Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Essay by Charmazel Dudt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
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Critical Essay by Charmazel Dudt

SOURCE: "Jhabvala's Fiction: The Passage from India," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 159-64.

In the following essay, Dudt examines four of Jhabvala's novels—Amrita, Esmond in India, Travelers, and Heat and Dust—and discusses the ways in which her views of India have changed over the course of her writing.

It is a truism that woman today is caught between old strictures and new possibilities. She is well aware of her historical role and, therefore, struggles to establish a consistent, reliable identity as a member of a world which has not yet absorbed her as an integral part. When this struggle with temporal change is compounded with spatial and cultural challenges, what is written must be considered carefully for what it reveals of the struggle itself, and for the end it prophesies. The novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, thus, have an immediate poignancy, for they reflect her personal journey from illusory myth to dusty reality.

Born of Polish parents in Germany in 1927, she went to England as a refugee at the age of twelve, achieving an easy transition from writing in German to composing stories in English about the lower-middle classes in England. She met an Indian architect while she was studying English Literature at Queen Mary College, London University, and married him. They moved to Delhi, where she has lived from 1951. "I have lived here for most of my adult life," she says [in Contemporary Novelists, 2nd edition, 1976], "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."

According to Jhabvala, her books are an attempt "to present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of foothold. My books may appear 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 can never claim to be a balanced or authoritative view of India but is only one individual European's attempt to compound the puzzling process of living in it." A survey of four of her novels, written over nearly twenty years, from 1956 to 1975, reveals through her reaction to India, the difficulty in establishing a personhood and the price one has to pay for it.

When she first went to India, she wrote easily about the country and its people: "I did this quite instinctively…. It never struck me at that time that there was anything strange in my writing in this way about Indians as if I were an Indian" [in World Authors, 1950–1970, 1975]. In her first book, Amrita, the central character is the new woman who clashes directly with the old world. She is fiercely determined to keep her job at the radio station despite her mother's desperate attempts to arrange for her marriage within her pseudo-European circle of friends; Amrita, however, is in love with Hari, a fellow-worker from a different caste. Yet she is neither a Nora nor a Hedda. Amrita delights in shocking her elders, but hesitates to go to a local restaurant in the company of two men. When compelled to go, she "kept her eyes lowered, and listlessly crumbled a small cream cake on her plate." The boys enjoyed themselves thoroughly. One cannot avoid the impression that the westernized characters in the book are so only superficially. Her grandfather lives in a musty house surrounded by a litter of tastelessly chosen objets d'art, and dreams of the good old days when he was a barrister. One aunt has a wealthy husband who does nothing but affect boredom, while another aunt can only indulge her appetite for clothes and sweets. Both women are incapable of action, exactly like the grandfather's music box from Baden-Baden in Germany whose insides have long since ceased to move.

Hari's family, on the other hand, is life itself; simple and unspoiled, their ways are traditional. They are boisterous Punjabis who live in the center of town, and they are determined to marry their son to a "good" girl. Sushila Anand is their choice, for she knows how to cook and sew, and has wisely chosen to marry instead of developing her voice for the record market. The contrast between the feverish activity connected with the wedding and the languid humidity of Amrita's house where the servants do nothing but count and recount the silver cutlery, is almost too obvious for comment. The bias of the author towards the ancient and ritualistic seems undeniable in the last sentence of the novel: "It was all over, a high pitched voice sang a hymn …; he had led her round the fire seven times and now she was his; and though he still could not see her … he was suddenly so happy, he felt he had/never been so happy in his life."

In 1958, seven years after her own marriage, Jhabvala introduced into an increasingly bitter portrait of India, the theme of an East-West marriage. Each of the characters in Esmond in India is led by dreams towards destruction, and the conflict arising from Western influences is given strong statement. Ram Nath, the center of an admiring Cambridge crowd long ago, has sacrificed his life as a lawyer for the emergence of new India. His wife, prepared to live in a large house with many relatives and servants, does not understand the cause for which he forfeited his property and subjected himself to prison. He is no longer the bright, sharp little flame that conveyed a sense of urgency; instead, he has grown old, and his sister notices that life itself seems to have withdrawn from him. The degree of his present ineffectiveness is emphasized in his inability even to arrange a marriage between his only son and the daughter of his once-best friend. "His past had been so full; and his present was nothing. He had lost contact, not with the world of affairs, of politics, meetings; he did not mean that, because that he had relinquished deliberately—but with all the world, all life."

