For various reasons, I haven’t felt up to reading anything new lately, so I’ve been working my way through old favourites from my bookshelves. This has included a whole shelf of novels and short stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I find her work consistently engrossing, although I’m not sure why, because she wrote the same story over and over again. Generally a Westerner – someone from America or Britain, usually with German parents or grandparents – arrives in India with great enthusiasm and is either gradually or suddenly disillusioned. Often there is a guru involved, who may or may not be as benevolent as he initially seems. In her later work, the setting is New York or London and the master is a tempestuous Central European musician or psychiatrist or academic, but the theme is the same – that the characters must efface themselves to reach true fulfilment, which rarely turns out to equal true happiness.
Her fiction always seems very autobiographical and in her introduction to Out of India, entitled ‘Myself in India’, she wrote:
“I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year […] There is a cycle that Europeans – by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans – tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm – everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian is not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down.”
She was particularly interested in religion and “whether religion is such a potent force in India because life is so terrible, or is it the other way round – is life so terrible because, with the eyes of the spirit turned elsewhere, there is no incentive to improve its quality?” The heart of her problem, she said, was this:
“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? […] Sometimes it seems to me how pleasant it would be to say yes and give in and wear a sari and be meek and accepting and see God in a cow. Other times it seems worthwhile to be defiant and European and – all right, be crushed by one’s environment, but all the same have made some attempt to remain standing.”
This author is probably best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust, and her Academy Award-winning script writing for the films of Merchant and Ivory. I like Heat and Dust, a book that contrasts historical and modern British attitudes towards India, and the film is pretty good, too. But my favourite Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel about India would have to be The Nature of Passion. It’s a clever, droll, beautifully constructed story about a family in New Delhi in the 1950s. Lalaji is one of the new super-rich, a man who has acquired millions of rupees by a combination of ruthless scheming, graft and sheer hard work and believes his security lies in sticking to traditional Hindu values. His youngest offspring, however, have opposing ambitions. Chandra is trying to establish a squeaky-clean career in the Civil Service, Viddi wants to travel to Paris to be an art critic, and beautiful Nimmi longs to be modern and independent and marry for love. A crisis looms for Lalaji when a politician begins a campaign against bribery and corruption:
“Bribery and corruption! These were foreign words, it seemed to him, and the ideas behind them were also foreign. Here in India, he thought, one did not know such words. Giving presents and gratifications to Government officers was an indispensable courtesy and a respectable, civilised way of carrying on business. It was a custom, a tradition even, and hence should be respected; not tampered with by upstart Deputy Ministers who had been abroad and brought home unsuitable ideas.”
For those who prefer short stories, Out of India is a good representative collection of her work, although I also like A Stronger Climate because it divides the stories into two useful categories, ‘The Seekers’ and ‘The Sufferers’. I also enjoyed My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, in which the nine stories, set in India, America and Britain, explore fictional “alternative destinies” for the author.
When it comes to her novels set (mostly) outside India, the one I keep returning to is Shards of Memory, a family saga involving a wealthy Anglo-German-Indian family living in New York and linked to a mysterious spiritual Master. I don’t know why I like it so much, because it’s certainly not flawless (for one thing, it ends too abruptly). I think it must be the characters, who are so complicated and eccentric and oddly endearing. I especially like Henry, the young man who reluctantly accepts his destiny as the Master’s heir, and Henry’s grandfather Graeme, a cynical British diplomat – and also, possibly, a spy…