“.. My prayer to be relieved of their crime has been answered, so that it is no longer before my eyes day and night. Now it is as if it were locked away in a heavy steel trunk; this weight may be taken from me at the last hour, but until then I carry it inside myself, where only God and I know of its constant presence.” – ‘Expiation’/‘East into Upper East’
Unlike Naipaul or Forster, those aspiring to portray something beyond costumes and pageantry about India always felt this dilemma. Perhaps that was the reason why she had chosen to write almost exclusively about the comic ambiguities, tensions and mysteries of middle-class India though with a touch of the timeless European fascination with the subcontinent. And yet, as her work darkened and turned more downhearted, we begin to notice that her India becomes as universal as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Her third novel, “Esmond in India” was about a self-deluded Englishman, who married an Indian woman and casually seduced another, set the tone for much of her later work. She brought up the pretensions and absurdities of two cultures colliding, the emptiness of Indians trying to emulate Westerners and the social snobberies of the upper class. Through the 1960s and early 70s she grew more depressed by the ‘heat and dust’, her metaphor for disease and squalor.
Her ensuing association with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory later turned out to be the longest lasting film making team ever. Of this collaboration, Merchant once commented, “It’s a strange marriage we have at Merchant-Ivory. I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a protestant American. Someone aptly described us as a three-headed monster!” By the mid-1980s, however, partly due to the poor box-office response to several of their film productions, Jhabvala moved with the duo to Manhattan, dividing her time between India and the US.
Merchant and Ivory lived in an apartment one floor beneath. They almost resembled an extended Indian family sharing spicy meals cooked by Merchant. The trio produced a series of intelligent, respectful adaptations of period novels, especially those of E.M. Forster and Henry James. In 1984 came ‘A Room with a View’ which brought Jhabvala an Oscar. She won her second Oscar for another Forster adaptation ‘Howards End’ in 1992.
The fourteen stories that appear in ‘East into Upper East’ had been written over a span of two decades. Five of them had appeared earlier in ‘The New Yorker’. It was curious that during the twenty odd years of her life in India, she couldn’t strike a chord with her Indian critics. Though her prose was not consistently taut, shafts of dry humour arose sporadically sustaining the equilibrium. Jhabvala at some points appeared to be finding it impalpable to come to terms with the radical makeover that had come of the heartland of her marriage. The one thing you could never do with New Delhi was to take it for granted. It’s distinguished past had given way to an arguably coarse present, which was perhaps why her New Delhi stories set the pace for those tales of messy little lives in New York. The trespassing of her characters into one another’s lives bore witness to domestic tapestries threaded with emotional lineage. There were, at the same time, westernized Easterners as well as easternized Westerners perched in her canvas. They wove universal predicaments of human experience in muffled urban understatements.
John Updike said that Jhabvala’s novels have “moments and epiphanies, but all somehow displayed behind glass, like beautiful objects that can no longer be handled.” However, the editor of her stories for The New Yorker, Roger Angell disagreed, “one of the marvelous things about Ruth’s Indian stories and novels is that they seem to have the pace of Indian life.”
In May 2005 death appeared like an act in the theatre of the absurd in her life and took away Merchant. Since then she had lead a solitary life in New York city. “Once a refugee, always a refugee. I can’t ever remember not being all right wherever I was, but you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in. Everyone is so estranged, no one is rooted.” Perhaps her husband realized this and soon after his retirement joined her in New York. Ruth continued to write; East into Upper East (1998) and My Nine Lives (2004) were her final books. Yet when it came to the last years of her life home mattered because everything to do with home was about breeding and feeding, especially in Ruth’s case 86 years of it.