An Early Novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Nature of Passion”

I Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I would love to travel to India. It is so exotic, so faraway, so impossible to visit during the pandemic, and when it was possible I had no interest.

Perhaps I would prefer the literary India anyway. I have been enjoying the books of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize for her 1975 novel Heat and Dust. I still have my original copy, which has a Booker Prize sticker on the cover and an exquisite, charming illustration by her husband Cyril Jhabvala on the endpapers. If ever a book should be bought for the cover…!

I wonder, Where did I learn about Jhabvala? I may have been impressed by the English literary prize sticker. But the most likely source would have been The Chicago Tribune, which had an excellent book review section then. I also loved The New York Times, but it took three days to reach my hometown.

The cover illustration is by Cyrus Jhabvala, Ruth’s husband

Over the years, I have eagerly read Jhabvala’s fiction. And guess what? I recently discovered some early novels I’d missed out on. I just finished The Nature of Passion, published in 1956. Her early books are different: they focus on Indian characters, while her later books focus on the culture clash between the East and West.

There is a family culture clash in The Nature of Passion: Lalaji, a rich, successful contractor, loves family life and indulges his children. But education has been the impetus of the rebellion of his youngest son, Viddi, and his daughter, Nimmi: both want to go to a university in England. Viddi wants to be a writer and loathes the idea of business; Nimmi scoffs at arranged marriages and wants to find romance of her own in England. But Lalaji is not sure he wants another westernized son and daughter. His second son, Chandra Prakash, is an alumnus of an English university, and refused to work for his father, but ironically he needs money from his father to keep up his life-style.

In the first chapter, Jhabvala begins to delineate the differences between the past culture and present way of life.

Lalaji himself was the only one in the house to sleep outdoors. In the mornings it was almost chilly and he had to cover himself up with a sheet, but he preferred to wake up to sky and hedge and crows than to the loneliness of his expensive bedroom. He did not like his bedroom. Nor did his wife with whom he shared it. It seemed wrong that just the two of them should sleep there, no children, no babies, no relatives come to stay, only pieces of strange and unnecessary furniture.

Lalaji is lovable but a bit of a crook: he and his lawyer are trying to prevent the newspaper from unearthing his role in a business scandal. But somehow we lare fascinated by Lalaji and the family intrigues. The drama includes a comical feud between Lalaji’s wife and the mother of her daughter-in-law; Nimmi’s illicit dates with a young man she meets at a friend’s tennis club; Viddy’s whiling away his time at a bar where other artistic types try to wheedle money out of him; and Chandra’s nagging wife’s determination to sever ties with Lalaji and make their children speak English.

Jhabvala subtly illustrates the effect of Western culture on India, whether for good or bad, in this comedy of Indian life. A great pleasure to read. She was such a great writer, and we miss her!

My Favorite Booker Prize Winner: “Heat and Dust” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975, a long-ago year when elegant economy was preferred to the purple prose of baggy monsters. At a succinct 181 pages, Heat and Dust is a colorful small canvas as much as a novel. And her pitch-perfective simplicity strikes a chord that the brilliant Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, and Lucy Ellmann cannot reach in their long, complex, beautifully-written Booker winners. (Please bring back the short novels!)

On a third reading of Heat and Dust, I am still enchanted by the seamless interweaving of two stories of Englishwomen in India. One story is set in 1923, the other in the early ’70s (Jhabvala’s then-present). The nameless narrator, a young woman captivated by the letters of her great-aunt Olivia, has come to India to research Olivia’s history. Her pretty great-aunt had followed her husband Douglas, a high-level civil servant, to India of the Raj, but she was soon bored by solitary days and the tedious social life with Douglas’s middle-aged English friends. She embarks on an unlikely friendship with the handsome, charming Nawab, the prince of the region. After she leaves Douglas to live with the Nawab, the letters home dwindle and none of her relatives see her again. The narrator wants to know what happened.

The narrator tells her own story of India in vivid journal entries, describing English and American tourists who became disillusioned on a quest for spirituality, and her close friendship with an Indian family, especially Inder Lal, a government officer and her landlord. He is trapped in traditional family life and an arranged marriage to a sad woman who has seizures. After various sight-seeing trips together, the narrator and Inder Lal become lovers, who laugh and confide everything to each other in the dark. There are parallels between the narrator and Olivia: both fall in love with India and form bonds with Indian men. One is a prince, the other a civil servant, but their characters are shaped by the same culture.

How important is love? To Olivia, it was everything. She enjoyed her exotic adventures with the Nawab and their deep physical relationship. The experience is different for the quiet narrator, who values friendship more than romance. She is tall and flat-chested, and children chase her through the streets and call her hijra, a word for the eunuch dancers who look like men but dress like women and sing and dance. She ignores the the catcalls, figuring rightly that they will soon get used to her. Under the protection of Inder Lal’s mother, she makes friends with neighbors and women at the market.

But her goal is to retrace the footsteps of Olivia. She visits the building that was once Olivia’s house. She especially appreciates her visit to a famous shrine, where the childless women pray to get pregnant. It was the spot where Olivia went on a memorable picnic with the gracious Nawab.

The narrator does not expect anything of India: she simply wants to know the country and the life of her great-aunt. She is not nostalgic for England, and understands there is no magic in India: she is fascinated by the beauty and strangeness (and sometimes ugliness), and the relationship of the present to the past.

I would love to go to India, in the spirit of the narrator, but the heat and dust, the difficulties of travel, the tragic sights of beggars, the language problem (perhaps courses online) would be a challenge. After the pandemic, in the distant future, maybe a package tour. Who knows?

I understand that this is probably no longer Jhabvala’s India. Born in Belgium in 1927 and educated in England, she lived for many years in India with her husband, and moved to the U.S. in 1975. You may know her as the writer of many screenplays of Merchant-Ivory films, including Howards End, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

What is your favorite Booker Prize winner? I have discovered so many great writers that way, though, honestly, I have fallen behind in recent years. Time to catch up?