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Critical Essay by Bruce Bawer
SOURCE: "Passage to India: The Career of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala," in The New Criterion, Vol. VI, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 5-19.
Bawer is an American literary critic. In the following essay, he analyzes several of Jhabvala's novels, including The Householder, Travelers, and Heat and Dust, commending her more recent works for including American characters, while criticizing them for their preoccupation with Westerners who try to become Indians.
Probably most Americans who recognize the name of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala know her mainly as a screenwriter, one third of the celebrated international movie-making team whose other members are the Indian producer Ismail Merchant and the American director James Ivory. In this country, at least, Jhabvala and her partners are known almost exclusively for three recent films that were based upon major modern novels: The Europeans (1978) and The Bostonians (1984) both derived from works by Henry James, and A Room with a View was an adaptation of one of E.M. Forster's less familiar novels. Though many reviewers carped about the casting and the slow pace (among other things) of the first two films, even the harshest critics almost invariably praised the filmmakers for their seriousness, for their wonderful attention to period detail, and for their manifest effort to be as faithful as possible not only to the word of the text but to James's tone and sensibility. The word "literate" was widely invoked—and, at a time when films often seem to be more illiterate than ever, the literateness of the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala productions was more than enough to inspire fervent expectations, on the part of many critics who were unhappy with the two James adaptations, that in time a truly magnificent film would be forthcoming from the team. These expectations, in most instances, seem to have been satisfied with the release of A Room with a View. This splendid film received better notices than either of its two immediate predecessors; it was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture and earned Jhabvala the award for best screenplay adaptation. When she appeared on the awards telecast last spring to accept her statuette, it was doubtless the first time most Americans had heard her name.
Despite her relative obscurity in this country, however, Jhabvala's writing career has been a long and distinguished one. Her motion-picture partnership with Ivory and Merchant dates back to the early Sixties; prior to the films I have mentioned, the team collaborated on a number of productions, none of which was shown widely in the United States. In addition, Jhabvala has written ten novels—the most celebrated of them being the Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust—and several collections of short stories. Most of these books, if obtainable at all in this country, have hitherto been available only in British editions; but, largely as a result (one assumes) of the success of A Room with a View, that situation has lately begun to change. Both Heat and Dust and the 1973 novel Travelers, as well as the short-story collection Out of India, have recently been issued by the Fireside division of Simon and Schuster in handsome, well-distributed paperback editions. Alongside them on the bookstore shelves is Jhabvala's newly published novel, Three Continents. As if this were not enough compensation for years of stateside neglect, during the months of September and October the Asia Society in New York held screenings of a number of Ivory-Merchant films—six of them scripted by Jhabvala—as part of a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to the team. Though she has been writing fiction and movies for more than a quarter of a century, then, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Jhabvala is only now being introduced to a broad American public. There could hardly be a more appropriate occasion to examine some of the highlights of this most interesting—and, on these shores, largely neglected—career.
Probably one important reason for America's neglect of Jhabvala's novels is that most of them—as well as the majority of her pre-Henry James screenplays—are set in the country where she has lived, whether full- or part-time, for decades: India. Though she still spends several months of the year on the subcontinent, her principal residence is currently in New York. The problematical question, however, is whether Jhabvala herself—born in Germany of Polish parents, and educated in England—can be considered Indian. Her own answer to this question, given in an essay entitled "Myself in India" (which serves as the introduction to her recent story collection Out of India), is no. "I have lived in India for most of my adult life," she declares at the beginning of the essay. "My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year." India, she goes on to say, is a country that one either loves or hates; it offers "a special problem of adjustment for the sort of people who come today, who tend to be liberal in outlook and have been educated to be sensitive and receptive to other cultures. But it is not always easy to be sensitive and receptive to India: there comes a point where you have to close up in order to protect yourself." Her reason for living in India, she tells us—and I quote this at length because I think it helps to explain some of the distinctive qualities of her fiction—is that
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 is not, in other words, the type who has come to this land of desperate poverty—a poverty of which she, in her very nice air-conditioned house, is nonetheless always vividly aware—to be of service as a doctor or social worker. "I often think," she writes, "that perhaps this is the only condition under which Europeans have any right to be here." (According to a recent article by Dinitia Smith in New York magazine, Jhabvala's reason for living part of the year in New York is that "by 1976, she had grown overwhelmed by the subcontinent.") If her fiction is predominantly about "modern, well-off, cultured Westernized Indians," it is because her way of adjusting to life in India is to do her best to ignore the backward and hungry multitudes (which she refers to continually as a "great animal" on whose back she rides). Yet she doesn't associate with many Westernized Indians, either, for she believes that their social lives are synthetic, their conversation empty ("Everything they say … is not prompted by anything they really feel strongly about but by what they think they ought to feel strongly about"), their perspective on India's poverty and backwardness thoroughly detached. They talk about India "as if it were some other place—as if it were a subject for debate—an abstract subject—and not a live animal actually moving under their feet." Her problem, then, is essentially one of cultural adaptation: "To live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? Should one want to try to become something other than what one is?"
This question, in a sense, is at the center of Jhabvala's fiction. Many of the prominent characters in her novels and stories are either Indians who try to be Westerners, or Westerners who try to be Indians. Jhabvala's tone, when she writes about such people, invariably combines affection with irony—affection, because she knows that it is only human to be attracted to that which one is not, to long for that which one does not possess; irony, because she recognizes how delusory most such attractions are, how fruitless most such longings. Jhabvala is a humorist as well as a humanist: she laughs at man's moral and intellectual imperfections even as she laments his inability to transcend those imperfections. For she does perceive (it is the central perception of her fiction) that the human animal craves transcendence—transcendence of uncertainty, of mortality, of the banality of day-to-day life. Characteristically, Jhabvala sees this craving as both beautiful and foolish. Or, more precisely, she sees it as a beautiful longing that people—not knowing where they can go to find satiation—try to satisfy in foolish ways. In her novels, characters are always seeking, travelling, roaming the world in search of a locus amenis, making fools of themselves by reaching out for the impermanent, the inappropriate, the unnatural, the impossible.
