Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Essay by Haydn Moore Williams

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
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Critical Essay by Haydn Moore Williams

SOURCE: "Strangers in a Backward Place: Modern India in the Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. VI, No. 1, June, 1971, pp. 53-64.

In the following essay, Williams discusses several of Jhabvala's novels, focusing on her sense of satire and irony and illustrating how her depiction of middle-class life subtly addresses various social and religious issues in India.

The novels and short stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala stand in a unique relationship to Indian literature in English. Though she lives in India and is married to an Indian, she is European by origin, and her work belongs in some ways to the literature about India written by foreigners with close connections with India, the tradition to which P. Meadows Taylor, Kipling, and John Masters belong. Yet her close personal, experience of Indian life and her exclusive interest in it as a novelist as well as her ability to identify very closely with Indians, notably Indian women, take her nearer to indigenous Indian writers like R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao. Khushwant Singh cites her, together with Narayan, as a fine interpreter of contemporary India in fiction and as one who is free from the political alignments and extreme nationalism of other Indian writers. Such recognition was overdue in 1961. Perhaps, at least in a technical sense, she is the best fiction writer now writing in India and about India. She shows a mastery of English style and considerable skill in dialogue and plot. Jhabvala is a very able comic novelist of India, though her comedy is quite different from that of Narayan, who relies on the absurdity that comes from deviation from accepted Indian customs, and on a poetry of the grotesque. Jhabvala's strengths are irony, satire, and detachment; her comedy depends much on detached and critical observation of real life. The strength comes from Jhabvala's European origin which makes her still see with the eyes of the artist-outsider the Indian life she has come to know and share. One reason, perhaps, why her work has not received much critical attention is that critics tend to judge Jhabvala more harshly than they do native Indian writers who use English. Perversely her popularity with the non-literary public (her books are always off the shelves of public libraries) tells against her. It is too easy to write her off as a middle- brow author. That her narratives read well and easily and appear to yield their meaning quickly, does not mean, as I hope to show, that she lacks subtlety and depth.

I hope to demonstrate the cohesion and unity of her work, to explore the ironies in her treatment of recent Indian life, and to show how the central subject of her novels is the theme of isolation, rebellion, and reconciliation, and the problems of expatriation and adaptation to a foreign culture.

Broadly speaking, Jhabvala's novels descend from the novel of social behavior, the novel which sets out specifically to explore such institutions and 'feelings' as the family, marriage, romantic love, expatriation, love of power and money, and pursuit of them, youth's desire for liberation, snobbery. She does not, in her novels at least, step outside these chiefly social concerns to explore ideologies. It would be wrong however, to see no ideological conflicts behind the confrontation and clash of fathers and children, men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, in the Indian world she creates. Behind all marriages lies the idea or ideal of marriage sanctified by many centuries of Indian custom. Behind the large family of a modern middle-class business-man like Lalaji (The Nature of Passion), and behind the broken marriage of Gulzari Lal (Get Ready for Battle), lies the Indian undivided family as a tradition and an ideal. Behind the decision of characters like Sarla Devi (Get Ready for Battle) and Sudhir (A Backward Place) to lead a life of disinterested virtuous action, lies the idea of the sannyasi stage of life and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Yet Jhabvala does not parade or discuss these ideologies. They are accepted or rejected by her characters in the various circumstances they find themselves in. There is, of course, an important cultural difference between 'East' and 'West' which Jhabvala is careful never to conceal; it is that Indian life is much more subject to tradition and that the power of religious and social institutions and attitudes is much stronger (especially if the comparison is between New Delhi and New York rather than between South India and Southern Italy where the cultural situations are closer). In Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope ideas are paramount. A comic realist like R. K. Narayan depends considerably on brilliant caricature and on the 'humours' of men like Mr Sampath behaving like characters out of Ben Jonson or Dickens. Ideas of men and life are therefore highly significant for both Rao and Narayan. Jhabvala seems less bothered by them. To create her novels she takes subjects and characters from ordinary, middle-class Indian life. Narayan's art, especially in his later novels (Mr Sampath, The Man-Eater of Malgudi), takes as its point de départ the disturbing of an eccentric but peaceful society by characters and events from outside. Disorder is created and then order restored after a suitable purgatorial period. This is not Jhabvala's way at all. Her natural world is not eccentric and the disturbances do not come from outside but from inside the society; they are in a way self-generating. Narayan's problems are 'comic-epic'—the invasion of the hero's private world and the repelling of the invasion, and this pattern is reminiscent of fairy-tale, romance, and heroic literature. Jhabvala's problems by contrast are small-scale, more usual and expected, almost tritely realistic, though with many opportunities for satire, irony, and surprise well-exploited. Her novels point to no worlds of significance outside her ostensible subject-matter, the bourgeoisie of modern India. She has little symbolism and draws no parallels between her stories and those of the great Indian epics and the Puranas. Yet, unlike Narayan, she is fond of using quotations from Hindu scriptures as titles for her books. Both The Nature of Passion and Get Ready for Battle are taken from the Gita, and another title, The Householder, suggests one of the traditional stages or ashramas of Hindu life. The title of To Whom She Will comes from the Panchatantra. But the titles are intended, partly at least, to be ironical.

