Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the Booker Prize and Oscar-winning novelist and screenwriter who died on Wednesday at the age of 85, was a remarkable literary hybrid of the 20th century, her fiction and screenplays fashioned from a life of continual alienation and exile. She spoke of “changing countries like lovers” and of being a “perennial refugee.” Although much of her best-known fiction was set in India, from The Householder (1960) to Heat and Dust (1975), she was both celebrated and reviled for her intense emotions about the country. She once compared the feeling to being strapped to a bicycle wheel — a love-hate relationship that took her decades to break away from.
In fact, the complex reality of her life, parts of which she kept hidden and refused to speak or write about, were more painful. Born to a Jewish solicitor in Cologne in 1927, her maternal grandfather was the cantor of the city’s biggest synagogue. She was 12 when the family fled Nazi Germany for Britain, her brother Siegbert (later to become a professor of German at Oxford) and she as young evacuees. It was possibly this bleak transition that turned Ruth Jhabvala into a voracious reader and secret writer, but also into a shy, deeply reserved person from an early age. Strongly observant of Indian life, she shunned its society.
The late film producer Ismail Merchant, together with whom and director James Ivory, she formed an enormously successful 20-year partnership to produce cinema classics that included adaptations of Henry James and E.M. Forster, used to tell a famous anecdote about his first encounter with her. When Ivory and he decided to make their debut black-and-white feature from The Householder, and tried to contact her in Delhi, she pretended to be the maid in a desperate effort to avoid them. The film, starring Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu, was released in 1963 to critical acclaim.
In London in 1951 Ruth Prawer met and married the Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala — later the distinguished head of the School of Planning and Architecture — and moved to India where the couple raised their three daughters in a house in the capital’s Civil Lines. Her 24 years in India made her reputation: a stream of novels, short stories and essays poured forth that led critics to compare her to Jane Austen; yet India also intensified her sense of not belonging. It never left her till she moved to New York in the mid-1970s. “I never really had any close friends in India and I felt a terrible loneliness and isolation for many years,” she once said. “Westernized Indians don’t like my books and I tend not to like westernized Indians — so we’re quits.”
Attempts to reach out to her, including by this writer on several occasions, were matter-of-factly spurned. “I don’t go out,” or “I don’t meet people,” were the laconic answers. I have a memory of a pale, white-haired woman in a sari on a day-long picnic at the site of Babur’s garden in Agra organised by Elizabeth, the historian wife of Senator Daniel Moynihan; but I don’t carry the impression of Ruth Jhabvala enjoying herself. She sat aloof, quietly watchful, but not as a participant.
Describing the technique she adroitly employed, of the echoing stories of two Englishwomen caught in poisonous relationships with Indian men across a span of time in Heat and Dust, meant that she had “exited from India on a double life — one it took me 24 years to manufacture.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s life and art captured the drifting life of a writer buffeted about by the whirlwind of history. India was the prism that refracted it in many ways.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, author and screenwriter, was born in Cologne, Germany, on May 7, 1927. She died in New York on April 3, 2013. She is survived by her husband, C.S.H. Jhabvala and three daughters, Renana Jhabvala, Ava Woods and Feroza Fitts.
Sunil Sethi, a New Delhi-based television presenter, journalist and columnist, has hosted the literary show Just Books on NDTV every weekend since early 2005. His latest book is The Big Bookshelf: Sunil Sethi in Conversation with 30 Famous Writers (Penguin, 2012).