The longing for transcendence often takes the form, in Jhabvala's work, of a passionate attachment (and passion is a word that she does not hesitate to use) to someone grand, exotic, forbidden, even evil—usually someone of a different race. In her novel Esmond in India, for instance, the sheltered young Indian woman Shakuntala is smitten with the haughty, married, extremely European Esmond; in Heat and Dust Olivia, the wife of a British officer, falls for the Nawab, a rich, shady local prince; and in Three Continents the naïve American girl Harriet adores the mendacious, mysterious Crishi. The narrator of Heat and Dust speaks of reaching "a higher plane of consciousness through the powers of sex."
Another form taken by the longing for transcendence is the reverence of movie stars and swamis. (Yes, movie stars and swamis.) Jhabvala recognizes that however different they may seem—the movie star an embodiment of modern Western popular culture at its trashiest, the swami a symbol of ancient Indian religion at its most sublime—they are really very closely related, in that they both represent for the common man a type of transcendence; if swamis (embodying as they do the mysteries of India) hold a special fascination for certain Westerners, so movie stars (embodying the affluence and glamour of the West) hold a special fascination for Indians. Nothing, by the way, is more characteristic of Jhabvala's unique vision and perspective than her recognition of such a bizarre cross-cultural affinity. Movie stars and swamis thus pop up frequently in her work. (One of her films—probably her most unsuccessful, in fact—was The Guru, a 1968 character portrait starring Michael York.) Though she pokes fun at both movie stars and swamis, however, she does not make them out to be thoroughgoing fools and rascals; in Jhabvala's fiction, even they have their moments of goodness and wisdom. This is one of the things that make Jhabvala special; she perceives that man is neither basically good nor basically evil, that neither pure materialism nor pure idealism—the struggle between which she often depicts—makes very much sense as a philosophy of life. She knows that we all have in us both good and evil, that we consist of both body and spirit; we are, in short, holy but imperfect creatures, and she writes about us with an empathy that stays well clear of bathos and a cynicism that only occasionally descends into bitterness.
Her career can be divided into two periods. Between 1955 and 1971 Jhabvala published six novels. Typical of these early books are Esmond in India and The Householder, in which Jhabvala is very much a novelist of manners in the tradition of Jane Austen, as well as a natural storyteller à la Chekhov. These novels also bring to mind the Indian novelist R. K. Narayan, though her characters are generally more well-to-do than his, and her novels more obviously aimed at a Western audience. Conventional in style and structure, they are strong on character development and social detail; they lie squarely in the realistic tradition of the English novel, and, among twentieth-century English novels, belong in the camp of Evelyn Waugh, Joyce Cary, and Kingsley Amis rather than with such four-square modernists as Woolf and Conrad.
Take, for instance, her third novel, Esmond in India (1958), which is set in the years immediately following India's independence from Britain. The title notwithstanding, the character who is really most prominent in the novel is a young woman named Shakuntala, who has just earned her B.A. and returned home to New Delhi to live with her family. They are a wealthy clan who pride themselves on their Westernization: Shakuntala's father, Har Dayal, a Cambridge-educated government minister, spices his conversation with quotations from Keats, Wordsworth, and Matthew Arnold; her fair-skinned mother, Madhuri, remembers proudly the time a friend told her that in Europe she'd "be taken for Italian or Spanish"; her married older brother, Amrit, a businessman (and a subscriber to Reader's Digest), has moved up quickly because his British-owned firm is following a "policy of gradually replacing British executives by Indian ones," and he is "very suitable for this purpose, as he had attended an English university and was also very English in all other respects, except in his complexion"; Shakuntala herself is a fan of Sibelius and Liszt.
Shakuntala considers herself and her father, though, to be different from the other members of her family, especially Amrit. Her brother is a materialist, she complains, whereas she and her father are "idealists" and know that "art and culture are the only important things in life." From the outset, it is clear that Shakuntala's and Har Dayal's culture is superficial and their idealism pragmatic. The truth is that Har Dayal enjoys art and culture less than he enjoys his image of himself as a friend of art and culture.
The novel's other New Delhi family is strikingly different. Its patriarch, Ram Nath—once Har Dayal's friend and mentor and a respected leader of the struggle for Indian independence—has lately gone down in the world as steadily as Har Dayal has gone up. So traditionally Indian is Ram Nath's clan, moreover, that his niece Golub, to the disgust of her despicable English husband, Esmond, cannot even make conversation with his European friends. When this family enters Shakuntala's life it is because Ram Nath wants her to marry his son, Narayan—a brilliant young doctor who has rejected a lucrative practice to care for the rural poor. Unbeknownst to everyone, however, Shakuntala has fallen in love with the superficial Esmond, who represents to her everything Western, and who doesn't care for her in the slightest. Esmond or no Esmond, though, one never has any question about the outcome of Ram Nath's proposal. One knows that Har Dayal, for all his supposed devotion to Ram Nath, will manage to argue slickly against the marriage. And one knows that the idealistic Shakuntala will decide that "my ideals are different than [Narayan's]…. I love Art and Beauty and Poetry, how can I give these things up as I shall have to if I go and live with Narayan in a village to do good to the poor?"
