Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Essay by David Rubin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
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Critical Essay by David Rubin

SOURCE: "Ruth Jhabvala in India," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 669-83.

In the following essay, Rubin categorizes Jhabvala not as an Indian novelist, but as an "Indo-Anglian" novelist in the tradition of R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao.

Although the Major was so sympathetic to India, his piece sounds like a warning. He said that one has to be very determined to withstand—to stand up to—India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for—the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of her men and women—but all, said the Major, are dangerous for the European who allows himself to love too much. India always, he said, finds out the weak spot and presses on it.

        —Ruth Jhabvala [Heat and Dust, 1975]

From Flora Annie Steel to Paul Scott the English novelists who have written about India—and they are so numerous that a complete bibliography would fill a small volume—have virtually all reached certain conclusions, whether expressed or implicit: first, that successful communication (and still more, successful fusion) between India and the West is always imperfect when not absolutely disastrous; second, that Indians are somehow deficient in the more admirable qualities of character as understood by the West (which may make them more perilously seductive to Europeans); and third, that India is a source of disillusion, disgust, and corruption for the naive Western pilgrims who flock to her for illumination. It is also characteristic of most of these novels that there is little humor (Scott's Staying On is one happy exception) and, even more surprising, no sense of wonder or delight at the obvious beauties of India and the pleasures and excitements of daily life there—inevitable, one imagines, at least occasionally even for the most disaffected visitor. It would seem that filth and poverty, "heat and dust," have annihilated the first and bureaucratic entanglements the second, leaving behind only ill temper and bitterness.

A great many of the Indian novelists who write in English are also preoccupied with the confrontation of East and West (for example, Raja Rao, B. Rajan, Kamala Markandaya), and although their conclusions are not identical they tend to concur with their English counterparts on one essential point, namely, that relations between representatives of the two cultures are certain to be difficult, dangerous, and often tragic in their consequences.

Considering the consistently negative nature of the British novelists' response to India one may well be surprised that they continue to be fascinated by the subcontinent and cannot leave it alone. For some, India may provide only a backdrop for a tale that has fundamentally nothing to do with the country. Others may employ India as a spring-board for a ruthlessly objective look at Victorian ideals and bungling, as in James Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, a fictional recreation of the siege of Lucknow in 1857. Less intellectual writers have seen in Indian history the opportunity for the nostalgic review of a romantic and to some extent chimerical English heroic past, as in the novels of John Masters and M. M. Kaye. Or India itself may emerge as the inexhaustibly spellbinding protagonist—such is the case, I believe, with Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, although even here the central symbolic actions of rape, indiscriminate irrational violence, and the frustration of almost every attempt to bridge the cultural and psychological chasm between the two worlds all reveal a fundamental acceptance of the late Victorian image of India.

Of these recent novelists Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because of the special nature of her case, seems to me the most interesting, whatever the limitations of her work. When I speak of her "case" I mean the question of how she is to be classified by the literary historian, a point not merely of technical interest but one of fundamental importance. Ruth Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Frankfurt, Germany, of Polish-Jewish parents, who in 1939 took her to England. She lived there until 1951, when she married a Parsi architect and went with him to Delhi, where she lived for the next twenty-five years and brought up three daughters. During this time she wrote all but the last of her nine novels, as well as four volumes of short stories and various screenplays, including the prize-winning Shakespeare Wallah. In 1975 she left India and settled in America, which has become the subject both of her most recent novel, In Search of Love and Beauty, and of her screen-play Roseland. Most Indian and Western critics regard her as an Indian writer, one of the "Indo-Anglian" school that includes such diverse novelists as Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, R. K. Narayan, and Kamala Markandaya. I believe, however, that not only should she not be viewed as an Indian writer but that she is actually in the mainstream of the English novelists cited above, and that not to see this seriously compromises the possibility of a genuine comprehension of the significance of her work.

Let us consider first the grounds for regarding Jhabvala as an authentic Indian voice. Are her marriage and residence sufficient to justify classifying her as Indian? If so, then by the same standards Kamala Markandaya (married to an Englishman and living in London) must be judged British. If we consider the problem from the viewpoint of her material, which is mostly Indian in setting with a fair mix of Indian and Western characters, Markandaya for her part could again just as fairly be called British. The question is further complicated by Jhabvala's recent abandonment of India for the United States. The solution to this puzzle of national identification is not idly speculative for on it hangs the far more complex mystery of Jhabvala's sense of her own identity and its relation to the world she has created, and ultimately of the real value and meaning of her fiction.

