Friday Review

The remains of Ruth

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Ismail Merchant (above, left) and James Ivory   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai V. Sukumar

What can a writer do in a visual medium like cinema to make his/her presence felt? Disappear from the scene? Exactly, this is what Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did. Over and over again, she vanished from the scene even as we relished her nuanced study of cultures, particularly those on the verge of extinction captured through the perceptive lens of James Ivory. Together with producer Ismail Merchant, they became a three-headed deity, representing three cultures and continents, which Merchant often used to call a three-headed monster in jest.

A year after she passed away in New York, as her family, friends and connoisseurs of her craft reflect on her contribution through a series of events this month, Ruth is back in focus.

Aruna Chakravarti, noted author and academic, known for her work “Empathy and Exile: The Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala”, says Ruth smoothly straddled the worlds of literary and cinematic writing without any jarring notes. “She didn’t indulge in any intellectual analysis of cultures. Her works are inherently dialogue-based in nature. The issues come alive through human interactions. Her mouthpieces were ordinary people.”

Be it “The Householder”, “Heat And Dust”, “A Room With A View” or “The Remains of the Day”, Ruth became the fly on the wall noting the interplay of class, identity and ethnicity. Dislocation was a constant theme in her life and it reflected in her work. She was born in Germany when being a Jew was a curse. Her family ran away to England, where she found a language to express herself and a Parsi boy she could spend her life with.

Married to eminent architect Cyrus Jhabvala, Ruth spent the next two decades in India, and the country’s heat and dust effortlessly slipped into her writing. She called it a land of sensual delights. Like every westerner, Chakravarti says, Ruth went through three phases. “First she found everything good about India. The sun was warm, the air was mellow and the people were friendly. She was taken by the Indian philosophy of live and let live. But gradually she discovered the economic and social disparity. The gurus who dupe westerners seeking peace found their way into her writing (‘The Guru’) and suddenly the warmth and mellowness became heat and dust. But gradually she came to terms with the truth that Indian spirituality has a lot more to offer. One can sense it in ‘Heat and Dust’ itself, when Olivia wants her ashes to be sprinkled on the Himalayas.”

She wrote about issues she herself grappled with. Often her protagonists were a reflection of her, trying to fit into different cultures. Salman Rushdie called her a rootless intellectual, but Chakravarti says her lack of a sense of belonging became her strength. Her aspiration for assimilation spurred many a plot. Ruth once told The Guardian, ‘Once a refugee, always a refugee’. “She was ruthlessly honest about it and many Indian critics could not grasp her work in entirety,” holds Chakravarti, adding she was no different when she was in New York. “There she was writing about beggars spending nights in the open and compared them with Indian beggars, who she felt had something cheery about their disposition. She wrote about how taking care of old people was part of western culture.”

It reflected in the choices she made in adapting works of E.M. Forster (“A Room With A View”, “Howard’s End” ), Evan S. Connell (“Mr. and Mrs Bridge”) and Kazio Ishigurio (“The Remains of the Day”). Indeed there were no jarring notes as she made somebody else’s work hers.

Was she born to write for cinema? Not quite. As a Booker winner, she was supposed to revel in authorial ego. But she adapted literary works to the demands of the visual medium and went on to win two Academy Awards. An unparalleled feat. What she once called just a hobby brought her fame, but she zealously guarded her privacy.

Her eldest daughter Renana, a social worker, who has been associated with SEWA for a long time, describes her as a recluse who was constantly questioning herself. “She didn’t even go to receive the Academy Awards. She preferred to watch the ceremony on television.” During her early years she was social but gradually became more observant. Her husband’s partner was a Punjabi and his gregarious family opened a window to the chaos and carnival that India was in the decades after independence. And the eminently perceptive Ruth inhaled the complexities and breathed out simple everyday situations that entertained with their subtlety and nuances. “If you withdraw yourself from the conversation you can observe much more. She had an eagle eye, noticing the strengths and weakness of people around her.”

Arranged marriage became a plot point in “The Householder” where the mother-in-law was at the centre of the narrative. “Her mother in-law was a social worker but as we know, mothers-in-law had a standard behaviour in India. She came into a family where there were four bahus. So there was enough material around her. But I am still curious where she found the householder.”

When she shifted to Delhi, she first lived on Pusa Road and Renana says the college in “The Householder” is actually S. N. Das Gupta College, which she could see from the window of her room.

No wonder, the window has found its way to the invite Renana is sending out to people who want to know more about Ruth.

On her writing regimen, Renana says, “Our father used to leave for work early, and from 9 a.m. to noon nobody was allowed into her room.

This was the time when she used to write on her old typewriter (a part of the exhibition) with utmost discipline. Once she was done with writing she would show the manuscript to our father but as far as film scripts were concerned, nobody was allowed to read them. She would only converse with James Ivory through letters. And after noon she was like any other mother, fussing over our food, dresses and homework.”

Her critics described her sensibility as ‘antique shop’, and when Indian readers discovered her lineage they started seeing her work in a different light. Renana calls it an “unfair criticism”, something that reflects a defensive nature towards one’s culture. She admits that Ruth was upset but maintains that was not the reason for her shifting to New York. “She did feel that she didn’t belong to the place in the cultural sense, but the point was that her collaborators were in New York and after she received the MacArthur Foundation fellowship she had the money to sustain a life in New York. But she didn’t sever her links with India. She used to spend two months with us every year,” says Renana.

Putting things in perspective, Chakravarti says, “Ruth never put herself in the stream of Indian writers writing in English like R.K. Narayanan and Anita Desai. She maintained that if someone ever wanted to bracket her she belonged to the tradition of Kipling and Forster.”

(India International Centre is holding a retrospective of her films from December 8 to 22 at its main auditorium.)

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 8:55:15 AM |

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