If Ram Nath represents the old world, then it is an unsatisfying one. Adherence to the classical prescription for Indian behavior that demands a retreat from things of this world has not brought an enlargement of the mind, but rather a narrow isolation. Can we then assume that those who throw themselves into the affairs of life have any sense of satisfaction? The answer again is "No." Har Dayal, the successful politician-litterateur is devoted to the Public Cause. He presides over never-ending meetings, advises Ministers, and allows himself to be garlanded at public functions. Surrounded as he is by adoration from friends and family, and busy as he may be with lectures and meetings and "many things to be arranged" he is, nevertheless, aware of the absence of spiritual satisfaction within. There is an ever-present sense of futility, and as he walks away from a successful lecture, he reminds himself of Shelley's Ozymandias.

That which has once served to inspire man, now appears to Har Dayal illusory and leaves him with little consolation. Even the central character, Esmond, is enticed into marrying India only to be trapped by her reality. His wife, whose eyes he had once thought "full of all the wisdom and sorrow of the East" was merely a dumb animal who did not even react to his brutality. "His senses revolted at the thought of her, of her greed and smell and languour, her passion for meat and for spices and strong perfumes. She was everywhere; everywhere he felt her—in the heat saturating the air which clung to him and enveloped him as in a sheath of perspiration … in the faint but penetrating smell of over-ripe fruit; everywhere, she was everywhere, and he felt himself stifling in her softness and her warmth." His only recourse is to escape, not into himself as Ram Nath has done, nor into frenetic activity as does Har Dayal; for Esmond the only escape is from India herself—furtively and secretly.

In 1959, Ruth Jhabvala, too, returned to England for the first time since her marriage. The impact of the visit was profound: "I saw people eating in London. Everyone had clothes. Everything in India was so different—you know, the way people have to live like that, from birth to death…. So after that visit to England I felt more and more alien in India [in The New York Times, May 15, 1976]. It is, therefore, not surprising that her next novel, written in 1973, is entitled Travelers. She is increasingly interested in those who seek enlightenment in India, for the country seems to have become a stronger and stronger adversary and travelers in it seem to get nowhere. The novel is an account of the journeys made in search of that spiritual core which seems to elude modern man. Some characters, like the Englishman Raymond, are prevented by their own Stoic background from ever becoming a part of India. That he should return to England disappointed, even frustrated by the realities of caste and dirt and bigotry is not surprising. What affects us is what happens to those who surrender to the demands of Indian life.

Asha, the spoiled sister of a successful politician, seems only to wish to indulge in the satisfactions of the flesh; surrounded by silk and lace negligés, swathed in foreign perfume, and gratified by a young boy, she seems too obviously in need of guidance. She flees to an old friend who has gained the reputation of a seer, only to feel uncomfortable if left alone with her, and to witness the indifferent advice given to those who suffer. To parents whose son has mysteriously disappeared, Banubai says: "If He [the One who has willed that it should happen so] wills it, He will bring him back; if not, then not." Perhaps this detachment is commendable, for classical texts enjoin disinterest in action, yet one is compelled to question the fatalistic attitude recommended. Though it is one traditionally associated with India, it is empty of promise.

The other characters meet with similar discouragement. Lee, a young American, is free to travel in any direction, to stop at any station, and walk down any street. She allows herself to be taken to an ashram headed by a Swami of supposedly limitless power and knowledge. Here, Jhabvala succeeds brilliantly in creating the embodiment of brute power. The Swami compels his disciples to lose themselves in singing hymns to God—an action normally innocent, but here carefully controlled to create unusual excitement. Each of his devotees thinks he speaks only to him, looks only at her. One is literally mesmerized into his being for he will not brook any individuality. He is a loath-some character who demands abject surrender, and when questioned about its necessity, replies in a strange passionate way: "I want her [Lee] to be mine. She must be mine completely in heart and soul and … in body also, if I think it necessary." When the surrender occurs, we feel only vile pain, and hear Lee's whimpering sounds against his animal breathing.

