Jhabvala’s early fiction sauntered into middle-class Hindu households and wryly took the measure of their dramatic capacity: shy newlyweds and demanding mothers-in-law, pompous patresfamilias, feckless sons, and snooping aunties. The opening stories of “At the End of the Century” introduce Jhabvala’s remarkable economy of expression, devoid of sandalwood-scented, curry-flavored, bangle-clanging exoticism. Jhabvala sketches character, and by implication plot, in a few quick flicks, as in a tale of two rivalrous brothers, the elder “with his silk suit, his big ring, his oiled and scented hair,” and the younger “puny and insignificant,” who works as a shop attendant “with just the rightmixture of dignity and obsequiousness.”
If Jhabvala has an anthropologist’s curiosity about how society functions, she’s a decidedly nonparticipant observer; her narrative stance brings together candor and detachment. She’s unsparing about the constraints and the tedium of women’s lives, for instance, but also about the women who are leading them. The wife of a devoted elderly aristocrat, trapped among “provincial, dreary, unrefined people,” seeks diversion in the arms of an abusive local policeman. A young widow manages to resist the gestures of self-abnegation expected by her late husband’s family, and pursues corporeal indulgences “not for pleasure, but compulsively, sunk in sloth and greed because soft beds and foods were all that life had given to her.” In “A Course of English Studies,” Jhabvala delivers an astute portrait of an upper-class Indian woman in England whose feeling of cultural dislocation hinges as much on her own sense of entitlement as on her loneliness and unfamiliarity.
Anita Desai notes in the introduction to this collection that it was Jhabvala’s “fate to be presented to Western readers as a Jane Austen.” Jhabvala’s prose does share Austen’s acerbic wit and a well-cadenced fluency, confident in the strength of syntax to sustain explication—and comedy—without flashy language. As a screenwriter, Jhabvala learned to write with still greater economy. (“One sentence in a film is like, you know, fifteen or twenty sentences in a book,” she once said.) Her best novels are short, and her short stories are often better.
What the Austen analogy doesn’t capture is Jhabvala’s role as a preëminent social historian of newly independent India. Neither English nor Indian (nor even truly Anglophone before adolescence), Jhabvala came to her subjects without being trailed by the shadow of empire. Her ability to make fiction out of the bourgeois Indian everyday was revelatory to younger post-colonial writers such as Desai, for whom Jhabvala was “the first one who was writing about my world, our world.”
Jhabvala also chronicled a distinctive phase in encounters between Indians and Westerners, as a last generation of imperial Britons trickled away and new customs, new tastes, and new people (increasingly American) stepped in. This is movingly captured in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah,” Jhabvala’s first original screenplay. The movie follows a British family’s acting company as it tours India performing Shakespeare to dwindling audiences. Early in the film, the troupe encounters an itinerant monkey trainer who laments that people no longer care for his art. “Our story exactly,” one of the actors murmurs. Jhabvala’s script was inspired by the 1947 diaries of a real-life actor-manager, Geoffrey Kendal, but its brilliance lies in her turning what could have been a nostalgic period piece about the end of empire into a coming-of-age tale centered on the family’s teen-age daughter. (Kendal’s younger daughter, Felicity, made her screen début in the film, starring opposite her brother-in-law, Shashi Kapoor.) The Raj, for Jhabvala, was a closed chapter. She preferred to turn the page.
The nineteen-sixties brought a new wave of ebullient Westerners to India to “find themselves,” and Jhabvala was waiting with a skewer. “Which Yoga do you do? Hatha Yoga or Bhakti Yoga or what?” a European seeker asks the Indian hero of “The Householder.” None, he confesses. “Well you should,” she chides. “How do you think you’ll meet the Eternal and the Infinite if you don’t?”
Everything Indian abominable.” She can no longer shake an awareness that “the most salient fact about India is that it is very poor and very backward.” She shuts the blinds, cranks up the air-conditioning, and buries herself in literature in an effort to avoid the deprivation around her, but “all the time I know myself to be on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness.”
The piece presents Jhabvala at her acid best, in a viciously observed sketch of Delhi high society: the Oxbridge-educated hostess is attired in “handloom saris and traditional jewelry,” “trays of iced drinks are carried around by servants in uniform, and there is intelligent conversation, and then there is a superbly arranged buffet supper and more intelligent conversation.” The hostess and her guests “know modern India to be an important subject,” Jhabvala goes on, “but though they themselves are modern India, they don’t look at themselves . . . except with the eyes of foreign experts whom they have been taught to respect.” Candid to a fault, “Myself in India” loses its pungency when Jhabvala posits that “most Indians” ignore poverty because of “their belief in reincarnation,” and lapses into tired, if deliberately hyperbolic, characterizations of India as a “bog of passive, intuitive being,” oppressive heat, and fervent paganism. In a later interview, she likened living in India to being in Biblical times, “when there were beggars and lepers.” “Well,” she tutted, “you don’t want to be in Biblical times.” Jane Austen, meet V. S. Naipaul.