It should be said that some of the characters in Esmond are less credible than others, their motivations more dubious and their fatuities too strongly exaggerated. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the pathetically meek Golub could ever have worked up the nerve to marry Esmond against her family's wishes—especially since she cannot now summon up the same nerve to leave him, though she and her whole family realize that the marriage is a lost cause. Equally difficult to swallow is that a rich, sheltered young Indian woman of the 1950s would have opened her chaste treasure, especially to a married man, as readily as Shakuntala opens hers to Esmond. In any event, one sometimes wishes, while reading Esmond, that Jhabvala would let up a bit on the irony, particularly when she is writing about Shakuntala. Quite often the girl is just too foolish to be believed. When her mother asks her, on one occasion, what she is doing, Shakuntala replies, with a child's solemnity, "I am thinking quite hard"; at the end of the novel, when she has a marketplace rendezvous with Esmond, she is absurdly deluded and happy, and Jhabvala, who wants to indicate that life is nowhere near as wonderful as Shakuntala thinks, makes her point with less subtlety than might have been desirable: "She knew now that life was more wonderful, a hundred times more wonderful, than even she had suspected. It was not the moment nor was she the person, to hide such a sentiment, so she told him, 'Life is wonderful—wonderful!' letting her hand slide from his arm down to his hand which she firmly and fearlessly held as they made their way through the crowd." Though Jhabvala's affectionate attention, then, to the little details of human relations, attitudes, and customs is very charming, she is at times so ironic in this novel that she comes off as downright misanthropic.
The Householder (1960) might be read as something of a companion piece to Esmond in India. Instead of concerning herself with a rich young lady who has returned to her father's house after being graduated from college, Jhabvala gives us a middle-class boy named Prem who, as the novel opens, has recently earned a second-class B.A., has undergone an arranged marriage with a girl named Indu, has taken up residence with her in a seedy little flat in Delhi, and has entered upon a low-paying teaching job at a seedy little private college. He is, then, a brand-new "householder"—which is, according to the ancient writings, the third (after child and student) of the four stages of a man's life. The novel is concerned with describing his period of adjustment to this role. For this timid, unambitious, and only moderately intelligent young man is not quite ready for the responsibilities of manhood. Though Indu is with child, he does not find her attractive, and considers her pregnancy a "terrible embarrassment," for "[n]ow everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark." He tries to behave in a manner befitting a proper Indian husband, but is not very good at it; Indu blithely ignores his orders. At the college, too, his attempts at discipline are ineffectual. Though he spends much of the book, moreover, trying to work up the nerve to ask Mr. Khanna for a raise in salary and his landlord for a lower rent, one knows from the start that when he finally manages to choke out these requests, they will be brushed aside breezily: one knows this as surely as one knows that Shakuntala will never marry Narayan. (One reads Jhabvala novels like Esmond in India and The Householder not to discover what will happen—one knows pretty much what will happen—but to delight in, among other things, the perceptiveness with which Jhabvala depicts self-important, self-deceiving people like Har Dayal and Mr. Khanna in the act of justifying their ignoble actions.) But one also knows that eventually—and very gradually—things will improve for Prem. Perhaps he will not come to enjoy his new life, but he will grow used to it; it will come to seem less of a burden, and at times even pleasurable.
About Prem: although he is a believable and pitiable character, he is not an extremely likable one. Like Shakuntala, he seems abnormally puerile for a college graduate, buying candy on the way home and eating it quickly so he will not have to share it with Indu. As in the case of Shakuntala, the irony Jhabvala brings to his characterization is sometimes excessive; on occasion he is so passive and ineffectual that one feels as if one is being invited not to sympathize with him but to feel superior to him. This is true not only of Prem, to be sure, but of many of the characters in the book, whose banality is of grotesque dimensions. Prem's fellow teachers, for example, speak almost entirely in clichés. Since they are minor characters, however, this is not a crucial failing, and the results are admittedly very funny; the inane pretentiousness displayed at Mr. Khanna's tea party, for example, is reminiscent of Dickens:
"As I was saying," said Mr. Khanna; he took up his position in the centre again and replaced his thumb in his armpit. "It is very pleasant to have the ladies with us. Very agreeable." The ladies all stared straight in front of them, without any change of expression. Only Mrs. Khanna said, "I think the tea-water is nearly boiling."
Mr. Chaddha said, "The society of ladies is said to have a very softening effect." He was wearing a cream-coloured silk suit which seemed to have been washed quite a number of times, and he sat with his arms and his little bird legs crossed in an attitude of ease suitable to a tea-party.
"It is not for nothing," suggested Mr. Khanna, "that they are known as the gentle sex." Led by Mr. Chaddha, the gentlemen politely laughed. "It is good sometimes to break off in the midst of toil," Mr. Khanna continued, "and enjoy an hour's leisure and ease in their charming company."
"As our heroes of old," said Mr. Chaddha, "withdrew for respite from their battles to have their wounds dressed and their brows soothed by the hands of their consorts." He seemed pleased by this remark; he cleared his throat and crossed his legs the other way. The other teachers looked at the Principal, and when they saw him smile in appreciation, they too smiled in appreciation.
Outlandish as they are, furthermore, the teachers are a lot easier to take than Hans Loewe, a German boy who befriends Prem. Hans has come to India from "materialistic" Europe because he thinks this is "the country where people renounce the flesh and think only of the Spirit!" Nothing, apparently, can make him see things any differently. (He is as obtuse about the real nature of India as Shakuntala is about Esmond's lack of affection toward her.) He says to Prem,
"Only think—in this country where everything is beautiful, the sunset and the fruit and the women, here you call it all Illusion! How do you say—Maya?"
Prem said, "Yes, Maya," though he was not quite sure.
"How I love your India!" Hans tells Prem, but his India is not at all the same as Prem's; when Prem begins to speak of India's independence and its economic progress, Hans seems not even to hear him: "Everything is so spiritual—we can wash off our dirty materialism when we come here to your India!" At first these speeches are somewhat amusing, and this Westerner's admiration of India's supposed spiritual richesse is certainly deliciously ironic in light of post-revolutionary India's desperate longing for a Western-style material affluence. But though Hans appears several times in the book, Jhabvala never develops him any further than this; he remains incredibly obtuse and deaf to Prem's practical-minded conversation. To Hans, indeed, Prem is little more than a symbol of India. Of course, Jhabvala finds Hans ridiculous for taking this simplistic, condescending attitude. But Hans is such a blatant, uncomplicated stereotype of the European in India that it could be argued that Jhabvala herself, in creating such a character, is as guilty of gross simplification and condescension as he is.
