Between Two Worlds
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Harper & Row. 247 pp. $6.95.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has written seven novels and three collections of short stories, yet she has remained relatively unknown in this country. That this should be so seems puzzling, on the basis of almost any one of her books, and certainly in their totality, she deserves to be seen as a major contemporary novelist. Recently, with the publication of her latest novel, Travelers, she has begun to receive some of the attention long overdue her.
Born in Germany to Polish-Jewish parents, Mrs. Jhabvala left with them for England where she was educated. In England, also, she met and married her Indian husband, and since 1951 she has lived in India, raised a family there, and has written about India almost exclusively. (She did write one story, “A Birthday in London,” about German-Jewish refugees in England, but apart from the high charm of her customary intelligence, precision, and economy, this story has a sour sense—a crabbed, melancholy oppressiveness and physical ugliness not found in any of her other work.) I mention these facts of her life not only because they are interesting to know but because Mrs. Jhabvala's career raises the peculiar issue of cultural transplantation for an artist. She does not at all consider herself a writer in exile, but rather a writer of two worlds, perhaps between two worlds. The question of how much between has become, on the evidence of her books, an increasingly problematic one.
“As soon as I got here, I began writing about India” she recently told a New York Times interviewer. “It came about instinctively. I was enraptured. I felt I understood India so well. I loved everything.” Mrs. Jhabvala's early, instantaneous embracing of her new country was not the blind, foolish ecstasy of a foreigner for an “exotic” culture, eagerly accepting and celebrating everything that is alien simply because it is so. She has in fact drawn typically acute portraits of such people—notably Clarissa, the dippy, wandering Englishwoman in A Backward Place, and Hans, a gawky, hopelessly earnest German boy in The Householder. Here is the first meeting between Hans, who has been brought to India by his dream of a beckoning holy man, and Prem, a young Indian school-teacher, newly burdened by the demands of making a living for his wife and coming child:
He [Hans] unfolded his arms again and called in a loud joyful voice, “How I love your India!” His pale eyes behind the rimless spectacles shone with happiness, he showed moist, colorless gums in a blissful smile. “For me it is all one big feast!”
Prem felt called upon to make some comment. He was proud to hear a foreigner speak so highly of India, it raised all his patriotism. “Since Independence,” he said, “we have made great strides forward. For instance our second Five Year Plan-”
“Everything is so spiritual—we can wash off our dirty materialism when we come to your India. Off with it!” and he started quite literally scrubbing at his arms and then at his neck with great vigor.
“There are our new steel plants,” said Prem. “Six million tons of steel—”
From the start, Mrs. Jhabvala's happy conviction that she understood India enabled her to see and portray with vitality, affection, and high wit all that is familiar—perhaps universal—in the midst of a culture that was inevitably in its outward trappings not familiar at all. If we think of several of the popular conceptions of India—a vast, dusty undifferentiated mass of poverty and disease, or alternately a mysteriously illumined country of the mind, able (if not always willing) to yield up exquisite, inexpressible wisdom—it is all the more amazing to read Mrs. Jhabvala's funny, spirited, elegantly written accounts of Indian family life: contentious, “modern” children; hovering, food-obsessed mothers; ambitious, newly-rich fathers; sullen, disaffected sons; spoiled rebellious daughters; quarreling aunts and rivalrous in-laws. They have weddings, funerals, and holidays, go to offices, colleges, and cafes, take train trips, go shopping—in short, live their ordinary lives—although they do so against a background that is both physically and culturally entirely different from our own and one that Mrs. Jhabvala never quite omits to set out with the wonder and sharpness of someone whose very exacting eye has just lit on a new world. In her first novel, Amrita, Hari, a lazy young man who is the heroine's no-good boyfriend, is languorously eating his dinner:
It was evening and very noisy. The three children were bouncing a ball against the court-yard wall and quarreling as to whose turn it was next, while their mother, milking the cow in the shed, stuck her head out from time to time and threatened to tear them to pieces. The people living on the upper floor were having their usual fight on the stairs. Out in the street a man with huge colored balloons bobbing on a stick was blowing a little tin horn to advertise himself. A car, trying to pass, hooted incessantly, while three women stood in the middle of the road and loudly abused the panwala who sold betel-leaves and Coca-Cola in a little three-sided hut with a straw roof. A few houses away, the inevitable wedding was being celebrated; familiar and sentimental film songs came wailing unendingly through a loud-speaker.
The territory of these novels is largely middle-class New Delhi: self-important politicians court and are courted, enterprising “go-ahead” young men plunge ahead to build factories, servants run in with advice and massages, autocratic clubwomen, perpetually on the telephone, organize lectures on birth control for the poor or arrange teas for international cultural societies. Everyone is always scheming, eating, and talking, especially eating: these books are filled with the sound of onions frying in ghee and the smells of simmering curries and hot chilis. Mrs. Jhabvala's characters recall with guilty nostalgia the mannered elegance of the British Raj, often attempting to maintain it while the rhetoric of idealism and patriotic self-sacrifice rings in their ears. They feel pressed to be “modern”—(“You are living in modern times. Go and be modern!” a callow young husband yells at his lonely wife in Get Ready for Battle)—though their traditional ways are what they're comfortable with. Always caught between such conflicting claims, their lives and ideas about themselves and the world are marked by self-deception, yet almost none of their decisions or solutions seems stifling or hopeless. Though it would be hard to think of a contemporary writer whose mind or appraising eye is sharper than Mrs. Jhabvala's, her apprehension of people's foibles, dodges, and flaws is always presented with an unusual kind of gentleness and compassion. Her Indian characters, at least, are protected by being Indian, by belonging rightfully to the landscape and society from which they spring.
In the last few years, Mrs. Jhabvala has come to concern herself more with the new breed of foreigners arriving in India—those who “come no longer to conquer but to be conquered,” and it is these people who figure primarily in her new novel, Travelers. It's no wonder that Mrs. Jhabvala is fascinated by what must now be a familiar, puzzling, phenomenon in India, but disappointing to see what she has done with it. Raymond, an uncertainly homosexual Englishman, has come to “experiment” with himself, and Lee, a young American girl “to lose herself . . . in order to find herself.” They travel around the country, become involved with Indians of various classes, and have experiences through which, though they do not always know it, they are essentially measuring themselves and being measured against India. The most interesting and vivid of these episodes is Lee's stay in an ashram and her troubled and troubling relationship with the guru, Swami-ji—a man whose cruelty, cleverness, and power-hungry manipulations never seem to diminish his holy charm or hypnotic appeal. It is of course the guru who is interesting, not Lee, and this is the major disappointment of the novel: Mrs. Jhabvala's Westerners, alien to the society through which they are passing and out of sight of the ones to which they belong, are neither convincing nor fully created. Either vague or one-dimensional, they lack the subtlety and focus Mrs. Jhabvala so deftly assigns to even her most minor Indian characters. What is best in this book (and there is a great deal) are Indian people, Indian places, and, as always, Indian speech. Her Western characters, initially so blandly filled with illusion, do not become bitter or disillusioned; they could not. They seem merely mildly puzzled; they trickle in and fizzle out. It's as if she believed that Westerners do not have real, whole personalities; or rather, perhaps, that she has lost touch with the Westerner she once was.
But Mrs. Jhabvala's virtues as a writer have not left her, and Travelers is still a very good book. Like the Parsi woman saint, Banubai, she has “retained a lively interest in the world and all its passing show.” And like the bright-colored pictures of gods who stare out from the walls of grandmothers and aged servants, Mrs. Jhabvala looks out at her characters as if to warn them: they do not realize how much they must struggle against—the vastness of a confused and unyielding history, of India itself.