Her novels are set in Delhi, and the community of which she writes is mainly the educated, westernized middle-class and the vulgar, but powerful and influential, nouveaux riches profiting from Indian urban expansion and industrialization. She usually takes one family, perhaps a large sprawling 'joint family' living in a huge house, and explores the problems that would inevitably arise—the conflict between the 'liberated' younger people and the older orthodox members, the arrangement of marriages, business life, the search for power, influence, wealth. The plots and counter-plots of Jhabvala's stories always arise within this narrow, intensely in-bred family context. The Nature of Passion is one of the best examples. The 'hero' is a 'raja', Lala Narayan Dass Verma, or Lalaji as he is called, a corrupt financial tycoon from the Punjab who has fought his way to the top of Delhi society, securing wealth and power for his family. He is a powerful, earthy, oddly attractive villain with infectious vitality and a determination to do his best for his family, come what may. Jhabvala cleverly shows him early in the book in his most attractive and sympathetic role, as benefactor, paterfamilias, and simple lover of his grandchildren. In his indulgence of his own children he has encouraged the rebellion of his son (Viddi) and his daughter (Nimmi). Both threaten to break away completely from the tyranny of the family. Viddi modishly disclaims the world of money and is contemptuous of the bourgeois conformist exemplified by his elder brother Om—the only one of Lalaji's children who shares his simplicity, his love of wealth, and his fascination with finance. Viddi, a prodigal son, spends his time in cafés with literary bohemians who flatter, exploit, and secretly deride him. Nimmi has demanded emancipation, which for a girl in India is difficult. Her father overcomes the opposition of the women and sends her to college. She falls in love with a Parsee playboy, a frequenter of Delhi night-spots, and rebels romantically against the marriage which is being arranged for her with the son of another millionaire.

In his family life Lalaji is shown to the best advantage, combining a pleasant affection for old-fashioned ways with sentimentality towards the young rebels, shielding them from the wrath of the older members of the family. In business life however, Lalaji shows the ruthlessness and cunning of a predatory beast. He has not got where he is without resorting to corruption; and he has at last gone too far. Evidence of bribery to obtain government contracts now lies waiting to be examined. His own son Chandra, a civil servant highly educated in England at Lalaji's expense, is the only one who can save him by destroying the evidence. But Chandra is alienated from his father. He has become an ultra-modern Indian, living in sophisticated circles where Lalaji would not be welcome; and he has married a snobbish wife who is ashamed of his father's crude manners and old-fashioned ways.

The novel ends, as a comic novel should, with Lalaji the hero free of his difficulties. Jhabvala does it without seriously punishing the old capitalist, although he has to suffer a purgatory of suspense and narrow squeaks before he is clear of danger. Lalaji triumphs by a mixture of cunning and good luck. He wins back Viddi by giving him such a generous allowance that the would-be artist is fired with a consciousness of the power of money and of the influence of his family, and turns his back on his fellow-artists who have been bleeding him white. Luck and time bring answers to his problem with Nimmi. Her boy-friend turns out to be fickle; but she accidentally falls in love with another member of the gay cocktail party circuit, one Kuku, who turns out to be the very boy chosen for her by her family. Lalaji thus wins a new fortune and a rich son-in-law, and retains the affection of his favourite Nimmi. Luckily also for Lalaji and Om, the snobbery and social-climbing of Chandra and his wife overcome their scruples. Rather than suffer from the exposure of his father's crookedness, Chandra destroys the vital evidence and saves him. Lalaji ends with a united family again, more wealth on the way and freedom from fear of prosecution for corruption. Crime does pay.