The most peculiar episode of The Householder is one in which Prem spends part of an evening with a swami and his followers. Nobody says anything profound during this encounter, but the mere fact that the swami and his followers speak—even in the vaguest terms—of God and of the heart's longings and of "what is valuable in the world and what is not" makes the experience overwhelming for Prem; the "unaccustomed purity" of the meeting goes to his head, and causes him to laugh and feel drunk and experience, like Shakuntala at the marketplace, a brief sense of transcendence:
He thought yes, this is how one must live—with love and laughter and song and thoughts of God. All his former worries about his rent, his rise in salary, his lack of authority as teacher and husband, were nothing but a thin scum floating on top of a deep well of happiness and satisfaction. Nothing, he thought, would ever trouble him again. From now on he would live in contemplation only of spiritual things. Indu would be like a sister to him—he would love her as a sister and both would sit at the feet of the swami and think of God and indulge in happy, innocent play.
But of course the pressing circumstances of daily life make Prem's determination to live such an existence fade quickly away. Though this episode is well done, Prem seems in it to be rather out of character; one feels as if her has been led to the swami less by the longings of his soul than by Jhabvala's desire to work a swami into the novel, and to have somebody speak of transcendent things.
The strength of The Householder—and a great strength it is—is that Jhabvala manages to make an unremarkable phase of an unremarkable life very touching and compelling. Like many contemporary English novelists—the late Barbara Pym comes to mind—she seems deliberately, in these early novels, to cultivate a certain smallness; in size, style, setting, scope, intentions, ideas, and range of feeling, The Householder is a modest book. Jhabvala concerns herself with a protagonist who we know from the start will not change dramatically, will not do anything admirable, will never amount to much. Jhabvala's restraint is remarkable, as is her understanding of character. She captures with great skill Prem's feelings of fear, uncertainty, deprivation, and hopelessness. (In fact, she makes the life of these middle-class Indians seem so barren and banal—which I don't doubt for a moment it is—that one can only be grateful she doesn't take on the life of the abject poor.) She has extraliterary goals, of course: here—as throughout her fiction—she is out to destroy the sentimental views that Western readers may have of India. Furthermore, her attention to homely details seems to be designed, in part anyway, to ridicule the grandiose pretensions of characters like Mr. Khanna. Whatever the case may be, The Householder is wonderfully attentive to the details of Indian life—the jarring of pickle, the making of poori and chapati, the conservations about the desirability of government jobs, the entreaties of beggars ("You are my mother and my father"). As for the novel's prose, it is even more lucid and luminous than that of Esmond in India. Compared to that novel, The Householder is shorter, simpler, more focused, more austere in its manner, and more concerned with conveying a sense of everyday Indian life; in the latter regard, in fact, it is, despite its drawbacks, a veritable tour de force.
Aside from the swami, the one thing in Prem's life that seems to transcend everyday reality is the cinema. Jhabvala's novels poke merciless fun at the film world—at the shoddiness of most of its products, at the large role it plays in most Indians' lives (and imaginations), and at the preoccupation of many Indians with the romances and scandals described in movie magazines. (In The Householder a paper-man passes by Prem's mother's train, shouting, "Film-Fun, Film-Fare, Film-Frolic!") It seems ironic, then, that Jhabvala has herself made such a large contribution to Indian film. The first motion picture on which she collaborated with Merchant and Ivory was a charming black-and-white adaptation of The Householder (1963), starring Shashi Kapoor as Prem. Though the film has the same story, and much the same grim, claustrophobic atmosphere, as the book, there are a few notable differences: several episodes are shuffled around; Prem is not quite as spineless as in the book, and is rather more talkative; and Hans from Germany—who probably should have been an American in the first place—is transformed into Ernest from Philadelphia.
The film of The Householder was succeeded by two good films about India, the West, and the decline of culture. Shakespeare Wallah (1965) concerns a small travelling company of English Shakespearean actors who have spent years in India but who, thanks to the growing popularity of movies, have had increasing trouble finding employment, and are thus beginning to feel as if there's nothing left for them in India. "We should've gone home in '47 when they all went," complains the company's lead actor, Mr. Buckingham. But his wife (and leading lady) observes that "We always used to think this was our home." Indeed, the Buckinghams' teenage daughter, Lizzie, has never even been to England. Nor, in spite of her family's wishes, does she want to go there to be educated—especially after she meets, falls in love with, and begins an affair with a rich, handsome young man named Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). The affair is doomed from the start, of course. For one thing, Sanju's values and way of life contrast sharply with those of the Buckingham family; for another, Sanju already has a woman in his life, the glamorous film star Manjula, who is as wily and superficial as Lizzie is sincere and sensitive. Shakespeare Wallah may be the best of Jhabvala's early films: it is a gentle comedy with the audacity (and the good sense) to imply that certain products of a foreign culture—that is, Shakespeare's plays—might be better for Indians than certain products (i.e., tacky films) of their own culture.
