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Updated: December 31, 2011 18:10 IST

A precarious balance

ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI
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Stories of subtle sophistication that raise many questions without providing conclusive answers.

Ruth Prawer Jhabwala has lived in India, and written many stories set in India, particularly urban India. Her simple style and short sentences conceal an unexpected subtlety, sophistication, and insight into the vagaries and ironies of human relationships. Over the years, she has acquired wisdom and compassion in unravelling the depths and heights of desire, jealousy, love and need.

She has written film scripts for memorable films made by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, such as “Room With a View” and “Howard's End”. And her novel Heat and Dust won the Booker Prize, and was made into an unforgettable film by James Ivory.

This latest collection of short stories has some stories set in India, or with an Indian twist, but many other stories of life in America.

Common pattern

I found an intriguing pattern in many of the stories. An outsider comes into a situation, often needy, or dispossessed, and the existing situation is often changed dramatically. A certain quality, talent or desire in the newcomer not only changes the existing relationship, acting as a catalyst, but sometimes even destroys what is existing. I was reminded of Harold Pinter's plays, where a newcomer enters and creates an unexpected change in the balance between the characters already there, and there is a disturbance, sometimes violence. In one of the stories set in India, “Innocence”, an elderly couple manage to keep a lid on their strong feelings of guilt and anger about having had to go to jail. But the lid flies off when a young woman comes to stay as paying guest. Blood flows one night, and one is not sure who is responsible.

In “Talent”, an unknown young singer comes to an agent, who realises she has great talent, decides to introduce her to her cousin, a very successful composer. The girl, Elle, pursues Robert, despite his indifference, and finally seems to overcome his resistance. The agent is left out of the equation!

In a brilliant story about a theatre critic, titled “Critic”, we meet the highly esteemed Fabrik, a film critic who has “a bitter twist to his lips”. His wife, and his mother, Madame Sybille, a Hungarian woman, who had dreamed of being an actress, live with him. He has just written a nasty review demolishing a famous actress. This actress turns the tables by coming to his home, making friends with his mother, and trying to get Fabrik to write a play for her. However, in the end it is the mother and the actress who seem drawn to each other, and Fabrik goes back to being a mere critic! Quite a subtle revenge by the actress!

In another compelling story, “The New Messiah”, a beautiful young boy comes from England to join his sister, who has taken a job in the U.S. Her employer is fascinated, even obsessed by the boy, and casts him as the messiah in his new film. Everything is changed.

Jhabvala makes it evident that character is destiny, but are we helpless victims of our own and others' characters, or do we make our own destiny?

There is a superb story: “Bombay” (pre-Mumbai), in which a young Indian woman marries in New York the son of a Bollywood super-hero, and returns to Mumbai to live in the family house, where there is a mentally disturbed Parsi wife. Gradually, the daughter-in-law takes charge of the house, and finally her husband and his mother leave, while father-in-law and daughter-in-law make a life together! Is that what they sub-consciously desired all along, or did it just happen?

Open-ended

Most of Jhabvala's deeply disturbing stories tend not to have any answers or conclusions, as in life. She tends to let her stories drift to an ambiguous ending, to which the logic of her characters has led. If one favours clear and strong endings, one might be disappointed! But if one is willing to just to look between the parted curtains, use one's own imagination to consider where the story might lead, one has a fine reading experience. “Death of an English Hero” is a masterpiece. A mysterious young man's body is found in a “broken-down guesthouse in the bazaar of an insignificant Indian border town.” His mother meets his American wife, and his Indian lover, Leela, and from the ensuing memories and accounts, we must piece together an indecipherable story.

Some of the stories leave us hanging. There is so much detail, that one feels the stories could have been cut down and shaped a bit more. Jhabvala's stories read more like film scripts, very visual, and I can well imagine that James Ivory might have created a masterpiece from one of these narratives.

A LoveSong For India: Tales from East and West, By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Little, Brown, distributed in India by Hachette, Rs. 495.

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