The outcome appears cynical, but Jhabvala's tone is deliberately and satirically ambiguous. Lalaji is a crook, it is true, an exploiter, a ruthless businessman. Yet he is in so many ways shown as morally superior to the rest of the family. The young rebels, Nimmi and Viddi, are selfish, easily led, foolish and vain. There is an amusing episode at the Kutub Minar at night when Nimmi is clumsily kissed by Pheroze. She feels romantic, but the only lines of poetry that come into her head are Browning's 'I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three,' from her College Browning Selection. As for Viddi, he believes, until he is disillusioned, that the so-called artists he consorts with are free from the greed of his father and Om, whereas it is obvious that they only tolerate Viddi because he is the son of a very rich man. It comes home to Viddi when they hold a party in his honour, buy vast amounts of food and drink, invite scores of guests, and then send him the bill. Chandra and his wife are worshippers of etiquette books, lacking the warmth and generosity of the great familyman Lalaji. They soon surrender their precious principles from fear of social ostracism and the dashing of Chandra's hopes of promotion to a higher grade, should Lalaji be disgraced. Even Om, nearest to Lalaji in character and interests, in his dislike of the modern and the western, in his single-minded devotion to business, is Lalaji's inferior. Though he is loyal to the family, he finds the atmosphere of the house dominated by women, including his wife, too stuffy to endure and takes occasional time off to visit prostitutes. Lalaji emerges victorious only because he genuinely loves his family and has luck on his side. His behaviour is justified, somewhat satirically, by reference to the Gita and to Radhakrishnan's comments on it: '… the rajasa nature wishes to be always active … and its activities are tainted by selfish desires.'

Jhabvala employs gentler irony in The Householder. Here the threat to the very small family of Prem, a Hindi teacher, comes from that oldest of all family jokes, the mother-in-law. Prem saves his marriage in the end when he comes to love his wife. But not before he has to fight the demon of his mother who would smother him and drive his wife away, and the demons within himself, his longing for his old bachelor days and his excited wonder before the life of the sannyasi, the holy man. The story therefore revolves at one level round the demands of the four ashramas. Prem having passed the stage of bachelor-student (brahmacharya) is not yet ready for the stage of sannyasi (the laughing swami) until he has learnt to live in the stage of the householder (hence the significant title of the novel) and in this, he is far from successful. With ironical charm Jhabvala shows Prem's fumbling, self-conscious attempts to become an efficient professor, householder, and husband. Love helps him to get rid of his mother and learn to become a mature and competent husband, while Indu blossoms from a shy, embarrassed schoolgirl into a firstrate (and pregnant) wife and cook. Yet in his other ambitions Prem fails. He fails to get his salary raised; on the contrary, his principal, the odious Khanna, threatens him with the sack unless his discipline improves; and his landlord puts off with all too convincing excuses his pleas to have his rent lowered. Yet in the last scene of the book the monsoon breaks over North India, bringing relief to Prem and Indu. They invite Raj and his wife round to a meal and 'Prem felt really proud' when Raj complimented Indu on her cooking. The gentle Chekhovian ending is tinged with irony, for Prem has solved none of the practical financial problems of the householder and Indu's baby will increase the need for money. There is no villainy in this book on the scale of Lalaji's corrupt tycoonery. The nearest to it are the Dickensian grotesques, Mr Khadda and Mr and Mrs Khanna:

Mr and Mrs Khanna were having their midday meal. They ate in English style, sitting facing one another at a table and using fork and spoon. Mrs Khanna had just speared a piece of cauliflower pickle on to the point of her fork and she was holding it like a trident while she looked furiously at Prem.

The Householder is nearly all pure humour, rather than satire.