After Shakespeare Wallah came Bombay Talkie (1970), yet another Jhabvala movie whose primary concern is to deplore the influence of movies. The heroine is Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), a restless, superficial, several-times-married hack writer from England who has come to India hoping to change her luck. On a Bombay soundstage—where a musical number featuring a giant typewriter is being filmed—she meets two men who are attracted to her. One of them is a good-hearted bachelor screenwriter named Harry; the other is the dashing movie actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor again), who is as superficial as she is. Though Vikram is married, Lucia has an affair with him; so insensitive is she that even when his meek little Indian wife walks in on the two of them in the couple's bedroom, it doesn't occur to Lucia to feel guilty or uncomfortable. Vikram is one of many men in Jhabvala's work (Esmond is another) who blithely cheat on their Indian wives with Western women; to these husbands, their wives represent tradition and permanence, where as Western women—who need not be taken seriously anyway, because they are prostitutes by nature—represent adventure, sophistication, modernity. Of course, no Jhabvala story about restless Westerners in India would be complete without a swami, and so Lucia spends some time in an ashram, trying (without much success) to adapt herself—and her very healthy sex drive—to a disciple's ascetic life. Bombay Talkie is a good movie; if it is less satisfying than Shakespeare Wallah, it's because the principal characters are less sympathetic, the theme more familiar (with only a few changes, the story might have been set in Rome or London), and certain development (notably, the stabbing at the end) downright corny.
Beginning with Travelers (1973), Jhabvala's novels represent quite a different sort of accomplishment from their predecessors. If the early novels tend to depict India from Indian points of view, in these later novels the subcontinent is more usually seen through the eyes of Westerners. In these books the country seems more exotic, somewhat less a geographical entity, a way of life, and somewhat more a state of mind; her view of the country, that is to say, is less down-to-earth, more cosmic—more symbolic. Whereas in the early novels the story is paramount, and narrative coherence a priority, the later novels are more fragmented; Jhabvala is less interested, in these books, in telling a story than in painting a single broad canvas; she seeks to give us India, it seems, not by offering us a series of discrete connected images but by depicting one image, as it were, from a multiplicity of angles. These later Jhabvala novels are more sensual, experimental, modern; though the later Jhabvala, like her earlier incarnation, has affinities to Waugh and Cary, say, she is closer than the early Jhabvala to the camp of Virginia Woolf, Conrad, Lawrence, and Joyce.
Travelers reads like a sort of trial run for the new Jhabvala. In it she moves back and forth between the points of view of four characters whose paths cross in India. Raymond, a pleasant young Englishman, is a Cambridge graduate who lives in New Delhi and is in love with Gopi, a college student; Asha is a rich middle-aged woman who also becomes smitten with Gopi, and Lee is a young Englishwoman who has come to India "to lose herself in order … to find herself," and who spends time in an ashram as a swami's disciple and lover. The stories of these characters' lives, as they develop over a period of several months, are told in brief chapters, many of them no longer than a page or two, some of them in epistolary form; they carry flat, descriptive titles such as "Raymond and Gopi Meet Lee," "Lee Writes to Asha," and "Raymond Arrives in the Ashram."
There is much talk about India and what it means, and in this connection many characters and settings take on symbolic dimensions. Raymond grows very fond of Indian music because it has become for him "a distillation of everything he loved in Gopi and everything he loved in India. These two were now inextricable." Lee notes that her friend Margaret looks down on Miss Charlotte, an elderly English missionary, because
she can't sympathize with her attitude, which she says is old-fashioned and patronizing. She says people just don't come any more to India to do good, those days are over. What they come for now is—well, to do good to themselves, to learn, to take from India. That's what Margaret's here for. Above all she wants to be pure—to have a pure heart untainted by modern materialism. Margaret hates modern materialism. Of course, so do I; that's why we're both here.
It is this hatred of "modern materialism" that leads Lee to the swami, who plans to develop his following into the Universal Society for Spiritual Regeneration in the Modern World, "a worldwide religion uniting men of all creeds and all colors into one family and so bringing peace and harmony into the world." It is Lee's naïve faith in the swami that provides Jhabvala with her biggest opportunities, in this novel, for irony. "[H]e's so phenomenal," Lee exults, "I mean it's so fantastic the way his mind is always alert…. [H]e has this power of knowing people before he's actually physically met them." Contrasted with the swami and his thriving ashram are Miss Charlotte and her mission—an institution that has actually done a great deal of good, but which is closed by the Indian government because "philanthropy is a form of charity that the government of India, indeed I may say the people of India, can no longer allow themselves to accept."
The travellers of this novel are in search not only of a number of great abstractions—truth, enlightenment, spiritual regeneration—but of one thing that is very concrete: family. If Lee is so easily taken in by the swami, it is because he has made it possible, at his ashram, for her to be part of something that resembles a family; likewise, Gopi becomes attached to an old swami-like woman named Banubai of whom he says, "She is my mother. She is everyone's mother." Appropriately, the novel ends with two of its protagonists making travelling plans: Raymond arranges to return to his only real family, his mother in England; Lee—who has left the ashram—decides to return to it, because it is the only real home she has.
Travelers is an odd book. The writing is crisp and vivid throughout, and some of the episodes are wittily done. At a high-toned dinner, for instance, the English host and an Indian minister get into a friendly argument over whether there is a "special relationship" between England and India; it's an absurd argument, because the Indian—who denies the existence of such a relationship—sounds as English as the Englishman. But after the smoothness, concision, and focus of Esmond in India and (even more so) The Householder, Travelers seems choppy, sprawling, meandering. Yes, the directionlessness of its characters and plot is part of the point; this is a book about four confused people meandering through life—and, to an extent, across the landscape of India—in search of something. Such a book can certainly work, but more than anything else it needs particularly appealing and sympathetic characters in order to do so; and the fact is that the characters in Travelers simply are not all that engaging. Even at the end of the book, one does not feel as if one knows them very well or cares strongly about any of them. Interestingly, the words of praise quoted on the back cover of the Fireside paper-back edition point directly to the book's cardinal weakness. The quotation from The New York Times Book Review describes Travelers as a "distinguished psychological survey"; Ved Mehta observes that the "central character in Travelers … is India, which for [Jhabvala] is not so much a country as an experience, after which no one is ever the same." Both Mehta and the Times critic are correct. But to refer to the novel as a "psychological survey" is to suggest—with justification, I think—that Jhabvala's characters seem more like case studies of personality types than they do like distinctive individuals; and to say that India is the novel's central character is plainly to admit that the human characters in the book are overwhelmed by the setting.
