Rov­ing tales re­veal hid­den depths

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala Lit­tle, Brown, £13.99

Although she is now in her 85th year, Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala's out­put of books and s creen­plays has slack­ened only slightly with the pas­sage of time, and her pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion and sto­ry­telling re­main undimmed.

The author of Heat And Dust, awarded the 1975 Booker Prize, and Os­car-win­ning screen­writ­ing col­league of James Ivory and Is­mael Mer­chant, Jhab­vala was born in Cologne to Jewish par­ents, es­cap­ing to Eng­land in 1939 and later mar­ry­ing and set­ting up home with her hus­band in Delhi. She now lives in New York and, appropriately for a writer who has slipped be­tween cul­tures all her life, en­joys dual Bri­tish and Amer­i­can na­tion­al­ity.

This new book con­tains 11 sto­ries, the set­tings of which range from the 1950s to the present day and, like their author's rov­ing life, are split be­tween In­dia, the US and Lon­don. They aren't in­ter­con­nected, but Jhab­vala's life­long sta­tus as an out­sider in­forms them all. She dis­trusts sur­faces, be­ing well aware that what we are see­ing is all too of­ten what we are pro­ject­ing on to them. But sur­faces can be se­duc­tive, what­ever mo­tives may lurk be­neath.

In the open­ing story, In­no­cence, a young Amer­i­can wo­man finds her guru in In­dia, to the an­noy­ance of her house­mate, who com­plains that west­ern­ers like her are not see­ing the real In­dia at all. The al­lure of the sub­con­ti­nent is found in Pa­gans too, in which a Cal­i­for­nian widow falls for a re­gal young In­dian man whom she be­lieves to be of an an­cient and no­ble fam­ily. In both sto­ries, though, char­ac­ters with their own agen­das are wait­ing in the wings to muddy the wa­ters. The theme of guru and dis­ci­ple re­curs in School Of Ori­en­tal Stud­ies, with a trans­la­tor be­com­ing se­duced into an ob­ses­sion with the po­et­ess she's study­ing. It's not al­ways glam­our and mys­tique that al­low some­one into your life, but mis­un­der­stand­ing too. The story Tal­ent shows a young English fe­male singer in­fil­trat­ing an up­mar­ket but dys­func­tional fam­ily by ex­ploit­ing their dif­fi­cul­ties in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other.

A mis­tress of her art, Jhab­vala can seem to strip her char­ac­ters bare while al­low­ing them to re­tain their es­sen­tial mys­tery, and A Lovesong For In­dia gives her a cast that's both varied and colour­ful.


Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala, cen­tre, with her col­leagues Is­mail Mer­chant and James Ivory

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