Jack and Jhabvala

Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), April 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

Jack and Jhabvala


New Delhi, April 6 -- Mofussil Junction Indian Encounters 1977-2012 By Ian Jack he speaker has just returned from India and is describing a particularly awful time at a railway junction in Bihar. 'I found it just too much. It was hot, of course, and the platform was full of beggars and there were flies everywhere and everybody just stood and stared at you...'...

There's nothing unusual in this reaction of a western traveller to India. The surprise is that it doesn't come from a two-week tourist but from a fifty-three-year-old woman who's spent twenty-four years of her life there; who married an Indian and raised three children in India; who many think of as an 'Indian novelist'... But Mrs Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is not an Indian. She tried to be one once and eventually realized the impossibility of her attempt... Today she can talk of the experience as a wife might of a failed marriage: it was a mistake but it taught her a lot; of course it would never have worked.

The metaphor is apt. Mrs Jhabvala often talks of herself "changing countries like lovers". Now she is at the hand-holding and pledging-troth stage with North America, more specifically New York, where she lives in the same East Side apartment block as her friends and colleagues James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, of Merchant Ivory Film Productions...

Mrs Jhabvala, a small and slender woman who looks to be as fragile as a popadom, does not care for travel or its excitements. In India, she rarely left Delhi. In America, she seldom ventures beyond New York State... She hasn't set foot on Continental Europe for thirty years. She doesn't care much for it, either. But the Europe of her childhood gives her very good reason.

Mrs Jhabvala was born Ruth Prawer in Cologne in 1927, the daughter of a Jewish solicitor, Marcus Prawer, who had fled from Poland in the First World War to escape military conscription. Her mother, Eleonora Cohn, came from Berlin... "I was born into what seemed a very solidly based family who had identified with the Germany around them - had been through the 1914-18 War with them - had sung for Kaiser and Fatherland," she wrote in a fragment of autobiography published last year...

The discovery that believing yourself to be German was not quite enough came with Hitler. Mrs Jhabvala says she doesn't want to talk about what happened to her family in the years between 1933 and 1939. …

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