Jhabvala's most celebrated work of fiction, Heat and Dust (1975), has several affinities with Travelers, the most important being that it, too, is concerned with Anglo-Indian relations and cross-cultural romances; as with the earlier novel, moreover, it might be said of Heat and Dust that one of its central characters is India itself. Here, too, Jhabvala presents us with more than one protagonist—with a pair of them, in fact—but, unlike the foursome in Travelers, they never meet each other. They are, as it happens, two women who are divided from each other by time, but who belong to the same family and have a great deal in common. One of them, Olivia—whose story is set in 1923, in the Indian town of Satipur and its environs—is the bored young wife of Douglas Rivers, a British officer; she loves him, yet gradually finds herself becoming fascinated by the Nawab, a charming but dissolute (and married) prince whose palace is in the nearby town of Khatm and whose income appears to derive largely from the petty crimes of various sordid hirelings. The attraction is mutual, and in the end Olivia runs off with the Nawab, lives out her days in his house in the remote town of X, and is never seen again. The other protagonist is a young lady—Douglas's granddaughter by his second wife—who, fifty years later, having read through a trove of Olivia's old letters, journeys to India in an attempt to understand this woman whose story is now a skeleton in the family closet. The novel alternates between a straightforward recounting of Olivia's story—as revealed, we are to understand, by the letters—and the granddaughter's successive entries in the journal she keeps of her several months' visit to Satipur, during which time she has her own affair with an Indian.
As is to be expected in a Jhabvala novel, however, the narrator's reasons for coming to India are not entirely related to Olivia. She explains that "many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life." Inder Lal, her lover, considers this attitude a mockery; he is as acutely and painfully aware of his material poverty, as compared with the lot of the typical European, as she is aware of what she considers her spiritual poverty, vis-a-vis the average Indian: "He says, why should people who have everything—motor cars, refrigerators—come here to such a place where there is nothing?"
Esmond in India and The Householder have strong story lines that develop clearly and fluently, and characters that blossom rapidly into life; Heat and Dust is a more elliptical work, its characters more enigmatic, their motives less readily apprehended. Its feel—the tone peculiarly dry, the episodes often crabbed and unyielding, the chronological leaps disorienting, even jerky—is similar to that of Travelers, but it is far more surefooted, almost as if Travelers were the rough draft and Heat and Dust and finished work; there is a symbolic force to the latter book that Travelers doesn't quite achieve. If in Travelers the landscape of India seems to dwarf the characters, in Heat and Dust the characters partake of the country's vastness; the simple, elliptical stories of Olivia and the narrator have an archetypal, a legendary, quality that the muddled, prosaic case histories in Travelers don't.
The stories of Olivia and the narrator are at once similar and different; in this they reflect the similarities and differences between the British India of Olivia's day and the independent India that the narrator visits—connections which Jhabvala draws with a fine subtlety and elegance. Of course it is the differences—especially those between the nature of Anglo-Indian relations in 1923 and in the 1970s—that are most dramatically apparent. The house in which Olivia and Douglas lived now contains Indian government offices; there is a chumminess now between Englishmen and Indians that would have been rare in Olivia's time. But in all essential things the India that the narrator becomes familiar with is the same India that Olivia knew. The heat and dust, for instance, persist. India is the same intolerably hot and dry land that it was half a century ago—or, for that matter, half a millennium ago. India is still a land that "always changes people." Though, in comparison to Jhabvala's other novels, it seems to have received somewhat more than its share of critical attention and praise, Heat and Dust most assuredly represents a high point of Jhabvala's art.
In the same year that this most substantial novel (which became a film in 1982) was published, there appeared a surprisingly slight Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie entitled The Autobiography of a Princess. It is of interest, though, for its thematic similarity to Heat and Dust. Far from the sweeping spectacle that the title might lead one to expect, this film takes place in a modest London house where, one afternoon, a middle-aged Indian princess (Madhur Jaffrey) has an elderly English bachelor (James Mason) to tea. This is, one gathers, an annual ritual; her guest—who was once right-hand man to her late father, a maharajah—has come to celebrate with her the birthday of her father by watching home movies and sharing memories. During most of the film, the princess talks incessantly of Papa, whom she remembers as a great and cultured man, but who—one gradually realizes—was actually very much like the Nawab in Heat and Dust: a tyrant, a criminal, and an adulterer, who romanced a film star and lost his throne as the result of a scandalous affair with a lower-class Englishwoman. It is not till the last minutes of the film that the guest speaks at length of his relationship with the maharajah, which sounds exactly like that between the Nawab and his homosexual English friend Harry (who, in turn, rather reminds one, with his endless letters home to mother and his quiet worship of his Adored One, of Raymond in Travelers). So ends the film.
It is a baffling piece of work: barely an hour long, set in one room in "real time," it has no plot, no action, no dramatic conflict, and consists mostly of one rambling, interminable speech. As for the home-movie-within-a-movie, it is a bizarre compilation containing, among other things, a 60 Minutes-style interview with disenfranchised Indian nobles, grainy scenes of elephants on parade, and truly repulsive footage showing the beheading of goats. Its only apparent points are that daughters often have highly selective memories of their fathers, and that for many high-born Indians who now live in reduced circumstances, British India is a glorious memory and independent India a nightmare. At best, the film is an outré footnote to Heat and Dust—a drastically less effective variation, that is, on the theme of family memories of British India.