Indian critics turned on her. It’s one thing to criticize a society from within; it’s another to do so as a foreigner—and a woman. “If you don’t say that India is simply paradise on earth, and the extended Hindu family the most perfect way of organizing society, you’re anti-Indian,” she told a Times interviewer in 1983. “I don’t have many readers there.” Pankaj Mishra has suggested that Jhabvala may have grown so bitter because she lacked “the wide range of experience that V. S. Naipaul and E. M. Forster attested to.” Never mind that she lived in India for decades, unlike either man, and raised three daughters there, and learned to write Hindi. These are essentially the terms Naipaul himself applied to, yes, Jane Austen, whom he disdained as a writer of “sentimental ambitions” with a “narrow view of the world.”
Aspects of “An Experience of India” recur in Jhabvala’s 1975 novel, “Heat and Dust,” which tells the parallel stories of a British woman in India in 1923 and her husband’s granddaughter, who travels to the same town fifty years later. A mashup of Jhabvala’s earlier fiction and Forster’s “The Hill of Devi,” about his visits to a small princely state, the book feels both warmed over and overwrought. But “Heat and Dust,” the only one of Jhabvala’s novels to portray India under the Raj, also became her most successful when it won the Booker Prize—which two years earlier had been awarded to J. G. Farrell’s “The Siege of Krishnapur,” set during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and two years later went to Paul Scott’s “Staying On,” about a retired British couple who continue living in India after independence. The Merchant Ivory adaptation of “Heat and Dust” came out in 1983 amid a flurry of Raj nostalgia, flanked on the big screen by “Gandhi” and “A Passage to India,” and joined by the TV miniseries “The Jewel in the Crown” and “The Far Pavilions.”
But by then the Booker Prize had been awarded to Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” (1981), marking a new era in literary portrayals of the subcontinent. And Jhabvala had quit India. She used the Booker Prize money to move to New York, buying an apartment in the Upper East Side building where Ivory and Merchant resided.
Jhabvala felt instantly at home in the city. While Europe would forever “smell of blood”—she never returned to Germany—New York was, she said, “the most European place on earth I know.” She rediscovered the Old World of her youth in jars of pickled cucumbers and herring on deli counters; at ballets and concerts; among the furnishings and the accents of her past. She spent the rest of her life based in New York, albeit with a strong tie to India through her beloved husband, whom she called Jhab. Cyrus Jhabvala maintained his architecture practice in Delhi and Ruth spent winters with him there; Cyrus visited New York regularly until he retired and joined her in the United States full time.
Jhabvala spoke little about her particular writing choices, but she often described herself as a chameleon, writing about whatever milieu she inhabited. Henceforth she set her fiction largely in America, often among European migrants. The later stories in “At the End of the Century” introduce readers to “prosperous émigrés from various Central European countries,” who “spoke only in English, though their heavy accents made it sound not unlike their native German”; and wan, wealthy women equally at home in New York, London, or Los Angeles. In some ways, it must have helped Jhabvala’s literary reputation to move to New York at this transitional moment for Indians writing in English. Quite aside from the politics of nationality (when Arundhati Roy won the Booker, in 1997, she was celebrated as the first “true Indian” to do so), Jhabvala’s clipped social satire belongs to a world entirely different from the sprawling canvases and the linguistic innovation of Roy, Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and Vikram Seth. Then, too, India had little traction among American readers; even James Ivory confessed that he didn’t read her early New Yorkerstories, “because at that point I didn’t have much interest in India, and they were Indian stories.” So a shift in setting anchored her in an American literary marketplace.
The focus of her screenwriting changed, too. In the late seventies, Jhabvala proposed an adaptation of Henry James’s “The Europeans” to Merchant and Ivory, anticipating that the book would be a good match for Ivory’s sensibility. The ensuing series of classic adaptations and historical dramas completed the team’s transformation from makers of lighthearted India-themed films into an Oscar-winning Hollywood brand.
Jhabvala’s fiction does not seem to have benefitted similarly. She published less during her decades in the United States than she had in India, and fewer novels in particular. Judging from their quality, that was perhaps no bad thing. In “Three Continents” (1987), a novel about American naïfs caught up in a Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh-style cult, the characters get crushed under a tediously overextended plot. The book seems to have originated in an idea for a screenplay, and its failure as a novel underscores the sense that Jhabvala’s irony and restraint flourished better in compact frames.
