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Fifty one years back in New Delhi a petite, slender, fair, young lady attended a meeting of PEN, an international organization of poets, essayists and novelists. That was my first interaction with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The memories of that first meeting are hazy. Nobody had then realized that Jhabvala would blaze a new trail that would put her in league with Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, each with two Academy Awards. While the other two got theirs for acting, Ruth’s were for outstanding screenplay.
Jhabvala passed away on April 3 in New York, her home for 38 years. She would have been 86 years on May 7.
Till 1962, Ruth had written three novels and a few short stories and was establishing herself. She was not Indian, had adopted the country after her 1951 marriage to Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian Parsee architect she met in England. She lived in India for 24 years and raised three daughters.
Soon after the PEN meeting I wrote to Mrs. Jhabvala to be a Patron/Advisor for a publishing company I had planned to start. A shy and simple lady, she wrote back in her own hand, and wished us all the best wondering what exactly she could do for us. That project, unfortunately, did not take off but I kept following her career from a distance.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has left a treasure of a dozen novels, nearly two dozen screenplays and around three dozen short stories (eight collections). Her writings spanned the globe and during that journey received two Oscars, forHowards End and A Room with a View (both adapted from the novels by E.M. Forster). She received the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust (later made into a movie) and several other awards. It was rare to get both, the Oscar and a Booker Prize.
In India, the German-Jewish, British-educated Jhabvala quickly learned to drape a sari, her regular dress in public. She wrote on Indian topics, tasting Indian dishes, Indian flavors and aromas, learning Hindi, and visiting Indian bazaars.
However, Jhabvala was essentially a central European; her childhood memories were of England. In 1975 she came to the United States—the final journey in three continents and became a citizen in 1986. She was an enigma, and wrote of her love-hate relationship with her roots, her adopted country and her environment, “perhaps I am just fickle by nature and get tired of countries the way other women do of husbands or lovers.” But all that did inspire her to write furiously, and gave her fame, and of course, money.
Jhabvala had two close collaborators—producer Ismail Merchant and Director James Ivory. They met in 1961, and soon became close and lifelong friends. Jhabvala wrote and the other two produced-directed 20 movies starting with her 1960 novel The Householder—the movie was released in 1963. It had the handsome Shashi Kapoor and the classy beauty Leela Naidu in leading roles. No blockbuster, the movie did yet get considerable critical praise.
Ruth was born in Cologne in Germany. Her childhood coincided with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and World War II. This frenzy of the Fuehrer annihilated over 40 members of her extended family who perished in the Holocaust; her father took his own life.
She was disgusted and saddened with the events but did not write about them. She had turned away from Germany and then Europe—later even from India. Indian customs, arranged marriages, spirituality, poverty, backwardness and pollution drove her away to the United States. The other major reason was collaboration with Merchant-Ivory.
Starting with her hobby of writing film scripts as a “recreation,” Jhabvala specialized in screenplays and adaptation from great novels. She was happy to bring her own perception of life, love, deceit, deception, self-deception, vengeance, twists and turns, joy and gloom through her writings. Earlier she wrote for herself, to make her happy: “I was at the bottom of a deep abyss. No one read them. But I enjoyed it.”
Among Ruth’s works some critics listed the following to be the best five: A Room with a View—her first Oscar in 1986, a story of romance and repression in Edwardian-era England; Howards End—her second Oscar about class relations in 20th century England; Heat and Dust—won the Booker Prize; The Householder—The first film produced by Merchant Ivory Productions;Surviving Picasso—This 1995 film depicted Françoise Gilot’s relationship with Pablo Picasso.
Several critics praised Ruth for her sharp sensibility in analyzing class, culture, ethnicity and the experience of exile. She seemed to understand modern India without a myopic vision. She was reported to have told the Rabbi who visited her on her deathbed that her husband Cyrus Jhabvala was the best thing that she could recall in her life.
The Guardian wrote about her: “She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life. Her vision was bleak, her tone austere, But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behavior and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.” What a tribute!
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala started writing at six. Her last short story “The Judge’s Will” was printed in The New Yorker of 25 March, 2013. She is survived by her husband, and three daughters Renana, Ava and Firoza-Bibi married to men from three different countries—India, England and America—from three continents just like Ruth herself. What a life, what a legend!
Yatindra Bhatnagar has half a century of experience as a journalist, author and poet. He has worked for newspapers, radio and television and has published over 20 books.