Ruth Prawar Jhabvala’s stories capture an India that no longer exists

At the End of the Century

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Counterpoint. 448 pp. $26

What right does a privileged European author have to write about servants, swamis and sex in modern India? By today’s strict standards for cultural appropriation, not much. The audacity to mine foreign cultures to make one’s art provokes social media outrage and criticism. Such a writer risks being “canceled” before any kind of literary liftoff. Fortunately for readers, then and now, the late German-English writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was writing about India at a different time. The new anthology “At the End of the Century” brings 17 of the Booker Prize-winning writer’s most haunting short stories to a new generation of readers.

Jhabvala, who died in 2013, was best known in the United States as the Oscar-winning screenwriter for the filmmaking team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. She adapted E.M. Forster, Henry James and Kazuo Ishiguro for the screen and helped create a commercial model for handsome, bourgeois adult cinema. But her first love was literary fiction, reflected in this beautifully curated selection of some of her most celebrated writing. Collected over six decades of a writing life that unfolded in England, India and America, they’re stories of exiles, lovers and professional transgressors.

My reservations about Jhabvala’s “Indian” writing despite her non-Indian background quickly dissipated as I found myself fully absorbed and binge-reading this extraordinary collection.

Decades before the ascent of contemporary immigrant fiction, Jhabvala was using her migrations to illuminate the universal human longing for connection and place. Jhabvala was born in 1927 into a privileged and assimilated German Jewish family in Cologne. She experienced the indignities of the Nazis’ rise to power and fled with her family to England at the last possible moment in 1939.

After the war, her father learned that his entire family had been executed in German death camps, and he committed suicide. It was something she rarely spoke about in interviews and never wrote about in her fiction. But loss, melancholy and darkness pervade even the most lighthearted stories in the new collection. Her defining experience as an outsider informed her ability to inhabit characters regardless of their gender, class, race and caste. In a public lecture entitled “Disinheritance,” she spoke of how the erasure of her past allowed her to adapt elsewhere and turned her into a writer. “Once a refugee, always a refugee,” she told the BBC.

Jhabvala married an Indian architect and moved to New Delhi in 1951, just four years after India gained its independence from the British Empire. At the fault lines of the country’s transition from colonial rule to freedom, Jhabvala found her infinite sea of stories.

Jhabvala’s best stories are almost all women’s stories – of being conned, wronged and loved by lesser men. She reserves her most acid humor for the privileged white female tourists who came to India to “find themselves,” crafting delicious scenes in ashrams where Oxbridge-educated English women seek nirvana. In the story “An Experience of India,” one of these clueless characters exclaims: “I had come to India to (BEGIN ITAL)be(END ITAL) in India. I wanted to be changed.”

Jhabvala writes in biting first person from the perspective of a woman who doesn’t see herself as racist: “I ate anything anywhere and always like everyone else with my fingers (I became good at that) – thick, half-raw chapattis from wayside stalls and little messes of lentils and vegetables served on a leaf, all the food the poor eat; sometimes if I didn’t have anything, other people would share with me from out of their bundles. Henry, who had the usual phobia about bugs, said I would kill myself eating that way. But nothing ever happened.” That is of course, until something terrible and nauseating does.

Jhabvala’s stories of Indian women stifled by religions tradition, nosy relatives and unfulfilled sexual desires are equally cutting. In the story “The Widow,” she writes, “when he was dead, she almost missed him, and it was when she reminded herself of other things about him – his old-man smell, and his dried legs, when she had massaged them, with the useless rag of manhood flopping against the thigh – that she realized it was better he was gone.” For a screenwriter responsible for the manicured world of Merchant-Ivory films, on the page, Jhabvala is surprisingly vibrant, darkly funny and, dare I say, racy. Illicit affairs, interracial arousals and fiery arguments followed by intense makeup sex are par for the course.

Jhabvala’s writing falls between the high empire stories of Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster and the post-colonial reclamations of Indian stories by Indian writers. There is a stillness, precision and conservative restraint to Jhabvala’s narratives that runs counter to the explosive, expressive and liquid energy of later Indian Booker Prize winners, including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Her frame is less democratic, often focusing on lives of the privileged, Westernized and geographically mobile. As historian Maya Jasanoff recently wrote in the New Yorker, Jhabvala’s work fell out of style by the 1980s, replaced by writers untangled from the rules of the traditional English novel and the political immediacy of empire. She also moved on physically, leaving New Delhi for New York and a prolific screenwriting career.

Today Jhabvala’s writing feels as if it has slipped through time. The India of which she writes has ceased to exist. The post-colonial condition she portrayed, for Indian and British alike, has been replaced by other political and cultural nationalisms. But the questions her stories raise – about belonging, desire and the boundaries of love – feel as contemporary as great literature always does. She was a reticent and private woman who rarely gave interviews. Today,when book tours and literature festivals deliver writers to audiences, Jhabvala probably would have failed. She would have been unmasked and eventually branded a cultural appropriator, “stealing” from others’ lives and places, in ways writers almost always have. But in 2019, Jhabvala’s angled ways of seeing reveal truths beyond the certitude that our current moment demands of its artists. This posthumous collection is a wonderful reintroduction to one of the 20th century’s great female writers and a deliciously intersectional and thoughtful passage to her India.

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