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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013)


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Booker prize-winning novelist and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter, best known for her long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, died today at her home in New York City. 

She had a pulmonary disorder, said James Ivory, the film director who had worked with her since the early 1960s.

Born Ruth Prawer in Cologne, Germany, to Jewish parents who fled the Nazi regime in 1939, emigrating to Britain, she became a British citizen in 1948. 

As she told Philip Horne:

I was very lucky to go to England when I did. I was also very lucky to have the years of doing nothing but reading, mostly English literature. So my whole background is that. It was extremely fortunate for me. Also English became my first language.

Well, I started off and still am primarily a novelist, and not a screenwriter. Studying English literature is really not studying - to have all those years to read is a gift. Particularly as I wasn't really good at anything. While I was preparing for my degree, I never wrote. I wrote before and after, but during those years I just read. I even did a thesis on the short story in England from 1700-1750. There weren't any of course - but that was my thesis.

After receiving her MA in English literature from Queen Mary College, University of London in 1951, she married Cyrus H. Jhabvala, an Indian Parsi architect, and moved to Delhi.

As she told the NYT in 1973:

“As soon as I got here, I began writing about India. Perhaps I loved it then because of my being Jewish. The Indian family life, the humour was closer to the Jewish world I knew than the Anglo-Saxon world.”

More than three decades later, she told Maya Jaggi of the Guardian:

"I just thought, great, it will be so warm - as it was. Other girls who were thinking of marrying an Indian asked, 'what's it like?' It never struck me that this was anything difficult... I only really woke up in India... It was my first experience of plenty, strangely enough, because everything in England was rationed. I loved sweets, but you couldn't get them; then there was this marvellous mitthai - I went crazy."

"It was very easy to be a writer," Jhabvala told Jaggi.

"I'd think what to eat for the day, then tell the cook. I didn't like interruptions, but it didn't bother me having children around. It makes it easier when nothing's expected of you; you're just doing your 'hobby'."

To Whom She Will (1955), published in the USA as Amrtia the next year, about a young Indian woman from a good family who falls in love with the wrong man, was followed by Nature of Passion (1956), Esmond in India (1957), The Householder (1960) and Get Ready for the Battle (1962).

She told Jaggi that she wrote to 20 publishers in London, who "all wrote back", and soon joined John Murray, her UK publisher for four decades. After she found a US agent in the 1950s, many of her short stories appeared first in the New Yorker — the practice continued as recently as the March 25 issue with her story The Judge’s Will.

As the New York Times put it, living in Delhi in the years immediately following independence, Jhabvala, with her European sense of irony, was probably the first writer in English to see that India's Westernizing middle class, so preoccupied with marriage, lent itself well to Jane Austenish comedies of manners.

Ruth Jhabvala with her daughters and James Ivory
at Juhu Beach near Bombay in the summer
of 1962 (left to right) Rena, Ava, and Firoza.
Courtesy: merchantivory.com

Films followed soon. Over four decades, beginning in 1963 with her 1960 novel The Householder, followed by Shakespeare Wallah in 1965 which was a critical success, she went on to make over 20 films with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

As Merchant were to say later: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory...I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"

Unlike Naipaul, she wasn't drawn to India by ancestry or, as in Forster's case, by a desire to move beyond a complacent Western liberalism. She was in Delhi, as she wrote, only because her husband was there, and she was interested not in India but in herself in India. Her 1965 novel, A Backward Place, followed about the misery of exile through the lives of expatriates.

“I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India, which sometimes, in moments of despondency, I think of as my survival in India.”

Writing about the intense heat, the lack of a social life and the "great animal of poverty and backwardness" she explained why she disliked Westernized Indians: "They know Modern India to be an important subject and they have a lot to say about it: but though they themselves are Modern India, they don't look at themselves, they are not conditioned to look at themselves."

Three decades later, in an essay 'Myself in India', she would write about "how intolerable India -- the idea, the sensation of it -- can become" to someone like her, a "Central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis."

In the same essay, she wrote:

"My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year."

Later she wrote of a struggle "to keep my own personality and not become immersed, drowned in India".