Speaking of Indo-Anglian writers in general, Klaus Steinvorth writes:

The position of Indo-English novelists is on the periphery of their own society, they are partly even separated from it by emigration or expatriation, which does not mean they are sufficiently integrated in their new society…. Almost every one of them feels, or is considered, an outsider standing between India and the West, often led to believe that these two complex and abstract ideas can be reduced to a pair of simple opposites. [The Indo-English Novel: The Impact of the West on Literature in a Developing Country, 1975]

The curious thing about Jhabvala, of course, is that, unlike the other novelists Steinvorth considers, her exile is not from but to India. Her position as a kind of permanent refugee has, I am convinced, the greatest significance for an understanding of her work, and I shall return to this point later. Steinvorth also maintains that Jhabvala's fiction is strongly moulded by Hinduism, to an extent even greater than one finds in a Hindu writer such as, say, Manohar Malgonkar. The unlikelihood of this thesis should become clear in what follows.

Here it will be useful to see what Jhabvala herself has said about this question:

The central fact of all my work, as I see it, is that I am a European living permanently in India. I have lived here for most of my adult life and have an Indian family. This makes me not quite an insider but it does not leave me entirely an outsider either. I feel my position to be at a point in space where I have quite a good view of both sides but am myself left stranded in the middle. My work is an attempt to charter this unchartered territory for myself…. My books may appear to be objective but really I think they are the opposite; for I describe the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine…. My work is only one individual European's attempt to compound the puzzling process of living in India. [Contemporary Novelists, 1976]

This straightforward and candid statement, made in 1972, offers useful clues for the interpretation of Jhabvala's fiction, some of which I shall return to later. Here I will point out only the somewhat enigmatic use of the word "compound" where one might have expected the less ambiguous "understand."

From Jhabvala's point of view there is, of course, a considerable advantage in being thought of as Indian. It allows her to be ruthlessly critical of both traditional and "modern" India without incurring the odium of a hostile and uninformed outsider. She also need not anticipate banning (unlike John Masters, to take one example) on the grounds of offensiveness to a particular community or tradition. In writing of the India that she knows from her own experience she has the advantage, as she suggests, of being as it were both of it and out of it. To her observation of Indian city life she brings both a European irony that can come only with a certain detachment and an insider's knowledge of detail and nuance that few other non-Indians could hope to command. At moments (and I believe they are her best) she writes with a finely controlled irony that is neither necessarily Indian nor European but more her own individual manner—an accomplishment few genuine Indo-Anglian writers can claim, with the notable exception of R. K. Narayan.

Apart from its exotic interest as a reflection of Indian experience, it is as a triumphant example of comedic art that Jhabvala's work has been most consistently praised. The comparison of her work to Chekhov's has become a reviewer's cliche. Her novels have been called comedies of manners in the tradition of Austen and James. To cite only one instance, V. S. Pritchett finds her "an ironical observor of what Chekhov called the false emotions, the comedy (in the sternest sense) of self-delusion without drastic condemnation of the deluded." This conception of Jhabvala strike me as inaccurate as the view of her as Indian and derives in part from it, as I hope to demonstrate.

In reevaluating Jhabvala's work at this stage, which may be said to mark the definitive finale to her career as an "Indian" writer, it would be impossible in an essay of this scope to examine her complete oeuvre. I propose instead, after some preliminary remarks about her early work, to discuss her three most recent novels with Indian settings, in all of which problems of East-West understanding assume ever greater prominence, and her extraordinarily revealing autobiographical essay, "Myself in India," which more clearly and explicitly than any other of her writings calls into question her status both as an Indian writer and a comic novelist of manners.

