Tag Archives: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

What I’ve Been Reading : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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:

'Out of India' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

“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.”

'The Nature of Passion' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaThis 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.
'Shards of Memory' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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…

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

'The Fishing Fleet' by Anne de CourcyI’ve enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s previous social histories and biographies, so when I saw her latest book was about India, I was keen to read it. As usual, her subject is posh English people, circa 1850 – 1950, but this time she has focussed on the young English women who sailed to India to find themselves husbands. The first such ‘Fishing Fleet’ arrived in Bombay in 1671, the women having been paid generous allowances by the East India Company. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no need to provide incentives to prospective brides. The only respectable career for a Victorian ‘gentlewoman’ was that of wife and mother, but there were far more unmarried women than eligible bachelors in England. Women who were neither rich nor pretty enough to snare a husband knew they’d have a much better chance in India, where white men outnumbered white women by four to one and were forbidden (by their terms of employment and social custom) from marrying females with any tinge of ‘native blood’.

Anne de Courcy uses memoirs, letters, diaries and interviews to provide fascinating details of these ‘husband-hunters’. First, there was the arduous sailing trip (all the way around Africa before the Suez Canal opened in 1869), the poor women having to contend with cramped living space, sea sickness, limited fresh food and other inconveniences:

“Fresh water for washing clothes was in such short supply that many women who knew they were going to travel saved their most worn underwear and then discarded it overboard on the voyage, leaving, one imagines, a trail of dirty, threadbare nightdresses across the Indian Ocean.”

Arriving in Bombay or Calcutta, the young woman was often overwhelmed by the heat, the dust, the smells, the “teeming mass of people”. She was then flung into India’s version of ‘the Season’, attending (depending on her social rank) Viceregal balls and banquets, dinner parties, tea dances, picnics, tennis parties and tiger-hunts. Couples often became engaged after only one or two brief meetings, the men desperate for companionship after years of celibacy, the women anxious to avoid the mortification of being sent home as a ‘Returned Empty’ (that is, a failed husband-hunter). Most military and Indian Civil Service men weren’t permitted to marry until they were at least thirty, which meant bridegrooms were often several decades older than their teenage brides and could be unwilling or unable to change their bachelor lifestyles. One beautiful and cosseted young woman, who wed in 1932, found herself living on a remote tea plantation, miles from her nearest white neighbour, with no transportation, no electricity and nothing to do. Her much older husband spent all his time working or hunting with his hounds and horses and forgot her twenty-first birthday, and her child was delivered by the local vet because there was no doctor available. Still, “Sheila was a true daughter of the Raj, brave and uncomplaining” and later told her daughter that she always dressed in an evening gown for dinner because “it was felt that one must keep up standards and not let oneself go native.”

Actually, Sheila had it relatively easy. Other women were shot at by mutinous ‘natives’, while some were caught in avalanches and earthquakes. Women died of cholera, smallpox, malaria and even bubonic plague. Infants were particularly vulnerable to diseases, and those who survived were routinely sent off to boarding school in England from the age of six, so their mothers had the agonising choice of being separated for years at a time from either their husband or their small children. And then there was the wildlife – panthers that snatched pet dogs from gardens and golf courses, snakes that slithered up through drainage holes into bathrooms, scorpions hidden in shoes, rats under the bed and monkeys that stole silver spoons from the table. One young woman awoke to find a civet cat drinking from her bedside glass of milk.

What I found most interesting was how British India was far more patriarchal and snobbish than Britain itself. By the twentieth century, it was possible for a working-class man with a great deal of intelligence, talent and luck to rise as high as Prime Minister, and for a well-born woman to become a Member of Parliament. This was impossible in India, where women had no status at all and “the hierarchy of the Raj position was fixed, according to service, rank and seniority in an unalterable grading . . . within which there was room for petty nuances that could be painful and damaging.”

Everyone was obsessed with their own and everyone else’s social precedence, and in a small society where nothing was private, it was thought essential to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who could barely afford it still kept polo ponies, paid expensive subscriptions to clubs and held elaborate dinner parties, and there was little tolerance for those regarded as ‘intellectuals’.

The stories in this book are mostly of upper-class British women, rather than, say, the women who went to India as teachers, nurses and missionaries. There are also few mentions of Indians, apart from some anonymous, silent servants and the Maharajah of Patiala, who married Miss Florence Bryan in 18931. The author clearly feels that Britain’s colonisation of India was a very good thing – after all, most of the Indian rulers prior to colonisation were cruel despots (true, but so were the rulers of most countries in the eighteenth century) and the British “left India, after independence, with an enviable infrastructure, a democratic Government and a common language”. (The book makes only passing mention of the terrible famines that resulted from the British forcing Indian farmers to grow jute and cotton, rather than food2, and of the violent suppression of pro-independence Indians3.)

'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaDespite these reservations, the book is recommended for those interested in reading about British women’s experiences in India. But I think novels can be just as useful for this purpose, so here are some of my favourites:

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The Jewel in the Crown and other novels in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden4
Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
(Actually, read all of Rumer Godden’s India books, because she’s brilliant. Anne Chisholm also wrote an excellent biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life.)
– And for a slightly different look at Europeans in India, there’s also Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai.

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  1. It was a “brief and unhappy” marriage. She was shunned by both Indians and Europeans, her infant son was poisoned, and she died of pneumonia three years later.
  2. Up to ten million Indians died in the famine of 1876-8, and a similar number in 1899-1900.
  3. For example, hundreds died at Amritsar in 1919, when British troops fired on unarmed protesters.
  4. Black Narcissus was made into a hilariously bad film in 1947. In one memorable scene, the mad nun flees through a Himalayan ‘jungle’ inhabited by kookaburras.