It is significant that though India is a country romantically associated with light and truth, travelers seeking those find neither. It is not as if the country identifies a wrong or a right path—what is devastating is that no path, no alternative proves satisfying. The soul, seeking itself, succumbs, eventually to futility. Jhabvala's novel, written in 1975, is delineated in its very title: the dominant image in Heat and Dust is that of disease, its smell is of decay. The spirit is whirled around in the duststorms of late March and succumbs to the heat of midsummer. Early in the novel we are warned, "India always changes people," but they are not transformed into Shakespearean objects strange and new, but seem to be stripped of everything that is their identity and left to die, as if life itself is indifferent to their destiny. The cruelty of India seems more terrible, because it is inhuman. In this novel, most of all, we are reminded of the horrible aspect of Kali who dances on the bodies of her victims, who devours their very entrails in a macabre vision of the life cycle.

"Nothing human means anything here. Not a thing." A young English couple seem merely to repeat a never-changing experience: they came to find peace and all they get is dysentery. "They had been robbed of their watches in a house of devotion in Amritsar; cheated by a man they had met on the train to Kashmir who had promised them a cheap house-boat and had disappeared with their advance;… in Fatehpur Sikri the girl had been molested by a party of Sikh youths; the young man's pocket was picked on the way to Goa …" If this seems a pathetically amusing account of naïve tourists, we are soon assured that similar "robberies" have taken place before, and the victims have been those who know India.

The very structure of the novel reminds us that history is, indeed, repeated. The narrator comes to India in search of the truth about her grandfather's first wife who ran away with an Indian prince in 1923. Clutching the journals she has inherited, she relives in fact and memory, the earlier journey. The English characters in the earlier story are puppets pulled by the strings of duty, stiff-upper-lipped propriety, and all the other shocks Empire was heir to. Amongst this sober lot of petty officials, Olivia seeks to "feel" India. She cannot understand how, surrounded by the exciting life outside, her circle can be satisfied discussing this year's trek to the hills or the washerman who ruins a crepe-de-chine blouse. She is gradually wooed away from this lifelessness by the Nawab who seems to promise her the excitement she craves. He is the charming sensualist who, in order to maintain his lifestyle, relies on thugs to plunder neighboring states. Olivia will not admit to this, and succumbs to him, even to the demand that her pregnancy be terminated in a primitive abortion. Ultimately, all that is left of her is a forlorn house in the hills containing an out-of-tune piano, and some tattered yellow cushions and curtains.

The story of her granddaughter is similarly disillusioning. As she retraces Olivia's journey, she is caught up in the charm of prayer-threads tied for fertility, and gets involved in the delicate problems of caste and personal relationships. Finally, she escapes to the mountainous village where Olivia spent her last days, but here there is no consolation or source of strength. As she looks out of the window of the old house, she can see nothing for it is raining heavily; "it might have made a difference to know that," she murmurs, "I'm impatient for it to stop raining because I want to move on, go higher up. I keep looking up all the time, but everything remains hidden."

If she has attained a solemn peace instead of a grand fulfillment, it may be because she has attained the only degree of contentment offered by contemporary India, and has acquired this only by a stark confrontation with, recognition, and rejection of the old. Is the Doctor's analysis correct that India is only for Indians? Does the Mother Goddess destroy any other who trespasses on her territory? Or does she enjoy a challenge? In a memoir written after his retirement, the English advisor to the Nawab warns, "The most vulnerable are those who love her best … India always finds out the weak spot and presses on it … Yes, it is all very well to love and admire India but one should never, be warned, allow oneself to become softened by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens—the moment one exceeds one's measure—one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side…. She always remained for him an opponent, even sometimes an enemy, to be guarded and if necessary fought against from without and, especially, from within; from within one's own being."

This last sums up the journey made not only by Jhabvala's characters, but by the author herself. "India will exhaust physically and morally, any Westerner that tries to stay … the squalor, heat, indifference, smells and poverty will destroy those not born in the place." In self-defense, Mrs. Jhabvala left the country in 1976 and settled in New York. Significantly, she did not return to her home in England but chose the New World, not because of its promise, but because she feels it is a home for displaced persons. This sense of "immigrant awareness" is her inheritance—an absence of any nostalgia for what is left behind; she feels no ties to any particular country. Those who study her novels cannot avoid their lesson—the individual is left to shift for himself, for the old world provides little strength and the new mutters few words of consolation.

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