An interesting subordinate feature of The Householder, in view of subsequent novels, is the exploration of the holy life exemplified by the swami and Hans. The claims of spirituality against materialism provide the major theme of one novel, Get Ready for Battle. The heroine is an old woman, Sarla Devi, a dedicated idealist devoted to the ideals of the Gita and Mahatma Gandhi, and the words of the title (taken again from the Gita) sum up her policy of disinterested action in the pursuit of her vocation—to help the poor and oppressed. In the Gita, Krishna quells Arjuna's scruples about engaging in warfare by expounding the virtue of disinterestedly acting in accordance with one's vocation (Arjuna's is that of a warrior and ruler). It is Sarla Devi's vocation to serve the poor and needy. She has ceased to live with her rich husband, Gulzari Lal, because he does not share her ideals; on the contrary he is an unscrupulous materialist. Disapproving of his life, she refuses him a divorce. As Jhabvala portrays her, somewhat ironically, she is a complex character who unwittingly produces results which are the opposite of what she intends. The novel charts the failure of her holy and charitable life. She wants her son, Vishnu, whom she loves, to give up his life as a business executive in her husband's company and to follow her vocation of working among the toiling masses. But Vishnu is pulled both ways, by his father's money and by his mother's idealism; his will is weakened by sensuality and longing for change and the 'sweet life' of the fast-livers: Toto and Gogo and his uncle, Brij Mohan, a decrepit Casanova living off Sarla Devi's money. Completely muddled and repelled by his mother's possessiveness and over-earnestness, Vishnu throws himself into a scheme for manufacturing fountain-pens and turns his back on everything his mother stands for. Sarla Devi is equally unsuccessful in a wider context. She champions the rights of refugee squatters in a malodorous slum, Bundi Busti. They are in danger of being evicted to make room for a big industrial development of her husband's, backed paradoxically by the 'socialistic' Congress government in the interests of progress and hygiene. Following in the footsteps of the Mahatma, Sarla defends the rights of the wretched squatters to remain housed where they are. Her efforts are frustrated; the leader of the squatters is bribed to sell out the cause to Gulzari Lal. As a final blow, even her dissolute but dependent brother, Brij Mohan, is disloyal and intrigues with Gulzari Lal's tenacious mistress Kusum, in order to get Sarla to give Lal a divorce. As the novel ends, Sarla compromises with her principles so far as to allow the divorce to go through, but she clings to her ideals in general. We last see her setting off for the red-light district of Old Delhi intent on reclaiming from prostitution her brother's discarded mistress. She is, no doubt, a failure by ordinary pragmatic standards. Yet the Gita urges those who would be good to struggle on and do their duty without worrying about the consequences. Here lies Sarla Devi's only consolation, and it gives her character dignity. In some ways her good works are seen as a meddling with human relationships that she little understands; thus she drives Vishnu from her for ever. She gravely underestimates the pursuit of wealth, power, and the sensual (in her brother Brij, in Vishnu's infatuation with women, in her husband's enslavement to money and his mistress). Nevertheless, this '… skinny ageing woman, with her skin wrinkled and darkened by the sun and her short hair almost quite grey', who has withdrawn from the new India in revulsion against its materialism, its money-making, its corruption and its neglect of the great ethical teachings of the Gita and the Mahatma, is much nobler and finer than the men and women who circle about her—Mrs Bhatnagar, the rich 'dogooder' who hypocritically supports the eviction of the squatters in the name of progress, the young and old sensualists, the grasping tycoon, and the would-be tycoons (Joginder, Vishnu). The picture of contemporary Delhi is as satirical as in The Nature of Passion and much more pessimistic, since the capitalist of Get Ready for Battle lacks the benevolent charm of Lalaji. The essence of the book is the dramatic conflict between heroic virtue and selfish sensuality and materialism. Though its implications for contemporary India are depressing, the novel keeps coming back to personal rather than national problems; it begins and ends with the activities of two remarkable women, Kusum and Sarla Devi.