Jhabvala's first five novels may be said to constitute the first phase of her work. With the exception of Esmond in India they are not particularly involved with Europeans but portray, rather, Indian family life and its constant preoccupation with finding suitable husbands for younger daughters. Although the tone darkens after the relatively sunny first novel, Amrita, the principal characters are viewed in general with some compassion and their eccentricities as usually endearing. The third novel, Esmond in India, the first to take up what may be called Jhabvala's international theme, is noticeably sourer and more bitter in tone. It seems as though a European presence automatically calls up tension, anxiety, and disappointment. The novel that followed, The Householder, is again a mostly Indian story, one in which Jhabvala achieves her most sympathetic insight into middle-class domestic life with nuances both tender and melancholy—her most genuinely Chekhovian work; its only defect comes from the occasional intrusion of minor European characters—unbelievable caricatures that anticipate the hippies and other questers who flocked to India in the Sixties and who were to become almost an obsessive preoccupation in Jhabvala's later work.

A Backward Place (1965) may be taken as the novel that initiates Jhabvala's second phase, in which the international theme becomes all-important. As in all of Jhabvala's fiction the focus here is on women—there are no memorable male characters in her work. In this case the central figures are three European women who represent in varying degrees the East-West malaise exemplified in the recurrent subjects and themes of Jhabvala's work: the troubled marriages and love affairs between Indians and Europeans; the romantic, vaguely questing Westerner; the adventures and fight for survival of bored, superficial, and Indophobic drifters, mirrored by their egomaniacal, mindless, and predatory Indian counterparts. In A Backward Place the Indian characters (with two minor exceptions, Shanti and Bhuaji) are characterized by shallowness and mediocrity, combined in individual cases with infantile selfishness, cupidity, stupidity, and extravagant vanity. They are, in short, caricatures, occasionally amusing and generally predictable. The Western characters show only slightly more realistic individuality.

The action of the novel is of the simplest nature. Judy, married to Bal ("child"), unemployed and unemployable, works in the office of the Cultural Dais until finally she gives in to her husband's harebrained scheme of going to Bombay to look for work in films. Clarissa, an adumbration of the later hippies, is a painter, an expert sponger, and wildly in love with the elemental India of nature and villages, about which she knows nothing. She says that Romain Rolland's Life of Vivekananda inspired her to come to India, and she has "rejected all Western values." Etta, a Hungarian refugee, is a fading blond who survives by having affairs with Indian businessmen. Unlike Clarissa she clings to everything Western. This limited material is sufficient for Jhabvala to present a cutting satire of the way foreigners live in New Delhi. Her fiercest scorn is reserved for a German exchange economist at the university and his wife, victims of the reverse Indian myth—a gushy uninformed Indophilia sustained by the good life guaranteed by their government grant ("Even the furniture was provided by the government…."):

[the Hochstadts] saw in it a reflection of the spirit of India as a whole—of that new India, which strove to bring itself in line with the most highly developed technical achievements of the twentieth century and yet retain its own culture: its art, its religion, its philosophy (and where in India, as Dr. Hochstadt so aptly remarked to his wife, can one draw a dividing line between these three manifestations of the human spirit?) which had ever been and would ever be, an inspiration to the world.

Another few months and Dr. Hochstadt's assignment would be at an end, and it would be time to return to the normal course of their duties. In a way they were not sorry: all good things must come to an end, and they were beginning to miss the cosy flat in St. John's Wood … and several other features of their normal settled lives. [Jhabvala, A Backward Place, 1965]

The Indian characters are just as cruelly satirized. Mrs. Kaul, the rich patroness of the ineffectual Cultural Dais (which presents a farcically inept performance of Ibsen's A Doll's House), is a modern variation on Dickens' Veneerings:

Then some of her own friends came, and they were very much more acceptable. They were all dressed, spoke good English and had been abroad; in short, they were cultured people.

"Last year we were in Berlin where Mr. Kaul was head of the economic mission at the International Conference of Civil Servants. We were shown many interesting cultural events such as the State Opera and the Berliner Theatre. From there we went to U.K. and saw Rosenkavalier at the Covent Garden Opera House. This too was a beautiful experience. In Moscow we saw the Bolshoi Ballet—oh my own dear Bolshoi Ballet!" she cried and clapped her hands and shut her eyes for joy.

Jhabvala's most delicate satire is aimed at Mrs. Kaul. This lady would like to fire Judy to oblige some influential friends by hiring their daughter.

