Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's passage to India
Author Meera Nair tells Kareena N Gianani how the late novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's few words told many evocative stories
How did you get acquainted with Jhabvala’s stories?
I got acquainted with Jhabvala’s work as a student in Temple University’s creative writing programme in 1997. There was a story in the New Yorker I had picked up. I remember feeling excited that it was set in India, with characters who were given a particular sensibility that I too was struggling to render accurately. Her presence in the New Yorker meant possibility; it signalled that there was a space for stories about people and places outside America in the mainstream literary conversation.
What strikes you the most about Jhabvala’s work?
Her style. Pared down, unadorned, threadbare even. It’s almost as if she is consciously trying to resist the lushness of the country, the constant invitation that India seems to present to fill pages with the scent of mangoes. Especially in her later work, she makes her characters essentially mysterious, their motivations obscure. Their responses to the perturbations that ripple across their lives are fascinating in that they are unexpected and unpredictable. In a story called Farid and Farida, Farid reunites with his wife after 20 years when he finds her in India, “holy under a tree.” Yet, in the end he refuses to follow this woman he has loved since childhood back to England. The final image is of Farid gazing after Farida’s motorcade, stranded in the detritus of the dismantled ashram. I love that there are no neat reasons given for his decision, no tidy knots tied up at the end. She gives her characters this moment of expansion, grants them the last word. Her character may initially seem like stereotypes—the charlatan guru, the rich lonely women, the obedient small-town wives, well-heeled white girls flirting with spirituality—but there always comes the moment when they resolve into wholeness, become delineated and individual.
How did Jhabvala influence your writing?
I like her attention to the small intimate gesture that marks characters as being of a particular social milieu; her preference for emotional delicacy. Her recent story in New Yorker, The Judge’s Will, the judge of the title has had a mistress for 25 years. Binny, his wife, in one of those characteristic transformations that occur in Jhabvala’s stories, ends up assuming responsibility for the mistress’s welfare. A lesser writer would have staged an elaborate apology and reconciliation between husband and wife, but all she does is have them argue over chess. He sweeps the pieces to the floor. “He allowed her to lead him from the chair to his bed. She brought him water and after he had drunk it he gave the glass back to her and said, “I’m sorry.” That’s all there is to it. She understands, as we do, “what this was about...”
Jhabvala has said that in India, she was not an insider but also not wholly the outsider. I think that defines the writer’s stance to the people and places one writes about. To be observant and empathetic, to care deeply, but also be clear-eyed and detached enough to find the appropriate language to shape the writing.
Meera Nair is the author of Video (Pantheon). Her children’s book Maya Saves the Day will be published later this month by Duckbill Books.