Indian Jane Austen – Ruth Prawar Jhabwala`s death ends rich era of crossover literature
New Delhi: Described by English writer-editor Ian Jack as the Jane Austen of India, award-winning novelist and screenplay writer Ruth Prawar Jhabvala was renowned for her evocative novels of the rainbow societies of 19-20th century India - two of which became successful films.
Jhabvala, 85, died Wednesday in her Manhattan home of a pulmonary disorder, long-time friend and associate James Ivory told the media. She lived in a modest apartment in Manhattan decked up with books and the trophies she brought home for her writing.
Her novels were full of rich colour and details of India that she had adopted as her homeland, and the people inhabiting her books were like her - global citizens juxtaposed against Indian society and drawing on the commonalities and the clash of cultures.
Jhabvala moved to India in the early 1950s following her remarriage to Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala. The era with its vestiges of the British Raj, the decadence of the native royalty, the economic gulf between the elite and the masses, cultures, relationships across multi-ethnic lines and lifestyles that allowed the tradition and western modernism to co-exist captured the literary imagination of the young English literature post-graduate from the University of London.
Two of her iconic classics were "The Householder (1960)" and "Heat and Dust (1975)" that won the Booker Prize for 1975. Both of them were adapted into movies by Merchant-Ivory Productions, with whom she collaborated for nearly 50 years for nearly two-dozen scripts.
"The Householder" built around its lead character Prem, who graduates from a student to householder. It chronicles his experiences - his crisis of spiritual identity and matured independence through a cast of characters like Prem`s mother, wife, his high school friends, the white folks in India and their servant, who is Prem`s landlord.
In "Heat and Dust", Jhabvala looks at two generations of impetuous Indo-British women in the country who become pregnant outside wedlock and move to live in seclusion. The story is told through a narrator, whose life takes off on her English step-grandmother Olivia who is charmed by a nawab and flees his principality over a pregnancy scandal.
The fair petite writer, born to a German Jewish family in Cologne, was influenced by the cultural millieu of central Europe before the world wars.
"I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves," she wrote in one of her short story anthologies, "How I Became the Holy Mother".
But her passion for central Europe changed one evening as the family sat on the terrace of their home watching a Nazi parade. Her parents, Marcus and Eleanora, were later arrested but let off. They fled to Britain with Ruth and son Siegbert in 1939.
According to Jhabvala`s biographers, Marcus committed suicide in 1948 after he came to know how his clan had died during the Holocaust. Her chequered childhood was a source of deep torment for the sensitive writer.
Says writer Janet Watts in The Guardian: "Jhabvala never wrote of her early life. She never spoke of it in public, until 1979, when she received the Nell Gunn International fellowship and gave a public lecture in Edinburgh. Her chosen subject was disinheritance."
"I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel - till I am - nothing," Watts quoted Jhabvala, "who liked it that way" as saying.
Literature became Jhabvala`s shelter - her world of creative expression to pour our her angst and script a new identity. She wrote eight anthologies of short stories and more than a dozen novels which also included "Out of India", "Three Continents" and "My Nine Lives".
Jhabvala was honoured with several awards including two Academy Awards for the screenplays of the "The Room With A View" and "Howards` End", the Bafta award for "Heat and Dust", the O`Henry for "Refuge in London" and the Writers` Guild of America award.