Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of those writers you know even if you don’t. She is best known for her fiction about India, particularly her stunning novel, Heat and Dust, which won the Booker Prize in 1975. But she is FAMOUS for writing Merchant-Ivory films: she won two Oscars for Best Screenplay, first for A Room with a View, and then for Howards End (the E. M. Forster industry throve as strongly in the '80s and '90s as the Jane Austen mill does now).
Jhabvala’s books have lined my shelves for many years. During my student years I read Heat and Dust and Travelers several times. My then-beau was fascinated by India and brought her work to my attention. Always an energetic whistle-blower journalist type, I was fascinated by Jhabvala’s portraits in Travelers of women who were conned by corrupt gurus; and loved Heat and Dust for its interlocking tales of two generations of women, a grandmother and granddaughter, who defied stifling convention by having love affairs with Indians. In the ‘70s and ‘80s people sought - god knows what they sought - but there was much optimistic travel, exploration of eastern religions, and yoga (we were all flexible then) - hoping to solve the problem of emptiness in a competitive, materialistic society.
Jhabvala understands the irony and naiveté of such religious and philosophical quests: traveling among the poor, ill, suffering, crippled, and starving in India can be a dismaying experience for idealists, though of course others appreciate the beauty, love the diverse culture, make friends, and find religion, just as they’d hoped. In her introduction to her 1976 collection of stories, How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories, reissued last year by Capuchin Classics, she writes:
I had better say straightaway that the reason why I live in India is because my strongest human ties are here. If I hadn’t married an Indian, I don’t think I would ever have come here for I am not attracted - or used not to be attracted - to the things that usually bring people to India. I know I am the wrong kind of person to stay here. To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.
How I Became a Holy Mother is a beautiful collection of short stories, in which Jhabvala explores the lives of Indian film stars, singers, wealthy older women, students, housewives, spinsters, and other unique characters. Some of these characters are contentedly ensconced in extended families, while others restlessly seek fulfillment outside the demarcations of tradition. In my favorite story, “Rose Petals,” the narrator, the wife of a cabinet minister, enjoys the leisure and comforting repetition of events of daily life and visits from her unambitious brother-in-law, Biju, while her husband and daughter slave on important social issues and cannot understand her indifference.
The Minister is very keen to ‘move with the times.’ It has always been one of his favorite sayings. Even when he was young and long before he entered politics, he was never satisfied doing what everyone else did - looking after the estates, hunting and other sports, entertaining guests - no, it was not enough for him. When we were first married, he used to give me long lectures like Mina does now - about the changing times and building up India and everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel...only I did not listen too closely...
In “An Experience of India,” an Englishwoman in India, upset by her journalist husband’s indifference to alternative life-styles, travels alone, enjoys casual friendships and love affairs, but destroys her sense of freedom and adventure when she and a lover, out of money, return to live unhappily with her husband.
And in the title story, “How I Became a Holy Mother,” an English model, “fed up with London and the rest of it,” moves into an ashram and has an affair with a designated guru.
These are such good stories. i’ll now have to rifle through my bookshelves for the rest of her books. I know I have The Poet and the Dancer somewhere...