"First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India. People said the poverty was biblical, and I'm afraid that was my attitude too. It's terribly easy to get used to someone else's poverty if you're living a middle-class life in it. But after a while I saw it wasn't possible to accept it, and I also didn't want to." 

But she felt a "terrible hunger of homesickness" for Europe:

"...You try to reclaim what's yours, to recapture your past - even the past you haven't had". 

Finally, in 1975, with the proceeds of the Booker she won for her novel Heat and Dust, she purchased an apartment in New York —a "very European city", but one she saw as innocent of Europe's history —  and moved there, dividing her time between India and the United States, finally becoming a naturalised citizen of the United States in 1986, thus becoming a dual British and American citizen. Merchant and Ivory, by now extended family, lived in the same apartment block.

As Maya Jaggi put it in her Guardian profile:

"in the pickled cucumbers of West Side delicatessens, she found a "memory-stirring madeleine" to evoke the pre-war German childhood she had lost as a refugee in England in 1939. "I met the people who should have remained in my life," she wrote, "people I went to school with in Cologne, with exactly the same background as my own."

Describing herself 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," in her 1979 Neil Gunn fellowship lecture "Disinheritance", she went on to say, however: "I like it that way... a cuckoo forever insinuating myself into others' nests... chameleon hiding myself in false or borrowed colours".

She won the Oscars in 1987 and 1993 for her screenplays of A Room With a View and Howards End, both adapted from E.M. Forster's eponymous novels. In 1990, she won the Best Screenplay Award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Mr.& Mrs. Bridge. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for screenwriting for The Remains of the Day (1993), from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. She also won a Bafta for Heat and Dust (1983). She was awarded the CBE in 1998, and a joint Bafta fellowship with Merchant and Ivory in 2002.

This is how she described her approach to adapting classics in an interview to Philip Horne:

I was never interested in adapting classics at all. I'd written four novels. I was never interested in film. Never. I never even thought of it. I never thought of it until Merchant Ivory came to India and filmed one of my books - they said: "Why don't you write the screenplay?" I said I'd never written a screenplay and I hadn't seen many films because I was in India by that time and hadn't really had any opportunity to see new films or art films or classic films or anything. So they said, "Well, try. We haven't made a feature film before." So that was really my introduction into film.

AP/With the Bafta fellowship with Merchant and Ivory in 2002

In the same interview, she described how she worked with James Ivory:

Well, when I lived in India and he lived in New York, or wherever he was, we did a lot through correspondence. But now we all live in New York... I am still so used to working on my own that I do several drafts for myself first and then send them to him to make marks in the margin. And then I rewrite, and this goes on over a few months. And then finally we sit together and see where we still might have disagreements. Then he goes and shoots the film - I have nothing to do with that - I only go along to see some rushes. But I will see the rough cut, which is usually twice the length of the final version, then I see it again, and we sit in the editing room for some time and, you know, fiddle about.

03 Apr 2013, 09:57:42 PM | Sundeep Dougal

From Sunil Sethi's review of A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West for Outlook in 2011: Western Disturbances:

A critic once described Jhabvala’s writing as a study in “the psychopathology of power, the process of domination in personal relationships or clashing empires”. At the heart of many of these stories are family relationships—between siblings or mothers and sons—that are predatory, obsessive and devouring. Some also bristle with an erotic charge; but whether straight or gay, it is shrewdly held in check and seldom made explicit.

In a reversal of her earlier themes, where Westerners sought escape or fulfilment in India, diaspora Indians now inflict damage in the New World. ... Perhaps one of the strongest pieces is A Lovesong for India: a requiem for the loss of Nehru’s idealism portrayed through the life of an IAS officer, charting his career from the 1950s to present times. Few political commentaries can match this parable of the corrupt decline in Indian public life. For it is the domain of the storyteller’s art to adhere to its overriding principle: Show, don’t tell.

