“I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.” Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), who wrote these words in an autobiographical reflection in the London Magazine, was one of those rare writers with the distinction of winning both the Booker and the Oscar.
Married to the Indian architect, C.H. Jhabvala, she spent many years in Delhi, though always remained ill at ease with India and all that it brought into her life. Her most successful Booker-winning novel, Heat and Dust (1975), which was made into a film, recounts the rather unfortunate adventures of an Englishwoman in India in the heady days of the British Raj: an affair with a Nawab ending in an unwanted pregnancy, followed by scandal and humiliation. Although Jhabvala had a full social and family life in India, she could never quite get over what she called the “great animal of poverty and backwardness” that afflicted the country. It irked her, and also, in an odd way, inspired her to go on writing. She was irritated by the “Westernised” classes and their air of privilege, education and good taste, but also equally impatient with the other India, where people led sedate, uneventful lives. The latter made her feel like doing “something terribly difficult, like climbing a mountain or reading the Critique of Pure Reason,” she wrote. “Anything to prevent myself from being sucked down into that bog of passive, intuitive being.”
But she had other demons to battle as well. Born to a Jewish family in Cologne in 1927, Jhabvala and her parents fled for London in the wake of the Nazi persecution in 1939. In 1948, after the war ended, her father killed himself after he came to know of the manner in which his Polish relatives had been executed during the Holocaust. Jhabvala did not speak about her early life until much later, when in 1979, she confessed to being haunted by a feeling of rootlessness. Having lived in three continents—Europe, Asia and America—she felt “blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel—till I am—nothing.” It was more of a self-definition than a complaint, and this lack of self-pity was reflected in the abrasive power of her fiction.
It’s somewhat ironic that Jhabvala is best remembered as a collaborator of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, producers of some of the most charming romantic comedies, when her own stories were far from comforting, her characters becoming darker and progressively sinister over the years. She did not take her career as a screenwriter too seriously, though she did write some of the best-loved films for Merchant Ivory productions, including adaptations of E.M. Foster’s A Room with a View and Howard’s End. Over the years, she contributed dozens of stories to The New Yorker—the last was published just a few weeks ago—which cemented her reputation as one of the most incisive chroniclers of the human condition.
Jhabvala’s eye was not among the kindest and she drew some of the most devastating pen portraits in her fiction, though not before putting herself under scrutiny first.