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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Biography

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Ruth Prawer in Cologne, Germany, of Polish parents, 1927; sister of the writer S.S. Prawer; moved to England as a refugee, 1939; became British citizen, 1948; now U.S. citizen. Education: Hendon County School, London; Queen Mary College, University of London, 1945-51, M.A. in English literature 1951. Awards: Booker prize, 1975; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1978; MacArthur fellowship, 1984; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award for screenplay (Oscar), 1987, 1992. LHD., London University, 1995; D. Arts, London University, 1996. Agent: Harriet Wasserman, 137 East 36th Street, New York, New York 10016.



To Whom She Will. London, Allen and Unwin, 1955; as Amrita, New York, Norton, 1956.

The Nature of Passion. London, Allen and Unwin, 1956; New York, Norton, 1957.

Esmond in India. London, Allen and Unwin, and New York, Norton, 1958.

The Householder. London, Murray, and New York, Norton, 1960.

Get Ready for Battle. London, Murray, 1962; New York, Norton, 1963.

A Backward Place. London, Murray, and New York, Norton, 1965.

A New Dominion. London, Murray, 1972; as Travelers, New York, Harper, 1973.

Heat and Dust. London, Murray, 1975; New York, Harper, 1976.

In Search of Love and Beauty. London, Murray, and New York, Morrow, 1983.

Three Continents. London, Murray, and New York, Morrow, 1987.

Poet and Dancer. London, Murray, and New York, Doubleday, 1993.

Shards of Memory. New York, Doubleday, 1995.

Short Stories

Like Birds, Like Fishes and Other Stories. London, Murray, 1963; New York, Norton, 1964.

A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories. London, Murray, 1968; New York, Norton, 1969.

An Experience of India. London, Murray, 1971; New York, Norton, 1972.

Penguin Modern Stories 11, with others. London, Penguin, 1972.

How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories. London, Murray, and New York, Harper, 1976.

Out of India: Selected Stories. New York, Morrow, 1986; London, Murray, 1987.

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 1998.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Parasites," in New Yorker, 13 March 1978.

"A Summer by the Sea," in New Yorker, 7 August 1978.

"Commensurate Happiness," in Encounter (London), January 1980.

"Grandmother," in New Yorker, 17 November 1980.

"Expiation," in New Yorker, 11 October 1982.

"Farid and Farida," in New Yorker, 15 October 1984.

"The Aliens," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Summer 1986.


A Call from the East (produced New York, 1981).


The Householder, 1963; Shakespeare Wallah, with James Ivory, 1965; The Guru, 1968; Bombay Talkie, 1970; Autobiography of a Princess, 1975; Roseland, 1976; Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures, 1978; The Europeans, 1979; Jane Austen in Manhattan, 1980; Quartet, 1981; Heat and Dust, 1983; The Bostonians, 1984; A Room with a View, 1986; Madame Sousatzka, with John Schlesinger, 1988; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990; Howard's End, 1992; The Remains of the Day, 1993; Jefferson in Paris, 1995.; Surviving Picasso. Warner Brothers, 1996.; A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, 1998.; The Golden Bowl, 2000.

Television Plays:

The Place of Peace, 1975.


Meet Yourself at the Doctor (published anonymously). London, Naldrett Press, 1949.

Shakespeare Wallah: A Film, with James Ivory, with Savages, by James Ivory. London, Plexus, and New York, Grove Press, 1973.

Autobiography of a Princess, Also Being the Adventures of an American Film Director in the Land of the Maharajas, with James Ivory and John Swope. London, Murray, and New York, Harper, 1975.


Film Adaptations:

The Householder, 1963; Heat and Dust, 1983.

Critical Studies:

The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by H.M. Williams, Calcutta, Writer's Workshop, 1973; "A Jewish Passage to India" by Renee Winegarten, in Midstream (New York), March 1974; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Vasant A. Shahane, New Delhi, Arnold-Heinemann, 1976; Silence, Exile and Cunning: The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Yasmine Gooneratne, New Delhi, Orient Longman, and London, Sangam, 1983; Cross-Cultural Interaction in Indian English Fiction: An Analysis of the Novels of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya by Ramesh Chadha, New Delhi, National Book Organisation, 1988; The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Laurie Sucher, London, Macmillan, 1989; The Novels of Kamala Markandaya and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Rekha Jha, New Delhi, Prestige, 1990; Passages to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala edited by Ralph J. Crane, New Delhi, Sterling, 1991, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Crane, New York, Twayne, 1992; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in India: The Jewish Connection by Ronald Shepherd, Delhi, Chanakya Publications, 1994; The Challenge of Cross-Cultural Interpretation in the Anglo-Indian Novel: The Raj Revisted, a Comparative Study of Three Booker Prize Authors: Paul Scott, the Raj Quartet, J.G. Farrell, the Siege of Krishnapur, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust by Gerwin Strobl, Lewiston, New York, E. Mellen Press, 1995; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Study in Empathy and Exile by Aruna Chakravarti, Delhi, B.R. Publishing, 1998.