The novel that directly preceded Jhabvala's new novel is of interest for several reasons. For one thing, it is the first of her novels written during her residency in New York. For another, it has many similarities to Three Continents. Interestingly, In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) is set mostly in America—in Manhattan, to be specific—and takes place over several decades of the mid-twentieth century. At its center are three generations of a well-heeled West Side family. Louise (whose husband Bruno dies young), her businesswoman daughter Marianne (who calls herself Marietta), and the grandchildren, the world-travelling real-estate entrepreneur Mark and the otiose, idealistic homebody Natasha. The family is surprisingly close-knit—more like an Indian family, one cannot help but think, than a typical New York family; Marietta's fulfillment, we are told, lies in Mark, and for the utterly friendless Natasha, her grandmother, mother, and brother are "her home, her life, everything she knew and cherished." Yet family attachments are not enough to sustain and satisfy them. All four—aside from Natasha, who never even has a boyfriend—share a history of unorthodox, intense, and impermanent romantic entanglements, as well as a vague but persistent dedication to spiritual realization. They also share a fascination with a man named Leo Kellerman, whom Louise first meets in the 1930s, recognizes as "a yet undefined genius," and remains enthralled by for the next several decades. Leo is a swami in everything but name: he gives lectures and workshops, has a group of followers, and seeks to establish an Academy of Potential Development—a goal that Louise's family, of which he becomes something of an associate member, helps him to achieve.
Here, as in Heat and Dust, Jhabvala eschews a straightforward chronological structure. Instead, she leaps back and forth through the history of Louise's family, favoring us now with an episode set in the 1970s, now with one set in the 1940s. This practice of skipping around in time has a striking effect: it makes the family's life seem like a fait accompli rather than like something that mysteriously unfolds from moment to moment and can be changed by the characters' actions. This, in turn, makes the characters' incessant spiritual searching seem particularly pathetic and useless: we already know, after all, that they will never find transcendence. (Alas, Jhabvala doesn't get Americans quite right. She has them speak of "laundrettes" instead of "laundromats," of "blocks" instead of apartment houses; she has them drink too much tea and use British colloquialisms.)
This being a Jhabvala novel, there must be at least one Indian in the cast. That quota is filled in part by Ahmed, a musician whose recital at a converted New York porno theater Marietta attends. She is attracted not so much to Ahmed, she insists, as to "his sarod [a sort of Indian lute], his music; and not even that but the world it opened—the world beyond worlds—the promise of peace and fulfilment that was like a hand laid on her restless heart." Marietta hires Ahmed to give her sarod lessons, and she thereafter invites him (as Raymond does Gopi in Travelers) to move in with her. He does so, only to return eventually to India, which Marietta thereafter visits yearly, often passing through ashrams in the course of her travels; on one of her trips she forms an intense friendship with a woman musician named Sujata who represents her "most meaningful encounter there, or her deepest immersion and enchantment." (Like Asha, by the way, Sujata is in love with a boy who is young enough to be her son; she asks Marietta "if it was so wrong to have these feelings, then why were they sent?") Mark, for his part, devotes his life to a series of homosexual affairs. In a conflict over a mutual lover named Kent, an older man stops just short of stabbing Mark with a carving knife: Mark handles the crisis well, but the object of their affections breaks down in tears. Jhabvala explains:
He was still very young, only at the beginning of his career, and knew nothing of what could sometimes happen among people with very strong feelings.
About these feelings: Leo had once likened them to the voices of the great castrati, in which a man's vigour was made to give body to a woman's nervous delicacy. Unhuman voices, Leo called them; unnatural hybrids. "All the same," Mark had replied, "no one ever said they weren't beautiful."
This is what In Search of Love and Beauty is about: the way that unnatural, strong, and beautiful longings can lead people into foolish acts and harmless liaisons. For the truth about Louise, Marietta, and Mark seems to be that, though they cherish the family bond, each of them still hopes for some more transcendent form of human connection than that which they have. Leo, Ahmed, Kent are all ways of trying to build a new kind of family, a more nearly perfect union of souls. But one never really understands why one generation after another of this family should be so restless, so dedicated to the intercontinental search for "inner fulfillment," so devoted to the Leo Kellermans and Ahmeds of the world. Indeed, though one wants very much to believe in these extremely interesting people, one doesn't.
Jhabvala's new novel, Three Continents, is in many respects very similar to In Search of Love and Beauty. For one thing, the new novel—which in style and structure is Jhabvala's most conventional in over a decade—centers upon three generations of an affluent American family. The narrator is a young woman named Harriet Wishwell, who begins with a capsule family history: she and her twin brother, Michael, are the product of a broken marriage between a spoiled father, Manton, who has spent his life drawing on a trust fund, and a mother, Lindsay, who lives on the family ranch with a woman named Jean; since neither parent has very strong parental instincts, both Harriet and her brother were brought up largely by their paternal grandparents, a diplomat and his wife, in a number of Asian capitals. This upbringing bred in the children a "restlessness, or dissatisfaction with what was supposed to be our heritage—that is, with America." Neither lasted in college more than a year; both always "wanted something other—better—than we had. Of course people would say that what we had was pretty good, and from a materialistic point of view that would be true."
But, needless to say, theirs is an idealistic rather than a materialistic point of view. And it is not until their twentieth year—when Michael shows up at Lindsay's ranch house, fresh from yet another restless swing through Asia, with a swami and several disciples in tow—that things start looking up for them, idealistically speaking. The Rawul (for so the swami calls himself) is "as idealistic as Michael," the founder of something he calls the Fourth World movement. He has, as Harriet puts it, "this simple but forceful idea of constituting himself the savior of world civilization." In the new world—the Fourth World—"all that was best in the other three would come to fruition." Sharing this goal with him are the Rani, his consort, and Crishi, whom Harriet takes to be their adopted son. Michael himself declares, "This is it, Harriet. Om, the real thing." It is, in other words, what the two of them have been seeking all their lives. Harriet explains:
While our parents were having marital squabbles and adulterous love affairs and our grandparents were giving diplomatic cocktail parties, [Michael] and I were struggling with the concepts of Maya and Nirvana, and how to transcend our own egos. Anything smaller than that, anything on a lower plane, disgusted us. I was used to following Michael's lead, so when he said that the Rawul and Rani and Crishi operated on the highest level possible, I didn't contradict him, although it seemed to me at that time that they were very worldly people.