He pointed out that it was hardly possible to slide one person out of a job for no better reason than that you wished to slide another person into it; but here she could not follow him, for as far as she was concerned it was entirely possible.

Most of the other Indian characters are even less attractive: Guppy, the grossly self-indulgent businessman; Kishan Kumar, a mindless, narcissistic film star; snobbish, Europe-mongering Mr. Jumperwala; the pompous Doctor; and so on. Jaykar, the editor, feels some indignation at the idleness and silliness of the young Indians who crowd the coffeehouses, but he expresses it only in editorials composed in a desolatingly trite style. "Now is the time it behoves our Youth to leave their cushioned chairs, gird up their loins and stride out into those areas of our vast land where the trumpet of Progress has not yet sounded its first triumphant notes". Sudhir, who has decent instincts, is, like the majority of Jhabvala's characters throughout her work, passive, ineffectual, and ultimately aimless.

Judy, the most (almost the only) sympathetically drawn of all the characters, seems to promise the possibility of a sane middle path between Etta's Indophobia and Clarissa's gush. She is happy to work to support her husband and children, content in the society of her sister-in-law and husband's aunt (a conventional religious old Hindu woman). But Judy herself is without any strong motivation or discrimination and seems indeed to be almost simple-minded; her capitulation to her husband at the end of the novel, in a kind of irrational, euphoric surrender, is difficult to credit. (In Esmond in India [1958] Jhabvala had told a more convincing story of an Englishman and Indian woman whose marriage ends in divorce, to the relief of all concerned.)

Despite their flatness and predictability, the European characters in A Backward Place have a little more individuality than the Indians. As for the Indians, Jhabvala's estimation is not far from that of V. S. Naipaul as expressed in India: A Wounded Civilization.

Considered in itself this novel is a deft and entertaining satire of the way some Europeans live in Delhi. But it is not genuine comedy. The classical conception of comedy—a literary process in which illusions and confusions are dispelled and true identities at both symbolic and literal levels reestablished with the protagonists given, as it were, a second chance (the point at which comedy diverges from tragedy) so that their lives are clarified, sweetened, and, in short, redeemed—cannot be applied to A Backward Place. The outcome of each character's conflicts and quests is too sour, too negative, to be called comic. As in so much of Jhabvala's work there is a persistent, one might say dogged, concentration on the perverse, the mediocre, and the disappointing that is actually not the correction of the exaggeratedly romantic but merely its opposite extreme and too unbalanced to be considered realistic—a facile cynicism of the kind that an unhappy Indian experience can breed so effectively. This is the world of Evelyn Waugh's early novels successfully transplanted to India.

The cynicism and emotional deadness are reinforced by the prose style. It is self-consciously flat. There are hardly ever any conjunctions except for "and" and "but"; consequently, there is scarcely ever any subordination of clauses, which in turn means a heavy restriction on affective highlighting, indignation, or other moral implications. Superficially this may seem like Hemingway, but in Hemingway—at least in the earlier novels and stories—the coolness and evenness of style are used to communicate and enhance extraordinary events, intense emotional shocks, and a definite moral viewpoint. In A Backward Place the affectation of indifference does not serve any such purpose. Instead of lending conviction to passionately felt experiences and hard-won stoicism in the face of tragic losses, the style merely confirms the obvious mediocrity of the novel's characters and their reaction to experience. Almost any paragraph chosen at random illustrates this.

Bal had a brilliant idea. He woke up with it one morning and couldn't wait to tell Judy. Unfortunately she had already left for work—he was always the last to get up, for he got home late at night and liked to make up for it in the morning—so he had to lie there and think about it by himself. He lay for quite a long time, but in the end jumped out of bed for he had got so excited about his idea that he felt he had to share it with someone, even if it was only Bhuaji who wouldn't understand properly. But she had gone out too, and the children were at school, and the servant in the bazaar.

Even at a moment that is charged with some emotion, the writer downplays it to rob it deliberately of serious impact.

"She has insulted me!" he suddenly shouted. With a vehement gesture he flung away his chicken leg (Mrs. Hochstadt, who hated to see litter, had to check an impulse to run after it and pick it up and put it in her special disposal box). He shouted again, "I have been insulted!"