Though some of the American stories deliver flashes of the Jhabvala economy—New York captured in snatches of “street smells, petrol fumes, leaking gas pipes, newly poured tar, pretzels, mangoes from Mexico, Chinese noodles, overblown flowers”—her satirical edge, so keen in the Indian fiction, is dulled. Maybe it’s harder to convey ironic detachment when you feel more at home. There’s an evanescence to many of these Western tales, as if Jhabvala’s writing turned its face away from the sun and grew obscure. Two of the central characters in the collection’s title story fade entirely by the time it ends; in the parting scene, they appear only in a photograph, “a shimmer of two figures in light-coloured clothes on the verge of disappearing from sight.”
It’s in the later stories in this volume that one becomes aware of how much triangulation pervades Jhabvala’s work. It’s not just classic love triangles, though there are many of those—best portrayed in the collection’s final story, “The Judge’s Will,” in which a widow discovers the existence of her husband’s longtime mistress. Jhabvala is an artful geometer, and she skews her angles boldly. Consider “Ménage,” in which a daughter finds out that her mother and aunt share a lover, before sleeping with him herself. Or “Pagans,” in which two sisters sleep with the husband of one, and take up the same young Indian protégé. Or “Great Expectations,” the puzzling account of an American woman who becomes a surrogate mother qua partner to a self-involved divorcée and her adolescent daughter. These stories, set primarily in New York, are among the weakest in the collection—or maybe it’s that by the time one gets to them the pattern appears formulaic.
The obvious analogy is with Jhabvala’s own triangulated life—Europe, India, America—and it prompts the perennial question posed of diasporic, post-colonial, mixed-up, or migrant writers. Where does she fit? The Library of Congress classification system places Jhabvala alongside Indian-origin writers in English, but as a Continental European writing in English she could just as well have been shelved with Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. It’s equally tricky to situate Jhabvala in the binary of power and powerlessness favored by much post-colonial criticism. As Salman Rushdie once pointed out, “Looked at from the point of view that literature must be nationally connected and even committed, it becomes simply impossible to understand the cast of mind and vision of a rootless intellect like Jhabvala’s.” No intellect can be truly rootless; it always takes hold in the soil of influence and experience. But it’s useless to expect writers to be pine trees, lined up neatly in a forest, when many are more like banyans, whose dangling aerial roots can make them into a forest of one.
The quintessential outsider—“Once you’re a refugee, I guess you’re always a refugee,” Jhabvala said—she sometimes leaves the reader of these stories craving interiority. She is a relentless externalizer, which infuses her plots with a certain energy; but many of her characters do things for reasons they don’t seem to understand themselves, and the reader ends up little wiser. It’s tempting to relate Jhabvala’s emotional reticence to the great silencing of the Holocaust. “You’ve never used any of that as material for your writing, have you?” a radio interviewer asked Jhabvala in 1999. “Effectively, you’ve wiped it out.” “You can’t wipe it out,” she replied, flicking away the inquiry. “You just wish so much it hadn’t happened.” You also imagine there’s a lot to be said.
In screenwriting, though, externalization is everything, and her characteristic restraint was her signal contribution to the other great triangle of her life: Jhabvala, Merchant, Ivory. Actors can supply explanation without words, and, in Jhabvala’s surgically rendered adaptations of Forster, James, and Kazuo Ishiguro, the strangled emotion that plays across the face of an Emma Thompson or an Anthony Hopkins can be exquisitely painful to watch. The distinctive magic of the Merchant Ivory world comes from the juxtaposition of Jhabvala’s verbal austerity and the sumptuous, almost unforgivably stylish scenes laid by Ivory, where every precisely delivered word, wink, or wince finds its material counterpart in the polished salt cellar, the floppy lock, and the sun-saturated Tuscan earth. Jhabvala populated the rooms; Ivory created the view.
One of Ivory’s favorite film sets appears in the 1970 movie “Bombay Talkie,” the trio’s fourth film together. “Bombay Talkie” is a meta-narrative about writing and filmmaking, folded around a love triangle involving a British novelist, a movie star, and a screenwriter. In the opening scene, the author gets a tour of a Bombay movie studio. She pauses in front of a giant typewriter, on which dancing girls spring from key to key. “We call it the Fate Machine,” a director tells her sombrely. “Typewriter keys represent the keys of life. And we human beings dance on them. And then when we dance, as we press down the keys of the machine, the story that’s written is the story of our fate.” It’s as clear a statement about the value of writing as the reticent Jhabvala would ever deliver—and, like much of her best work, it’s a satire. ♦