Indeed the problems of women in marriage, in love, in personal relationships, are always prominent in Jhabvala's novels and no more so than when combined, as in A Backward Place, with the problems of expatriation in India. Twice expatriated herself (from Germany to England and from England to India), Jhabvala is obviously fascinated by the problems of expatriates. A Backward Place is the only one of her novels so far which can be said to dwell exclusively on the subject. It is also, I believe, Jhabvala's finest and most sophisticated novel. In the same Delhi setting of her other books, it deals less with Indian characters and more with Europeans, and some of its power springs from the interaction of European consciousness and life in India. It is the nearest that Jhabvala has yet come to such novels of East-West confrontation as Forster's A Passage to India and Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope. She rigidly excludes the political, racial, metaphysical, and poetic approaches of Forster and Rao, and sticks firmly to her 'forte' of exploring the private lives of a few women in middle-class Delhi. The three women are all expatriates, and their common problem is coming to terms with the 'backward place' which is modern India. The title is again ironical. India's 'backwardness' is constantly assailed by Etta, a Hungarian, who, after the failure of her marriage to an Indian student, has had a succession of love-affairs and is trying desperately to retain the affections of a business man more powerfully attracted by the charms of a younger woman. Etta's view of India is bound to be emotional. 'Backwardness' takes on a different irony when India is viewed by Clarissa, the English eccentric who wears sarees, imitates Indian customs, and raves about the spirituality of the East. India is her ideal, her holy land, the land of Vivekenanda and Ramakrishna she has read about in dingy old England. She has found to her bitter cost that a great gulf lies between holy India and the India of reality. Her life, which was to have been the pursuit of metaphysical wisdom, has turned out to be a struggle with the climate, predatory landlords, and the need to make ends meet; when the novel opens she is exclusively concerned with finding a new flat. The third girl, Judy, also English, is in no danger of falling in love with metaphysics, or of regarding India as anything more than the country she has chosen to live in by marrying an Indian, Bal. Unlike the passionate, violent and possessive Etta and the scatter-brained Clarissa, Judy is the very embodiment of common sense and Anglo-Saxon coolness. She finds Bal's large united Hindu family a tremendous relief after her small miserable family in England with its history of depression and suicide. Her problem is not a nostalgia for England but a dread of moving from Delhi and a constant fear of the fecklessness of her unemployed actor-husband Bal. Expatriation is examined tragi-comically in Etta, humorously and satirically in Clarissa. Etta hates India and longs for the idealized Europe of her girlhood. Only the love and protection of her lovers can atone a little for her misery. When 'Guppy' deserts her for a young Indian charmer with 'lushly prominent' breasts and 'large round buttocks', she is only too painfully aware of her own complexion ageing and cracking in the Indian sun, and attempts suicide. Clarissa's eccentricity has been increased by the effect of expatriation. Moving from one flat to another, forever searching for a good place, she is mocked by beggars who tear at her saree, and she explodes in anger and physical violence at the India she has so sublimely and sadly idealized. (For these outbursts she suffers cruel remorse.) Attracted to women rather than men she pursues Etta with the zeal of a lover, and her jealousy precipitates Guppy's final break with Etta. At the end of the novel, as she slowly recovers from the hideous climax of her misery, Etta allows Clarissa to move into her flat with her. Both have to come to terms with their fate as expatriates in the 'backward place'. Jhabvala treats Etta with sympathy mixed characteristically with some irony aimed at her pretentiousness. She is seen strolling down a street in Old Delhi as if it were the Champs Elyseés, and her longing for Europe and scorn for India cannot hide the fact that she lives by bartering her sexual favours for security and status. It is Guppy's defection which makes her realize that she is at the end of the road, though she snatches hope from a meeting with a potential admirer at the Cultural Dais where Judy works as an assistant secretary. There is some satire in the treatment of Clarissa and the Germans, Herr and Frau Hochstadt. The Hochstadts on a short visit to India are mad about Indian culture and 'spirituality' and cannot understand the problems of either Etta or Judy who look to them for help and advice. They prefer to talk about Sanscrit drama. They fail to see that living in India has driven Etta to despair. Clarissa has come to India to worship at the shrine of Vedantism and has been bogged down in mundane searches for a flat and a lesbian lover. Etta shrewdly comments that the Hochstadts would not be so enthusiastic about India if they had to stay there permanently.

The sharper edge of Jhabvala's satire is reserved for Mrs Kaul, the rich Indian director of the Cultural Dais, an intellectual snob and hypocrite who pays lip-service to the highest ideals of service and benevolence, but, for a trivial offence, cruelly dismisses an Indian girl-employee who badly needs the job. Mrs Kaul is the most odious of the series of rich, fat, middle-class Indian women in Jhabvala's novels, including Mrs Bhatnagar (Get Ready for Battle) and Lady Ram Prashad Khanna (To Whom She Will). Much gentler satire is directed at Judy, with her intense conservatism that leads her to condemn the old Indian woman Bhuaji for falling in so readily with what Judy regards as Bal's idiotic plans to move to Bombay. The young English 'humanist' is seen as less enterprising than the old, orthodox, religious Indian woman. Judy's foolish husband Bal is more roughly satirized. He is vain, aimless, completely dominated by the oily, glamorous film-actor Kishin Kumar. Jhabvala's satire is therefore directed equally at the Indians and the expatriates. The 'backwardness' of India is a concept rejected by Clarissa, the Hochstadts, and Mrs Kaul. It is bitterly affirmed by Etta, accepted gratefully by Judy in her search for peace (she is greatly attracted to Bhuaji's piety for this reason only), and by Sudhir, the discontented secretary of the Cultural Dais in his realization of India's need for dedicated service.