This is farce rather than comedy and it depends not on insights but rather on facile generalizations and accurate observation only of the surface of things. Chekhovian comedy depends on a ready recognition of what is typical and expected, but its effectiveness derives from the way this is set off by what is neither typical nor expected. The apparently placid surface conceals and gradually reveals a depth and tension, a sympathetically conceived human personality, not a clinically sound diagnosis. In Chekhov the sadness of life is constantly counterpointed by flashes of recognition of a current of joy in living; laughter and tears are natural partners in his stories and dramas. In A Backward Place one finds only a dry and occasionally humorous chronicling of the bleak totality of Indian experience; India is used as an instrument to diminish and denigrate the characters.

The limitations of one particular novel become far more significant when we see that the flatness of tone, the cynical attitude, and the pervasive desolation are characteristic of Jhabvala's work in general. One finds no particular evolution in the style, no increase in depth or richness of response to India, almost no expansion of the subject matter—the restricted world of middle- and upper-class Delhi and Bombay, with the exception that in the succeeding novels the hippies become significant. Jhabvala's special interest has always been the refugee. "What I am interested in now is myself in India," she writes in the essay "Myself in India." Herself a refugee, she is fascinated by the various kinds of emotional and philosophical escape artists who have gravitated to India, some of whom may represent projections of her sense of her own identity. "My books may appear to be objective but really I think they are the opposite."

The novel that follows A Backward Place, Travelers (1973, titled A New Dominion in England), might well have been called "Refugees." The two central Indian characters—Asha, a middle-aged Rani, and Gopi, a young sponger—drift from one place to the other as their affair progresses. Raymond, a young middle-class Englishman in love with Gopi, follows them around despite his disillusionment with Gopi's superficiality and rapacity. Lee, an American girl, one of several spiritual questers, floats sometimes with them, sometimes away, drawing them after her, amid a group of other ashram-dwellers and foreign pilgrims whose apathy, which they apparently mistake for illumination, is so great that even when one of them dies of the diseases that torment all of them, it causes no great stir. At the end of the novel a weary Raymond sets out for home and the family business. Lee, who has been seduced, almost raped, by a swami, is apparently on her way back to his ashram. The swami, a particularly nasty Dickensian caricature, is a monster of ambition, greed, and lust. "Dickensian" is perhaps inaccurate: he appalls but does not amuse. The element of caricature extends to all the major characters. The three parts of the novel (their titles—"Delhi," "The Holy City," "Maupur"—sounding vaguely Forsterian echoes) are coldly and wryly critical portraits of the capital, an ashram in Varanasi, and a Raja's broken down provincial palaces that are the stock in trade of Jhabvala's novels and film-plays. To emphasize the author's distance from the material, the novel is further subdivided into mostly brief scenes, each with its title, for example, "Gopi Is Displeased with Raymond," "Lee and Gopi Eat Kebabs," "Asha Feels Old."

V. S. Pritchett writes, "A large number of these passages are perfect as short stories in which the light changes from the bizarre to the poetic, from the comic to the horrifying, from the thoughtful to the mischievous—all with an allusiveness, a susceptibility to mood, a tenderness of which Chekhov was the exemplar." Again I find it difficult to see much that is Chekhovian in this work, where the style and technique appear calculated to dispel any suspicion of sympathy on the author's part by reducing events to something like the panels of a comic strip.

Pritchett finds the Western characters less successful than the Indian. "The Hindus are Mrs. Jhabvala's complete characterizations—above all, the ancient Princess Asha and the impossible young Gopi." But Asha (who may be fading but is hardly "ancient") and Gopi, far from being complete characterizations, are scarcely even recognizable as Hindus. (Perhaps Pritchett means "Indians.") As certain Indian types, yes, types made familiar by Hindilanguage films of unquestioned, unashamed triviality. The only element that distinguishes Asha and Gopi (like the swami) from the Europeans in the story is their capacity to exercise their willpower, their relentless and sometimes crafty grasping. The Westerners for their part are once again apathetic, passive, and vague; and once again the novel's narrative style serves mainly to diminish them. What we have is a series of vignettes, virtual cartoons, in which nobody is more important than anyone else, nothing much has value, and nothing much matters: the depressed world of voluntary displaced persons who somehow fail even as refugees.

