Raj hangover
Published: 2 December 2011

R uth Prawer Jhabvala A LOVESONG FOR INDIA 276pp. Little, Brown. £13.99.

978 1 4087 0354 0 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala entered India cold in 1951 when she married an Indian architect, C. S. H. Jhabvala, whom she had met at a barge party on the Thames two years earlier. Nothing in her Jewish-Polish parentage, childhood in Cologne or, later, wartime London could have prepared her for the blinding, sensuous brilliance of India: “It was a tremendous pageant . . . . India was my childhood and my best years and everything”. The Indian setting of her early books and her married surname would often lead to the conclusion, in the black-and-white world of print, that she was an Indian.

The comfort clearly didn’t last, as shown by “Myself in India”, a rare autobiographical essay. Jhabvala was troubled by India’s “animal of poverty and backwardness”, and her increasing inability to deal with it; she struggled to maintain her own “personality and not become immersed, drowned in India”, her isolation heightened by a growing resentment among Indian readers and critics about this Westerner writing about their country.

Haunted by homesickness for no place in particular, she returned to the West a quartercentury and several books, including the Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust, later. She settled in New York within hand-shaking distance of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, with whom she had already worked on the screenplay of her novel The Householder, as well as Shakespeare Wallah, a film about the theatre family of Geoffrey Kendall and his daughters, travelling through a changing India, peddling Shakespeare in the face of a rising Bollywood. As a third partner in the Merchant-Ivory team, she successfully wrote the screenplay for Heat and Dust and adapted several other famous novels for the screen, including A Room with a View and Howards End, each of which brought her an Oscar, The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians and The Remains of the Day. The result: a corpus of magnificently fine-tuned, elegant and restrained films that enjoyed critical acclaim as well as popular appeal.

Jhabvala may have been relieved, even happy, to leave India when she did. But India, it seemed, was not ready to leave her. Her later fiction - short stories and novels such as Three Continents, East into Upper East, A Choice of Heritage, Nine Lives - is set in the West and explores broadly non-Indian themes, including the émigré experience of the European Jews. But in several of them, India intrudes as a sultry, brooding presence from a previous life, a semi-mythical destination for Western wanderers, a crowded, raucous land of squalor in the heat with a cast of questionable gurus, oily businessmen, charlatan politicians and indigent aristocrats. So it is with Jhabvala’s most recent collection of short stories, A Lovesong for India. Only four of the eleven stories are actually set in India, and perhaps that is all for the better, for they reveal only an occasional flash of the perspicacity that once enabled her to penetrate middle-class India. The title story recreates the dilemma of a Westernized Indian civil servant in Nehruvian India, with, of course, an English wife who naturally prefers the romance of district life to the intrigue of bureaucratic Delhi. It is a time of innocence and idealism - an extension of the local gymkhana club, really - where ayahs ensure that every young boy is called “baba” and every girl “baby”, until it is shaken up by the corroding corruption of a new generation, personified by the couple’s son, with its new set of values, its collusions and shortcuts. “Dad doesn’t understand that it’s the way business is done”, the son rants. “If you want your motor to run, you have to oil it. Grease it. Grease their goddamn palms. Dad has his job, his little salary, no hassle - you two have no idea what’s going on, what I have to do. My God, if only you knew!” In “Innocence”, Jhabvala tries to capture the drama of a Delhi boarding house run by a retired couple with a dodgy past through the predictable vision of a foreign female narrator.

“Bombay (pre-Mumbai)” is a story about a Bollywood mega-star taking his daughterin-law as mistress, that revolves helplessly in the clichéd, stereotyped images churned out by film magazines. And in “School of Oriental Studies”, the idea of a foreign female scholar pursuing a female poet through Delhi’s colonial bungalows fails to convince, the hints of an amorous liaison contributing to its sense of unreality. If Jhabvala only wants to, or only can, write about a slice of India that she once knew, that by itself would be unobjectionable - but there is no acuteness in her evocation of this past. The issues that she confronts no longer disturb or entice; India has gone through too much since.

The other stories in the collection provide comparative relief, drawn as they are from Jhabvala’s more recent landscapes: the art and film worlds of New York and Los Angeles. She explores complex relationships with a light touch: between a young woman singer and her older, possessive lady agent in “Talent”; between a young actress and a famous, middle-aged critic in “Critic”; between an ageing Californian beauty and an impoverished young Indian immigrant in “Pagans”; and between a film producer and a half-Indian brother-sister team in “The New Messiah”. The stories are loosely structured and rambling, but kept afloat by an underlying, and somewhat ambiguous, sexual tension. It is only in “The Teacher” that there is a convincing twist in the tale, and here, too, Jhabvala relies on a stock character - a half-Indian con man posing as a guru who breaks into the loneliness of a woman living in upstate New York, intrigues her with his spiritual pretensions, unsettles her world and then deceives her with a simple act of theft.

To be fair, Jhabvala has never pretended to have got under India’s unfamiliar skin; “you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place”, she has been quoted as saying, “or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in”. This is the outsider’s sensibility that informs her observations of an India still sunk under a Raj hangover: its colonial clubs and bungalows still magnificent, its yellow and black Somerset, Morris and Austin taxis, its searing summers and torrential rains. She met its early politicians, businessmen, brown sahib civil servants, as well as the lowermiddle-class clerk and teacher, the beggar and the cow, the Englishmen and women who chose to stay behind, the genuine gurus and the con men waiting for a distraught, preferably female, seeker from the West. The result was a series of competent, ironic comedies of manners - The Householder, A Backward Place, Esmond in India - in which Jhabvala explored this India and its middle-class ambitions, institutions and prejudices. What distinguished these books was her eye for the telling detail of the Indian scene - of dress and jewellery, of food and fauna, of the changing seasons.

Yet her plots and characterization remained those of the drawing-room miniaturist. She seemed to shy away from plumbing the emotions and souls of the people she was writing about. (In fact, Jhabvala has admitted that “I described the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine ...”.) One might as well be watching a party scene in an Indian movie of the 1960s where the hero serenades a reluctant heroine in an art-deco drawing room; there is the grand piano, the curving staircase, the Westernized guests in bow ties holding their wine glasses, among them a couple of silver-haired jolly Anglo-Indians, an Indian in a Nehru jacket, a pouting vamp, a tall turbaned Sikh and at least two foreigners, one preferably a blonde.

Even Jhabvala’s most successful Indian work, Heat and Dust, reads today as little more than a trite and, worse, a supposedly sympathetic evocation of India’s exotica, with its account of a hippie English girl coming out to India in pursuit of the truth about her colonial grandfather’s first wife, who ran off with an attractive native nawab. She takes a room in the house of lowly government official, sleeps with him intermittently, hobnobs with his wife and mother, fusses over beggars and monkeys and tries out primitive abortion methods. The flashback of the ancestor’s romance with the nawab is superficial, without any serious attempt to explore the torture, the contradictions, or the obsessive nature of a grand passion that would have led an Englishwoman in the early twentieth century to abandon all she had grown up with for an exotic stranger. It is no surprise, however, that it won the Booker in the mid-1970s: there were very few Indian voices writing in English as insiders to whom Western readers had access. So Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, with her Indian-sounding name, provided a convenient window into India, and her success was ensured by the Ivory-Merchant films. Sadly these films may be the only part of her Indian oeuvre to survive.