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At the End of the Cen­tury: The Sto­ries of Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala

Lit­tle, Brown, £20

Re­viewed by David Her­man

RUTH PRAWER Jhab­vala is best known for her screen­plays, in­clud­ing A Room with a View, Howards End and Re­mains of the Day. Her long col­lab­o­ra­tion with Is­mail Mer­chant and James Ivory won her two Academy Awards and cap­tured a distinc­tive English­ness.

This is per­haps sur­pris­ing in a Ger­man Jewish can­tor’s grand­daugh­ter who came to Bri­tain with her fam­ily in 1939 and, in 1951, moved to In­dia where she mar­ried an In­dian ar­chi­tect.

She lived there for 24 years be­fore mov­ing to New York in 1975 and, for the rest of her life, di­vided her time be­tween In­dia and the United States.

Jhab­vala, who died in 2013, was a pro- lific writer, pro­duc­ing a dozen nov­els and eight col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, in ad­di­tion to 23 screen­plays.

This new se­lec­tion con­tains 17 sto­ries writ­ten over 50 years, be­tween 1963 and 2013. Most are set in In­dia, a few in Amer­ica and two in Bri­tain. And just two are about the ex­pe­ri­ence of Jewish refugees from cen­tral Europe, both writ­ten late in Jhab­vala’s ca­reer.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, the book is lack­ing in bi­o­graph­i­cal or bib­li­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. The short in­tro­duc­tion by Anita De­sai is not es­pe­cially help­ful. What are the cri­te­ria for se­lec­tion? Why are there so few sto­ries about Jewish refugees, and none from early in her ca­reer? How did some­one who changed con­ti­nents three times in her life find a lit­er­ary voice? Where did she ever feel at home, as a per­son or a writer?

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, many of her best sto­ries are about peo­ple who Judi Dench and Mag­gie Smith in A are out of place, es­pe­cially Bri­tish women in In­dia.

This con­trib­utes to the melan­choly feel of so many of the sto­ries. They are stud­ies in lone­li­ness, about women who are un­ful­filled, of­ten di­vorced or un­hap­pily mar­ried. There’s a telling ref­er­ence to “our small mis­man­aged lives.”

“Some­thing was miss­ing,” states an In­dian stu­dent in Bri­tain. One char­ac­ter, Pauline, feels “sick, with dis­ap­point­ment.” An­other feels there was some­thing “amiss, or miss­ing.”

What is miss­ing in th­ese women’s lives? Some­times it’s a child, more of­ten love, or a sense of be­long­ing. The sto­ries are nearly all about “the feel­ings in a woman’s heart.”

Th­ese are in­te­rior nar­ra­tives, con­cerned with feel­ings and emo­tions, not his­tory or pol­i­tics. There is lit­tle sense of Bri­tain or Amer­ica, or even In­dia. The first ref­er­ence to Par­ti­tion comes on page 319; there is lit­tle about the ten­sions be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims, the Raj, or the fight for in­de­pen­dence.

In­stead, what stands out from the sto­ries are peo­ple’s prob­lems with bound­aries. They have af­fairs and com­mit adul­tery. They form odd tri­an­gles. Hus­bands love their sis­ters-in-law. Dark pas­sions run deep. All far from the posh world of man­ners in the Mer­chant Ivory films.

They are about lonely and un­ful­filled women

David Her­man is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

Room With a View

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