If we return to the question of whether to consider Ruth Jhabvala an Indian novelist, it is worthwhile to call attention here to the kind of characterizations found in the fiction of her Indo-Anglian contemporaries, where characters are endowed with clearly defined, rounded, and heightened individuality. Although it is outside the scope of this essay to discuss them in detail, let me cite the novels of writers such as Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, and even that most Brahmanical of writers in English, R. K. Narayan. The same can be said of those novelists who write in Hindi: for example, Rakesh, Vatsyayan, Ashk, and Sobti. The contrast of all these writers' approach to characterization with Jhabvala's is striking and serves to emphasize how much of an outsider after all (like all the English who have written fiction about India) she has remained.

The nature of Jhabvala's relationship to India and the effect that country has had upon her work may be clarified by her essay "Myself in India." In these fourteen pages Jhabvala describes with the cool precision we expect from her and a raw intensity we do not her own private anguish over her Delhi life and the unsettling ambivalences, familiar to so many who have lived a long time in India, of being unable to live with the country or without it, a special kind of odi-et-amo, or as she candidly terms it, a disease. Even the most commonplace social pleasures are fraught with malaise. Of a Delhi hostess she writes:

In her one may see the best of East and West combined. She is interested in a great variety of topics and can hold her own in any discussion. She loves to exercise her emancipated mind, and whatever the subject of conversation—economics, or politics, or literature, or film—she has a well-formulated opinion on it and knows how to express herself. How lucky for me if I could have such a person for a friend! What enjoyable; lively times we two could have together!

In fact, my teeth are set on edge if I have to listen to her for more than five minutes….

Out of context the point may seem trivial, but it has emblematic importance for Jhabvala. If one does not enjoy the limited and artificial society of the Civil Lines or the rich new colonies and if, on the other hand, one is not a "strong person who plunges in and does what he can, a doctor, or a social worker," as she puts it, what is left? Extraordinarily, she can summon up only a handful of isolated images to express her sense of all the rest of the subcontinent—a smiling leper, the carcass of a dog, a human sacrifice, Shiva on Mt. Kailash sporting his necklace of skulls, outlaws with the hearts of wild beasts, the naive and touching devotion to the cow—none of which ever appears in her fiction. One cannot suppress a decided disappointment that this acute observer should feel obliged to evoke the shade of Katherine Mayo, no matter how superior the style. Her Delhi life is haunted by the knowledge that she is "on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise. Even if one never rolls up the blinds and never turns off the airconditioner, something is bound to go wrong. People are not meant to shut themselves up in rooms and pretend there is nothing outside."

So we are back again in India as experienced by all the earlier British novelists who have tried to come to grips with it: Europeans are not meant to live there (perhaps nobody is, as N. C. Chaudhuri contends), with the possible exception of pathologically passive, egoless drifters like Lee; the country somehow accentuates sexual craving and offers easy gratification, but the sexual adventures are always disappointing and corrupting; the spiritual values of Indian thought are an illusion; and Europeans and Indians are doomed not to understand one another.

In Heat and Dust (1975), the last of Jhabvala's Indian novels to date, there is some attenuation of the attitudes prevalent in the preceding books. At first glance it seems to be an apologia for, almost a refutation of, the earlier novels. Although caricature and stereotyping are still in evidence, the major characters are more fully delineated, and for a change there is at least some ambiguity (allowing a note of affirmation, albeit a feeble one) in the conclusion. The unnamed narrator comes to India in part to unravel the story of Olivia, her grandfather's first wife, who had caused a scandal by becoming the mistress of a navab and renouncing England forever—whether happily or not we are never permitted to know. In the process, the narrator herself is fascinated with India, becomes pregnant by her Indian landlord, and, unlike Olivia, resolves to have her baby. We last see her awaiting its birth in the lower Himalayas and planning vaguely to go eventually to a mountain ashram.

