Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died in Manhattan this week at the age of 85, was one of the most prominent interpreters of India to the world. She was born in Germany in 1927 to Jewish parents, educated in England after her parents fled the Nazi regime, then married an Indian architect and worked in New Delhi for more than two extremely productive decades before moving to New York in 1975.
The fund of perceptions and experiences from a life as an (often) privileged outsider in three continents gave Jhabvala's projects in fiction a richly worldly and cosmopolitan tone and her ventures in screenwriting an unusual poise and confidence. She was a classic emigree, seemingly at home nowhere and everywhere. Her main long-term attachments seemed to have been to her Jewishness, India and New York. (The last two were wittily linked in the titles of one of her books of short stories, "East Into Upper East.")
Jhabvala had been living in India for almost a decade when she began working in film in 1961 with an adaptation of her novel "The Householder" for the producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory. All three were cinema neophytes at that point. As the production house grew in renown and became synonymous with lushly mounted, attractively cast and sophisticated period drama, Jhabvala became its screenwriter of choice, working her way through adaptations of complex novels, including E.M. Forster's "Howard's End" and Henry James' "The Golden Bowl."
"It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory," Merchant once said. "I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American."
This arrangement provided Jhabvala with a very secure screenwriting base. She was able to claim with some justification, in an interview in 1978 with the British film journal Sight and Sound, "I think I must have the highest average in the world for screenplays that have been made."
An unsigned piece in the New York Times in 1987 announcing a retrospective of Merchant-Ivory films in New York observed:
"Film making is arguably the most collaborative art, but its annals offer few examples of teams of directors, writers and producers who have worked together on more films than James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ismail Merchant.
"During the past 25 years, they have created more than a dozen films, yielding a highly acclaimed cinematic portfolio noted for its mature, witty dialogue and challenging subject matter that is often infused by clashes of culture or class. ...
"'I guess you call our relationship destiny,' Mr. Merchant said in a recent telephone interview. `Some people meet and part ways, and other people bond together on a lifelong stream.'''
"I was never interested in adapting classics at all. I've written four novels. I was never interested in film. Never. I never even thought of it. I wasn't even a film buff, I didn't see many films ever. I never thought of it until Merchant Ivory came to India and filmed one of my books -- they said 'Why don't you write the screenplay?' and I said, 'Well, I've never written a screenplay and I haven't seen many films,' because I was in India by that time and hadn't really had any opportunity to see new films or art films or classic films or anything. So they said, 'Well try. We haven't made a feature film before.'"
Jhabvala won screenwriting Oscars in 1987 and 1993 for her adaptations of Forster's "Howard's End" and "A Room With a View." Working for herself -- and she always thought of herself as a novelist first -- she won the Booker Prize in 1975 for her novel "Heat and Dust." She remains the only writer to have won both prizes, and it's hard to see someone else joining the club, Salman Rushdie's recent attempts notwithstanding.
To the cinematic adaptation of difficult, often highly interiorized novels, Jhabvala brought a fellow novelist's sense of story and an ability to retune the dialogue without damage to the original text. Of the differences between the representation of human conversation in the two art forms, she noted:
"You can't speak fiction. This comes out especially with Henry James. It's marvelous, wonderful dialogue, but you can't speak it. ...
"I'm not altogether as innocent as I pretend. Now when I write a screenplay it's always with the editing room in mind."
Jhabvala had an ambiguous relationship with India. She arrived after marrying an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, whom she had met in England. It was the place that made her as a writer; her first five novels were set there, and her last published book was called "A Lovesong for India." But after a couple of decades she came to find its chaos and emotional violence and claustrophobia unbearable (as the best of us are liable to do) and left for good. She explained her problems with living in India in a preface to her book of stories "Out of India":
"I shut all my windows, I let down the blinds, I turn on the air conditioner; I read a lot of books, with a special preference for the great masters of the novel. All the time I know myself to be on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness...
"Even if one never rolls up the blinds and never turns off the air conditioner, something is bound to go wrong. People are not meant to shut themselves up in rooms and pretend there is nothing outside."
One might say that in Jhabvala's portraits of India, a very complex reality is too narrowly interpreted by the narrator. Her portraits of the Indian upper and middle classes are witty and crushing, but somewhat unbalanced in their preference for satire over sympathy. They have been supplanted by deeper and more empathetic accounts of India from a host of Indian novelists writing in English. In a perceptive assessment of her fiction in 2004, the writer (and Bloomberg View columnist) Pankaj Mishra observed:
"Jhabvala, with her European sense of irony, was well placed to put this unlovely chaos into fiction. She was probably the first writer in English to see that India's Westernizing middle class, so preoccupied with marriage, lent itself well to Jane Austenish comedies of manners.
"Jhabvala, who spent much of the 1960's in India, was also well placed to observe European and American seekers who sought to escape the bourgeois materialism of the West and often encountered in India the tackier materialism of the East. ...
"But it was also in these books of the 60's and 70's that Jhabvala's satire began to harden into cynicism. Her Western seekers usually ended up badly, defrauded and exploited. The Indians they met were either indolent fools or sexually rapacious knaves. East is East and West is West, Jhabvala seemed to say, and they meet only in silliness and depravity."
Jhabvala continued to write about India long after she left the country, often publishing her stories in the New Yorker. The most recent one appeared last week: the sparklingly observed and bitingly satirical "The Judge's Will," set in both upper-class and working-class Delhi. Whatever the ingrained predilections of Jhabvala's view on India, the story is a masterly work of fiction, supplying a vivid, if mordant, sense of the lives of its four protagonists. The transitions between scenes are seamless, and the dialogue is both highly economical and expressive. Where most writers would have given the aging wife, Binny, a long rant when she is provoked unpardonably by her closest friend, Jhabvala merely has her witheringly repeat "Freud" twice. We understand the relationship is over.
There is plenty to think about in the book critic Marie Arana's assessment that Jhabvala is "so much like Forster (with a more discerning eye on India), Austen (with a more global sensibility) and Conrad (with a feminine touch)." It seems that Jhabvala led one of the fullest and most wide-ranging of 20th century Asian lives, working with, and across, the worldviews of three continents and at the vanguard of both literature and film. It's just a pity that no biographer has yet attended to this storied life -- but perhaps one will now.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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