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!