Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Protecting One's Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "Rose Petals."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Protecting One's Inner Self: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "Rose Petals."

Article excerpt

There is an exploring quality about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's work--both as a novelist and as a writer of screenplays--that has often been noted by critics (Gooneratne; Bailur; Crane). It probably stems from the fact that she was-in her own words--"practically born a displaced person" (Gooneratne 1) and so has always had to make an effort to understand a world not quite her own. Born of Jewish parents in Germany before the second World War, she became a permanent foreigner, first in England, then in India, now in America. Looking back at the years she spent living with her Indian husband in his country, she once wrote:

Sometimes I wrote about Europeans in India, sometimes about

Indians in India, sometimes about both, but always attempting to

present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of

foothold . . . I described the Indian scene not for its own sake

but for mine. (Hayman 37)

In her short story "Rose Petals" she seems to have set out to explore how sympathetically drawn characters can be seen to be living isolated, privileged lives surrounded by poverty on all sides, do absolutely nothing to try to rectify obvious wrongs, and yet still retain their basic humanity. And in so doing she has raised the issue that worried her most while she lived in India and that slowly changed her attitude toward her adopted country from one of initial wonder and excitement into a battle that she knew she could not win ("Myself in India" 16).

In her article "Myself and India" Prawer Jhabvala has outlined certain ways of dealing with the proximity of overwhelming poverty: "The first and best is to be a strong person who plunges in and does what he can as a doctor or social worker." The second is quite simply to accept the situation as it is. In this connection--she comments wryly--a belief in reincarnation helps:

It appears to be a consoling thought for both rich and poor. The

rich man stuffing himself on pilao can do so with an easy

conscience because he knows that he has earned this privilege by

his good conduct in previous lives; and the poor man can watch

him with some degree of equanimity for he knows that next time

round it may be he who will be digging into the pilao while the

other will be crouching outside the door with an empty stomach.

The third way consists in trying to escape from it all by retreating into one's own isolated world. Most of us choose the third solution, which is also Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's way of dealing with the problem, since she is in her own words "not a doctor, nor a social worker nor a saint nor at all a good person":

I do my best to live in an agreeable way. I shut all my windows, I

let down the blinds, I turn on the air-conditioner; I read a lot of

books, with a special preference for the great masters of the novel.

All the time I know myself to be on the back of this "rear animal of

poverty and backwardness. (10-11)

It is precisely this question of a leisured, privileged private life in the midst of terrible poverty that is raised in "Rose Petals," in which diametrically opposed attitudes toward social problems and life in general, are expressed in terms of a basic opposition in lifestyle between two pairs of characters. On the one hand we have the Minister, who has chosen an active life in politics, and his daughter Mina who is following in his energetic footsteps. On the other hand we have the Minister's wife, who is the narrator, and the Minister's cousin Biju, both of whom lead intensely private, self-indulgent lives of leisure.

Surrounding the Minister's family--but at a safe distance--is an outer world of poverty and injustice. Through their repeated references to the underprivileged, the characters create an uneasy consciousness of this threatening world, of which we get only one short glimpse. …

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