Expatriation and the mixed ('East-West') marriage are also the themes of an earlier novel, Esmond in India. The expatriates are both English, Esmond and his mistress Betty. Esmond is perhaps the only completely unattractive villain among all Jhabvala's characters. He hates India but makes a living by teaching Hindi and 'Indian culture' to rich Indian women and English and American tourists. He is also a gigolo. Another writer might have made a comic study of such a character, but as the novel develops the lines deepen and Esmond shows the devil's hoof. He has (mysteriously) married a fat, pretty, but brainless Indian girl called Gulab, who is satirically presented as spending all her time at home stuffing herself and her little boy with rich sweets and spicy foods—a fine comic tableau. When Esmond returns from his mercenary philandering expeditions he descends to pinching, slapping, abusing, and threatening the wretched woman and her child, both of whom dread him. The climax of his villainy is his heartless seduction of a young, educated, beautiful, but foolish Indian girl, Shakuntala, who falls deeply in love with him. Her eventual fate illustrates the lines from the Panchatantra, from which the title of To Whom She Will is taken:

          For if she bides a maiden still
          She gives herself to whom she will …

Gulab returns to her mother's house with her son, while the sadistic Esmond abandons both her and Shakuntala when his old mistress Betty offers to pay for their joint return to England. Both Esmond and Betty, like Etta in A Backward Place, loathe India and are glad to be leaving it.

It is clear from this brief exposition that Jhabvala shows considerable understanding of, and sympathy with, such institutions as the Hindu united family, the pursuit of holiness by the sannyasi, and the concept of the ashramas. At the same time she points out the serious defects and weaknesses of contemporary Indian life, ready prey for a satirist and ironist. She presents a remarkably sympathetic interpretation of a corrupt capitalist in Lalaji of The Nature of Passion, but does not spare the snobs or the pretentious members of Lalaji's family and the hypocritical self-styled 'artists'. Corruption runs deep in this society, as is shown by Gulzari Lal's success in Get Ready For Battle in finding government support to evict a wretchedly poor community of refugees, in order to make more money for himself. Pretentiousness and hypocrisy afflict young and old in the new India; both Shakuntala and her father are affected by this disease in Esmond in India; she loses her virginity, her father his self-respect. Jhabvala's vision is unclouded by romanticism or poetry. It is severely realistic for the most part. There is, of course, some sentimentality in Jhabvala's novels. To Whom She Will, her first and rather immature novel, has been passed over in this article. It contains an interesting, but occasionally sentimental, narrative of the love-affair of Amrita and Hari, who are in collision with their families. Amrita is an emancipated young woman in revolt against traditional arranged marriages, and therefore is an early sketch for Shakuntala of Esmond in India. Amrita's rash and bossy behaviour certainly invite punishment as much as Shakuntala's silliness. The sudden switch at the end of the book, when Amrita falls in love with Krishna Sen Gupta, is both sentimental and incredible. To my taste there is some sentimentality in the end of The Householder, when Indu proves herself to be such a good wife. The cynicism of Jhabvala's blackest book, Esmond in India, comes as a relief after To Whom She Will, and the satire of A Backward Place is exhilarating after The Householder.

Jhabvala constantly stresses the universality of India's problems. Though institutions like the arranged marriage are traditionally Indian, many of the problems of the characters of Jhabvala's New Delhi could also be set in New York or London. This universality juxtaposed against the slightly exotic Indian settings gives a special flavour, a combination of nearness and distance, of familiarity and unfamiliarity, to her novels. She gains this universality the more easily by concentrating on personal, amorous and marital, themes within an acutely vivid observation of urban Indian society in the second half of the twentieth century.

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