An unwonted element of allegory is discernible in this novel. The navab's palace is near a village called Khatm ("finished") and Olivia and the narrator resides in Satipur, the city of the faithful wife—Jhabvala's penchant for irony once again evident here. Satipur is notable for its English cemetery, like Paul Scott's Pankot in Staying On. This cemetery, with its graves of British soldiers, their wives, and children, overgrown with weeds and its tombstones and statues broken, is all that remains of the Raj in Satipur. The only English in evidence today, including the narrator (herself the representative of a British colonial family), are partially Indianized vagrants. Olivia aborts her half-Indian baby but remains ever faithful to its Indian father, whereas the narrator, in a more enlightened age, or perhaps merely one more decadent, though she discards her Indian lover, after unsuccessfully trying to abort her child finds a rapture in the idea of having it. Although Pritchett had found Travelers Forsterian rather than Chekhovian, the adjective is more applicable to Heat and Dust. The concern with "bridging" is treated more seriously than anywhere else in Jhabvala; the possibility of a positive value in at least some Hindu holy men and women is suggested; and even Forster's tendency to sententious and intrusive observations of a moral nature can be found, as exemplified by this essay's epigraph.

It is difficult to assess how much of a development in Jhabvala's sense of India Heat and Dust represents. As so often in her work, the author has remained elusive, difficult to pin down. Unlike Forster, for instance, who expresses his moral viewpoint in his fiction in his own person, Jhabvala never does. What Etta or Raymond or the narrator thinks may or may not coincide with her personal ideas. We must try to draw conclusions only through a process of inference by examining the consistency of story patterns, the fate of each of the characters, and the dominant elements of the narrative style. In all these respects, Heat and Dust has after all not gone so far beyond the world of A Backward Place. The irony of the later book may be deliberately blunted, the value of Indian experience for Europeans less defined (and therefore at least potentially positive), the attitude toward India's victims (including the indispensable hippies) a trifle more sympathetic. But the fundamental modality is still flatness of presentation and the major characters still passive, almost without either will or awareness. In both her sexual adventures (they can hardly be called love affairs) the narrator is virtually inert. By the very nature of the novel's structure—present-day events recorded in the narrator's matter-of-fact diary and the distant past, reconstructed from Olivia's letters, retold by the same narrator—we are excluded from an opportunity to confront characters and situations with either intensity or certainty. Once again the technique provides a skillful screen that allows the writer to remain uncommitted to any position that might hint at the sentimental, the emotional, or even the genuinely compassionate. Just as in the later Hemingway the controlled concealment of emotion leads to a suspicion that there is little feeling to conceal, so here we are troubled by the unrelenting deadpan and the steady letdown from what at best is only ground level.

In all these novels no Indian and no European experiences a moment of fulfillment or even of pleasure. In "Myself in India" Jhabvala herself records no agreeable Indian experience apart from the enjoyment of bhajan, traditional devotional songs. In the same essay she writes:

However, I must admit that I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India—which sometimes, in moments of despondency, I tend to think of as my survival in India. I had better say straightaway that the reason I live in India is because my strongest human ties are here. If I hadn't married an Indian, I don't think I would ever have come here for I am not attracted—or used not to be attracted—to the things that usually bring people to India. I know I am the wrong type of person to live here. To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.

She concludes the essay by saying that she gets bored after a time in Europe and finds it difficult to stand the European climate. "I have got used to intense heat and seem to need it". Nevertheless, in 1981, she writes [in Contemporary Novelists], "In 1975 I left India and am now living in and writing about America—but not for long enough to be able to make any kind of comment about either of these activities." It is obviously too early to say whether without that country's "intense heat" her inspiration will wither or whether, after a respite, she will return to India as her subject with a new perspective and greater depth. Until the present her Indian fiction has constituted a clever and disarming set of variations on the long tradition of the Anglo-Indian novelists. Although her earlier novels, like those of any genuine Indian writer, tend to deal with Indians as people first and only secondarily as Indians, in her later ones this is reversed as the East-West theme comes to obsess her. Her characters become increasingly emblematic and less human, the impoverishment and triviality of the Indian life she knows is presented more and more bitterly, and in consequence the alleged comic nature of these books appears ever more dubious. Their relation to her "constant self-analysis" can only be speculated upon in the light of her abandonment of India, but it seems likely that she can no longer allow herself to be regarded as an Indian novelist. The third phase—the American—has only begun, bringing with it, it is safe to assume, ever greater contradictions and complexities.

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Critical Essay by David Rubin from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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