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The title character in "The Widow" shows generosity to the son of a new tenant in her home, even when the young man takes advantage of her good graces, such as when he asks for a fancier shirt than the inexpensive one she offers. In "Miss Sahib," an unhappy Indian woman who allowed her family to marry her off — another common feature of these stories — befriends an elderly teacher, an Englishwoman, who becomes her confidant. And in "Great Expectations," a New York real estate agent allows her "most desperate" client and the daughter she gave birth to in India to stay with her, even as the agent struggles to keep her business alive.

Jhabvala recycles many plot points throughout these stories, among them May-December romances, relations between English masters and Indian servants and extramarital affairs, the last of which appear often in these works, including "Miss Sahib"; "Desecration," in which a Muslim woman cheats on her spouse with an Indian Superintendent of Police; "Pagans," where one sister sleeps with the other's husband; and "Two Muses," with a famous German novelist in an open relationship with his wife and a woman who loved only artists, "the more famous, the better.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: more than Heat and Dust - Telegraph

The weakest pieces are the most simplistic, such as "A Course of English Studies," in which a young Indian woman studying literature at an English university develops an infatuation with a married lecturer. Much better are the subtler examinations of East-West relations, such as "An Experience of India," in which a white Englishwoman grows disenchanted with her marriage, begins a romance with an Indian musician and embarks on a spiritual quest with a guru keen to spread his message. The best works are the final two: the title piece, which, in its depictions of the lives of two half-sisters, dramatizes the clash between old country money and a more modern urban sensibility; and the posthumously published "The Judge's Will," a poignant work about an Indian widow who discovers that her English husband made provisions in his will for the woman he had kept in secret for a quarter of a century.

Even at their weakest, these stories show the same elegance that marked Jhabvala's film collaborations with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. Want to write for Gray Matters? This book-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Postcolonial Study represents a new and fascinating strand in her outstanding canon of work: as she puts it, the potentially autobiographical but patently topical. Behind her poised, eloquent prose Ruth Prawer Jhabvala deftly tussles with the existential question of how destiny is shaped.

There is a deep penetration and multi-pronged analysis of the variegated facets of the life and living of the people of India as well as the people both from Europe and America, as perceived and experienced by the novelist after her marriage.

Brave new worlds

Despite her being a European, Ruth Jhabvala succeeds in capturing the soul and spirit of India in all its manifestations and revelations so as to achieve a balanced and objective hue and view of its socio-cultural, psycho-emotional and economic dimensions. In short, the book makes an interesting and captivating Postcolonial exploration and account of the variegated spectrum of society, but in no way merely laudatory.

It also dwells on some of the glaring weaknesses and coloured observations of the novelist, thereby providing a useful insight into the merits and demerits of Jhabvala as a novelist. But Jaffrey, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival for her role as a Bollywood idol in Jhabvala's Shakespeare Wallah , an original screenplay based on the travels of Geoffrey Kendal and his daughters in India, says her characters are "wonderful for an actor because they leave so much unsaid".

In the film, a teenage daughter played by Felicity Kendal falls for Shashi Kapoor's dashing but possessive Indian.

Brave new worlds

Films, she says, were a "nice change for me; before that I sat at home. I also met people I wouldn't otherwise have done: actors, financiers, con men," she laughs.


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Though Jhabvala seldom appears on set, Ivory describes her as "merciless and exacting" in the editing room, where, he says, it is almost unheard of for a writer to sit in. Yet in contrast to some of this work, he says, "Jhabvala doesn't glorify the link with empire, and she breaks taboos on miscegenation.


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Her Englishwomen are absorbed into India; they're not just playing out their own dramas. With its Forsterian allusions, Newman sees the novel as an ironic undercutting of "Forster's faith in friendship between coloniser and colonised". Among critics in India was the poet Nissim Ezekiel, who condemned Heat and Dust as "stereotyped in its characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene".

Table of contents

Jhabvala says: "Once they found out I wasn't Indian, they didn't like my books at all: they said, 'she doesn't look deep; she doesn't know anything about us'. She's always had fervent admirers, but it's very sad that there was, and continues to be, resentment towards a foreigner writing about India with such frankness and irony. In "Myself in India", an essay from the s, Jhabvala wrote: "My husband is Indian and so are my children.

I am not, and less so every year. She says: "First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India. People said the poverty was biblical, and I'm afraid that was my attitude too.

It's terribly easy to get used to someone else's poverty if you're living a middle-class life in it. But after a while I saw it wasn't possible to accept it, and I also didn't want to. In Jaffrey's view of Jhabvala's fiction, "India often seems to be enticing the westerner with its sensuousness and lechery. It's as though India became a snake charmer, with Ruth trying to resist. She embraced English innocence and the literary tradition of Austen and Forster as a way of trying to transcend trauma. But her fiction looks at that attempt ironically, with a cold eye.

Even the move to India is a way of escaping the history and trauma of Europe, but the search for transcendence and redemption never works for her characters or herself. Feeling a "terrible hunger of homesickness" for Europe, she says, "you try to reclaim what's yours, to recapture your past - even the past you haven't had".

In , with the proceeds of the Booker, she bought a flat in New York, a "very European city", but one she saw as innocent of Europe's history. Since she has had dual British and US citizenship. Her three daughters and six grandchildren live on three continents. The eldest, Renana, is national coordinator of an Indian women's trade union; Ava, a planning inspector, lives near Colchester; and Firoza teaches children with special needs in Los Angeles.

They take after their father's family, Jhabvala says: her father-in-law was a trade-union pioneer, her mother-in-law active in women's rights, "both into social work". Though critics jibe at "chocolate-box" costume drama, and an "Edwardian theme park", her screenplays are often less comedies of manners than profound struggles over the souls of young women. For Ivory, her main theme is that of the "outsider drawn into a foreign culture for better of worse", a condition shared by the trio of him as an American, Indian Merchant and central European Jhabvala.

Given her background, "I was impressed by her complex, sympathetic - though never condoning - portrayal of Darlington", the English aristocratic Nazi sympathiser.


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Her original screenplay, Jefferson in Paris , proved more controversial, depicting a US icon enamoured of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore his children, a fact subsequently confirmed by DNA tests. To me, it seemed a terrible thing that they kept slaves, but not such a terrible thing that families were intermingled. What else could have happened? With their adaptation of Forster's Maurice , says Ivory, "Ruth said, joking and quoting Jane Austen, 'How do I know what two men do when they're alone together in a room?

Ismail is the one we depend on to barge in everywhere; he's the driving force.

The elegance of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

In temperament, we're both quieter. With a book, you're more closed in on yourself. I'm not a party-goer at all. She's above all the focused writer; everything is subordinated to her need to write. To relax, "I lie on a bed and read". Her recent fiction, including the stories of East into Upper East , has largely American settings and characters.

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There are more corrupt gurus, as in Three Continents , obsessive or incestuous relationships, as between female cousins in Poet and Dancer