Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (1927- ) German- Jewish screenwriter and fiction writer

Far from her eastern European roots, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala lives in New York City and writes of colonial and postcolonial India, her adopted third home. Born Ruth Prawer to Polish-German forebears in Cologne, Germany, she grew up during the era of Nazi oppression. At age 12, she, her parents, and older brother Siegbert emigrated from Europe's anti-Semitic nightmare to England, but left behind 40 relatives who were victims of Hitler's “final solution.” In a London bomb shelter during the blitz, she crouched over a copy of LEO TOLSTOY'S War and Peace (1869). In 1948, the post-traumatic horror caused her father to kill himself. Among other fugitives from war, she developed the mindset of a displaced person at home anywhere but belonging nowhere.

In 1951, after earning her degree in English literature from London University, Ruth Prawer married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, a Zoroastrian and architecture professor from New Delhi, India. Settling into the social life of Delhi University, she became fluent in Hindi. She published her first novel in 1955 and short fiction printed in Kenyon Review, Ladies Home Journal, London Magazine, New Statesman, New Yorker, Redbook, and Yale Review. Other novels followed, and in 1963, she began writing for the screen in collaboration with the filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Her style, which would earn the regard of fellow author Salman Rushdie, displayed the influence of other writers of literature of empire, notably, JOSEPH CONRAD, CHARLES DICKENS, and E. M. FORSTER. In 1975, after raising three daughters with her husband, she settled in Manhattan, sought U.S. citizenship, and, like the Yiddish author ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER, befriended other refugees of the Holocaust.

Critics began categorizing Jhabvala as a bicul- tural feminist after she wrote the Booker Prize-winning novella Heat and Dust (1975), a frank survey of female choices and dilemmas amid social misogyny in the Punjab of colonial and postindependence India. Told in framework style from letters and journals, the quest narrative is related by an unnamed female traveler searching for her matrilineage by tracing the history of her grandfather's first wife, Olivia Rivers, who rebelled against the constraints of a British community in Satipur, India, in 1923. A GOTHIC background sets Olivia in a colonial cemetery, outside a primitive abortion clinic, in a rural palace among women in purdah (female seclusion), alongside a female rescuer of untouchables, and amid barren women at the fertility festival at the Baba Firdau shrine. A moral pariah, Olivia decides to have an abortion of a fetus that could be the offspring of her English husband, Douglas, a minor civil official, or of Olivia's Muslim paramour, the nawab of Khatm. In choosing between a dreary mate and a manipulative lover, Olivia makes the feminist choice—herself and her own needs—and moves into the hills to live in solitude and self-fulfillment away from the petty patriarchy of the Indian raj.

With minimal extraneous detail, Jhabvala's two-layered story looks at a past and a passing empire. She mentions the outlawing of suttee (widow-burning), which the Welsh educator ANNA LEONOWENS described in Life and Travel in India: Being Recollections of a Journey before the Days of Railroads (1884), as well as poisoned wedding garments, the torment of a madwoman, and the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the uprising that forced the British government to remove the East India Company as ruler and install a regime that survived until 1947. At a climactic moment in Olivia's relationship with the nawab, who is in league with a band of dacoits (cutthroats) left over from the Mughal Empire, he charges the invasive British with heartlessness: “English people are so lucky—they have no feelings at all” (Jhabvala 1975, 144-145). Ironically, Douglas Rivers, the nawab's unwitting rival, makes a parallel assertion about the nawab's lawlessness: “He is a menace to himself, to us, and to the wretched inhabitants of his wretched little state” (148). Olivia, who blames both men for their misdirection of power against women, suffers the standard epiphany of the naive colonial by losing both her sexual and idealistic innocence and fending for herself.

In 1983, Jhabvala won a BAFTA award for adapting Heat and Dust for the cinema, featuring Greta Scacchi and Julie Christie. She also won Oscars for her screenplays of A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992).


Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. Heat and Dust. New York:

Touchstone, 1975.

Smith, Andrew, and William Hughes. Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.