This impression would seem to be confirmed by the reaction of Manton's girlfriend, Barbara, the daughter of a famous movie actress: the atmosphere around the Rawul, she says, reminds her of the atmosphere around her mother. (Like previous swamis in Jhabvala's work, in short, the Rawul seems to be to idealism what movie stars are to materialism.)
Before long, however, Harriet has become not only the Rawul's disciple but Crishi's wife. It is plain to the reader—though not at all to Harriet—that Crishi's main reason for marrying her is his desire to control the ranch, which the twins will inherit on their twenty-first birthday, and which Michael wants to donate to the movement. And little by little the Rawul's people do take control of the ranch. The gradually increasing sense of domination, as communicated by Jhabvala between the lines of Harriet's placid narrative, is chillingly reminiscent of Animal Farm; these sections of the book represent an impressive accomplishment in mise en scène. But the characterizations give one pause. For why in heaven's name does almost nobody at the ranch notice how chilling these developments are? What is it about Harriet, Michael, and Lindsay that causes them to succumb so readily to the Rawul's empty rhetoric? Why is the only voice of common-sense reality that of Jean, who pleads with Harriet: "How could you allow these people—these strangers—to take over your house? Our house? It's like a nightmare." How is it that Harriet is able to recognize momentarily the truth of Jean's remark, only to drift back into mindless passivity? In short, why has Jhabvala chosen to create a family all of whose members are capable of being swallowed up by a cult in record time? Surely we are meant to understand that the Wishwells have been deprived of a strong sense of family and, like the clan at the center of In Search of Love and Beauty, yearn for a feeling of spiritual transcendence and for something larger than themselves to belong to; in a way, obviously, we are meant to see them as representative of the contemporary decay of the Western family and of family values. But the Wishwells are so grotesque a family that it is impossible to see them as representative of anything in the real world. Though it would be difficult enough to believe in any of them in isolation, to expect a reader to accept them all as members of a single family seems rather too much to ask.
And of all of them, the hardest to believe in is Harriet. She reminds one less of any real individual than of Alice Mellings, the obtuse protagonist of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, who, desperate for a family of her own, falls for a third-rate terrorist group even more readily than Harriet falls for Crishi and the Rawul's cult. In Harriet, Jhabvala has created a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. Things are quite clearly not the way Harriet would have us think they are—or, indeed, the way she herself perceives them to be. Take her marriage, for instance. When the Rawul and his cohorts relocate to London, Harriet and Michael go with them; there Harriet meets Rupert, an art gallery owner who turns out to be the Rani's husband. Though Harriet doesn't realize it at all, the circumstances strongly suggest that the Rani married Rupert for his money, his government connections (which she used to straighten out her visa problems), and his family's seventeenth-century house (which the Rani liquidated soon after the marriage). Just as the Rani has used Rupert, so it is clear that Crishi, in marrying Harriet, is out to use her; indeed, as the party moves (in the book's second section) from America to London, and then (in section three) from London to India, everyone seems to await her twenty-first birthday as if it were the coming of the Messiah.
What's more, Harriet never faces squarely the facts about the Rawul's cash flow: like the Nawab's wealth in Heat and Dust, the movement's money appears to derive largely from crime. And Harriet knows this. She sees Crishi and Michael beat people up: she sees the Rawul's followers being trained in the use of weapons; she hears stories about Crishi's criminal past; and she speaks in passing of the arrest of some of the Rawul's followers "at certain borders," with each arrest representing "a considerable financial setback with the impounding of whatever it was that was being carried from one place to another." But she only mentions these things en passant. What is it that is being carried from one place to another? If Harriet knows, it's apparently not important enough to her to deserve mention. She seems incapable of adding it all up—the violence, the guns, the smuggling—and seeing the Rawul's movement for the sleazy enterprise that it really is. Why doesn't it occur to her to address the movement's blatant criminality as a moral issue? Why can't she see the utter divergence between the brutal reality of the movement and her image of it as a force for peace and love and brotherhood? The answer is, simply, that though her mother refers to her and Michael as the family "intellectuals," actual ratiocination is alien to her; it is not in her nature to think about her experiences. Although she considers herself a devotee of the movement, her understanding of it never progresses beyond the public-relations level; she fails to notice that the "ideas" in the Rawul's "program" are nothing but fuzzy platitudes.
To write a long novel—and this is one of Jhabvala's longest—in the voice of such a character seems an inordinately challenging task, and that Jhabvala does it as well as she does is a tribute to her gifts. This is a very smoothly written book—stately, lucid, and balanced. But the character of Harriet weakens it enormously. Like Shakuntala, Harriet is a heroine created expressly to be looked down upon; her unmitigated stupidity, and Jhabvala's incessant irony, eventually become too much to take. What's more, for all her sarcasm about people who are drawn to swamis, Three Continents seems to me to demonstrate—as if any more demonstration were necessary—that Jhabvala herself is in the grip of an inordinate fascination with them. To read the first few pages of this novel, with its multi-generational swami madness, is to get the mistaken impression that it is set somewhere around 1970, at the height of many Americans' love affair with gurus, mystics, and Ravi Shankar. So narrowly limited is Jhabvala here by her long-time theme of Indians who try to be Westerners and Westerners who try to be Indians that Three Continents comes off as stale and anachronistic, a recycling of dated and familiar motifs. It is encouraging, to be sure, that here, as in her preceding novel, Jhabvala's principal characters are Americans; both novels suggest that she is determined to bring new settings and concerns into her work, to move beyond her usual material. But just as her American protagonists, in these most recent novels, are pulled, as if by some force beyond themselves, to India, so for Jhabvala herself India remains unwaveringly the final destination, the figure in the carpet. In a very real sense, India has made Jhabvala; let us hope now that her preoccupation with the subcontinent is not her undoing as well.
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