May Day Musings & The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Such a lovely May Day! Almost too lovely – and too hot! I sweated in front of the fan as I mused on May-Day traditions. In the twentieth century, we used to rise at dawn to make paper cones, fill them with violets and flowering weeds, add tiny scrolls on which we had copied poems, and drop the “May baskets” on friends’ porches. A charming custom, which has faded into oblivion.

It was hot when I got up – much too hot to believe it was May: eighty-seven degrees. And so I devoted myself to sitting still and reading a remarkable book, At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Readers of this blog will already know my fondness for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust. A writer of Polish and German descent, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in India for many years; later she lived in New York and wrote screenplays for Merchant Ivory films. I am especially captivated by her exceptional short stories, some set in India, others in England and the U.S. They have the best features of her novels: a simple but percipient voice and style; a compassion for displaced characters; and perfectly-etched descriptions of scenery.

Jhabvala’s characters become our friends and relatives as we read. We understand the comic determination of Nalini, the homesick Indian girl in “A Course of English Studies,” who seduces her married professor at a Midlands college in England; and the exhilaration of Sofia, the depressed wife in “Desecration,” who falls in love with the corrupt Superintendent of Police.

Many of Jhabvala’s stories reflect aspects of Western masterpieces, as seen through a mirror of Indian culture. The first sentence of “Desecration” conjures the tragedy of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: “It is more than ten years since Sofia committed suicide in the hotel room in Mohabbatur.” Sofia is a vibrant, pretty woman who comes from nowhere. No one knows her background or who she is – she looks to be part Afghan “with a dash of Russian”- and her only talent is for entertaining important guests at dinner parties. Her husband, Raja Sahib, is thirty years older, so we understand why she falls for the dynamic, much younger SP (Superintendent of Police). And then she blinds herself to the degradation of their meetings in a sleazy hotel. In this short pitch-perfect narrative, we feel both sympathetic and annoyed by Sofia on her downward path.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Sofia is not the only woman in Jhabvala’s stories to fall in love with a cad. In “A Spiritual Call,” Daphne meets an Indian swami in London. After traveling to his ashram in India, she becomes disillusioned with his hypocrisy and fakery, yet she cannot break away. And even I cannot help but be charmed by Swamiji when he says, “Can I talk to you? You won’t turn into a laurel tree?” (You know me, the Ovidian.)

Sometimes even female characters become spellbound by female dissemblers. In “Great Expectations,” the solitary, self-satisfied Pauline, a canny real estate agent, has shown many properties to Sylvie, a blond, wan, indecisive client, and her daughter Amy, but Sylvie never signs a lease. The two are kicked out of a friends’ apartment, so Pauline allows them grudgingly to stay at her house for a few days… which turn into many days. We cannot help but think of Daphne and Swamiji when Pauline becomes mesmerized by Sylvie and Amy and their dream of going to India.

The stories in At the End of the Century were chosen by Jhabvala’s family, and span the time from 1963 to 2013 (the year she died). I had read many of these stories before, but I found them mesmerizing a second time.

And that is the test of a great book, don’t you think? Good books are fine for one reading, but great books delight again and again.

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?