The Nature of Passion (1956), Esmond in India (1958), The Householder (1960) Get Ready for Battle (1962), A Backward Place (1965), and Heat and Dust (1975). Ruth was born in Cologne to Polish parents. She was rich with triple or quadruple heritage and those heritages were Jewish (European), British, Indian and American. In fact, she was a resident of four continents. She was a frequent visitor to Britain but during the winter she would stay in India. She married a Parsi gentleman, Cyrus Jhabvala, who was an architect. Maybe, it will be appropriate to address Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an Anglo-Indian novelist in English. The Householder and Heat and Dust, these two novels were filmed. For her novel, Heat and Dust she got the Booker Prize, in 1975.

A study of the literary career of Ruth reveals that her career span was about forty years and this long span of her literary career was intersected by several phrases like Jane Austin and E.M. Forster. In her novels, we find the influences of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and some other European writers like Turgenev, Proust, and Tolstoy, Most of her novels are of wife hunting, as in Jane Austin’s novels we find husband hunting. The total atmosphere of her novels is family-oriented. Hari and Amrita are the two central characters in her novel, To Whom She Will. Both Hari and Amrita think that they love each other and they should marry. But owing to the interferences of the family, their marriage does not take place. The narrative structure of this novel is not at all complicated. It is the first literary exercise of Ruth.

Esmond in India (1958) is a story of an inter-racial marriage between a British Civil Servant, posted in India, who is of philandering nature, and an Indian woman. The I.C.S. officer makes friendship with a lot of middle-class Indian women. An analysis of his mind shows that he has a kind of ‘love and hate’ relationship with this Indian sub-continent.

Heat and Dust. which won the Booker Prize, is one of this author’s most complex, sophisticated works, interweaving two love stories 50 years apart—that of Olivia, who runs off with an Indian prince, and that of the granddaughter. The novel raises the question, ‘What is identity?’ and probes the relations between history and reality, history and fiction, and fiction and reality. The central theme of The Householder is a marriage between Prem and Indu. Prem starts understanding that he should foil his mother-in-law by any means and he should fulfill his marriage. One of the important features of later novels of Ruth is that the narrative techniques are complicated. The novelist seems to withdraw herself from her story-telling art and in these novels what we find is an atmosphere of gloom. In addition to all these scriptwriting, which she has learnt has impinged upon her writing techniques. In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) is written against the American background but this novel shows her attempt to explore all her heritages — Indian, British and German. Novels she writes in her later life delineate how Indian Mahapurush, Swamis, preceptors and Gurus cheat their disciples and devotees.

A critical study of her novels leads us to comment that Ruth tries to laugh at follies and foibles, oddities and eccentricities of the middle-class Indian society like Jane Austen. She may be considered to be an ‘ Indian Jane Austin’, writing Comedy of Manners. She is not a writer of Indian Diaspora or of an American writer though she emigrates to the United States of America, visiting frequently England and India particularly in the winter season. She is of Anglo-Saxon origin because she is born in a Polish family. She gets her formal education at London’s Queen Marry and obtains her M.A. degree from there in 1951. She is basically an Anglo-Indian novelist for she marries an Indian Parsi. Considering her an Anglo-Indian novelist because of her marriage with an Indian has an overtone of patriarchal bias. But the reading of her novels confirms every one of the importance of Indian society and Indian locale as well as the conspicuous presence of considerable Indian lexical items, barfi, sari, ladoos, gulab jamuns, jalebi, and samosa. Indian names are found in her novels.

Furthermore, in her novels, we find she is very insightful and sensitive in her descriptions of Indian household scenes. She faithfully portrays some foreigners in India. Girls like Peggy and Judy, who marry Indian men and accept them as their husbands and consequently they are taken aback to see the Indian magical as well as mysterious belief and prejudices. Some girls, who come from different countries in Europe fall in love with Indian youth and love them madly. All of their experiences are different, sometimes happy and sometimes painful. Even she with all her sympathy mocks at those superstitious religious activities. The descriptions of some English men coming to India with short-term assignments and those who come to India particularly for the purpose of touring and seeing what India is are very vivid in her novels. Some of those foreigners are proud of their long stay in India. Some are worst sufferers because of the cultural and civilisational differences between the East and West.  We also find a glossary for all these Indian lexeis at the end of some of her novels. Maybe, she writes this glossary for native speakers of English.

It’s unfortunate she will have to wait and stand the test of time.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy’s View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.