03 Apr 2013, 09:50:42 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Ira Pande in her review of East to Upper East  for Outlook in 2000: No Heat, No Dust:

Jhabvala's cast of characters and her vision is by now pretty predictable. Since her very first novel, she has written about the privileged aristocracy of the country. Now that this class has been shoved aside by the hustlers and carpetbaggers, her fiction has been robbed of its casting couch. Gone are the nawabs and the lounge lizards of Lutyens' Delhi. And since she has never cared for the heat and dust of the territory outside these sacred groves, her writing seems to have lost direction. Certainly, her prose has a dry, clinical clarity that is refreshing after the poetic outpourings of the 'mood' writers but it is now beginning to sound tired and flat. Sadly, in straddling two worlds, Jhabvala belongs now neither in the East nor in the Upper East

03 Apr 2013, 11:30:35 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Eleanor Wachtel of CBC Books, Canada speaks with Ruth Prawer Jhabwala [Audio]

03 Apr 2013, 11:43:35 PM | Sundeep Dougal

From a 1993 interview with the Independent's Jonathan Freedland:

'Forster's dialogue is wonderful, as is Henry James's - but I can't use it as it is,' she says, almost whispering. I have to strip it down somehow, so that the actors can put in what is implicit on the page.' Any attempt to be directly faithful to the original is bound, she says, to result in a 'very literary film'...

'I hate publishing, I hate it when the books come out,' she says. 'I like to keep them longer.'...

But fiction has its price. 'Novels are much, much harder' than movies, insists this woman who lists writing film scripts under 'hobbies' in her entry in Who's Who. 'You have to make the characters come alive, which the actors do for you in a film; you have to paint their background and see what they would wear, which the set designer or the costume designer does in a film. In a novel you do the whole lot.'...

Like many of those involved in American letters, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is prone to worry if it's all worth the effort. 'No one reads new books,' she says. 'If anybody's together, even writers, all they talk about is films. No one talks about the latest novel.'...

'I don't think I'm anything particularly,' she smiles. 'Born in one country, brought up in another, gone to live in a third and resettled in a fourth. I'm just like everybody else in New York: come from somewhere else and quite happily living here.'

03 Apr 2013, 11:16:35 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Matt Schudel in the Washington Post:

Her most controversial work came in 1995 with her original screenplay for “Jefferson in Paris,” in which Nick Nolte portrayed Thomas Jefferson as an envoy to France in the 1780s. The film depicted a long-rumored love affair between Jefferson and his young slave, Sally Hemings.

Defenders of Jefferson’s legacy were incensed and threatened to boycott of the film’s distributor, Disney. Mrs. Jhabvala, who often depicted interracial romance in her books about India, trusted her research and her intuition.

“Jefferson was a lonely widower, and in Paris he was very homesick,” she told the Guardian in 1995. “Sally was his wife’s half sister … it would almost have been strange if something had not happened.”

In the years since, DNA tests confirmed a connection between Jefferson and Hemings. Many scholars who once doubted Jefferson’s paternity have conceded that he was probably the father of Hemings’s six children.

“If the film came out now, no one would turn a hair, but then people were outraged,” Mrs. Jhabvala said in 2005. “To me, it seemed a terrible thing that they kept slaves, but not such a terrible thing that families were intermingled.”

04 Apr 2013, 12:16:35 AM | Sundeep Dougal

The Telegraph, London, obituary:

Ismail Merchant, who read her novel The Householder (1960), in which a young man struggles in his relationship with his recently acquired wife and with problems in his job as a teacher at a private school in New Delhi. So impressed was Merchant that he and James Ivory flew to Delhi to persuade its reclusive author to adapt the book into a film.

Despite her nervousness (she was so shy at first, she pretended to be her mother-in-law) and her husband’s warning that the film-makers looked like “fly-by-night people”, the two men convinced her to go into partnership with them: “I told them I’ve never done anything like his before,” she recalled. “But they said 'It doesn’t matter. We haven’t either.’” News of the collaboration was broken by Indian newspapers under the melodramatic headline: “Merchant-Ivory shoots Householder.

03 Apr 2013, 11:49:20 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Janet Watts in the Guardian:

Shortly before her own death, she accepted a visit from a rabbi. After performing a blessing, he asked her for the best thing she could recall in her life. "Without any hesitation," Ava wrote afterwards, "she pointed to papa."

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