(1972) The central fact of all my work, as I see it, is that I am a European living permanently in India. I have lived here for most of my adult life and have an Indian family. This makes me not quite an insider but it does not leave me entirely an outsider either. I feel my position to be at a point in space where I have quite a good view of both sides but am myself left stranded in the middle. My work is an attempt to charter this unchartered territory for myself. Sometimes I write about Europeans in India, sometimes about Indians in India, sometimes about both, but always attempting to present India to myself in the hope of giving myself some kind of foothold. My books may appear objective but really I think they are the opposite: for I describe the Indian scene not for its own sake but for mine. This excludes me from all interest in all those Indian problems one is supposed to be interested in (the extent of Westernisation, modernity vs. tradition, etc! etc!). My work can never claim to be a balanced or authoritative view of India but is only one individual European's attempt to compound the puzzling process of living in it.

(1981) In 1975 I left India, and am now living in and writing about America—but not for long enough to be able to make any kind of comment about either of these activities.

(1986) I have now lived in the U.S. for ten years and have written one novel, several stories, and several film scripts about the experience. I cannot claim that India has disappeared out of—synonymously—myself and my work; even when not overtly figuring there, its influence is always present. But influence is too weak a word—it is more like a restructuring process: of one's ways of thinking and being. So I would say that, while I never became Indian, I didn't stay totally European either.

* * *

In a writing career that now spans five decades, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has successfully combined the writing of novels, short stories, and screenplays. She is perhaps still best known as a novelist of India, even as a novelist who interprets India for the Western reader; yet for almost twenty years now her novels have focused less on India than on America and England, revealing the author's desire to combine her own triple European, Indian, and American background in her fiction.

Jhabvala's life of exile and expatriation has placed her in an unusual position among novelists who write about India, and has enabled her to write about that country from the ambiguous position of an outsider who is also an intimate insider. All of Jhabvala's fiction up to Heat and Dust (with the exception of two short stories) is set in India. For the most part Jhabvala has avoided the harsher problems of post-Independence India (the communal violence, the political unrest, etc.) in these novels, and, except in Heat and Dust, she has also avoided the subject of the British Raj. In her early work Jhabvala focuses on the domestic and social problems of predominantly middle-class urban Indians living in Delhi in the years following Independence. Her first two novels, To Whom She Will and The Nature of Passion, both deft comedies of manners in an Austenish vein, treat the subjects of arranged marriage and romantic love and explore the conflicts that arise as the modern, Western views of characters like Amrita (in To Whom She Will) or Viddi and Nimmi (in The Nature of Passion) clash with the traditional values of their families. Both novels express the author's obvious delight in all she found in the West. But she was never blind to the overwhelming social problems facing India. In Get Ready for Battle, those problems are confronted as far as the limits of her domestic drama will allow; this is Jhabvala's darkest portrait of modern India, and the last of her novels to deal primarily with Indian characters.

In her next three novels, A Backward Place, A New Dominion, and Heat and Dust, Jhabvala moves away from the presentation of India to a portrayal of the Westerner in India, a subject she had previously broached in Esmond in India, and an interest in the effect of India on her Western characters. She explores the problems faced by expatriate Westerners (mostly women) and the world of often-fraudulent gurus encountered by the young Western seekers who flocked to India in the 1960s and 1970s. This shift in emphasis is also reflected in her short stories—all nine stories in A Stronger Climate are concerned with Westerners in India—and in her screenplays—in such films as Shakespeare Wallah, The Guru, and Autobiography of a Princess.

In A Backward Place Jhabvala considers whether or not it is possible for some Europeans to live in India and survive, and through the character of Judy she shows that it is possible if one is willing to adopt Indian values, to accept India on its own terms. In A New Dominion and Heat and Dust Jhabvala again shows that Westerners can remain in India and survive, as Miss Charlotte does, and as both Olivia and the unnamed narrator of Heat and Dust do, but the question of whether this is desirable remains largely unanswered in her fiction. For the first time, these two novels move out of Delhi and beyond the confines of the largely domestic, interior settings of her earlier novels. The landscape, the heat and the dust, become increasingly important metaphors that show how unsuitable India is for most of the Westerners who populate Jhabvala's fiction. Quite different narrative techniques are employed, too—the straightforward realist narrative method of the earlier novels gives way to a more experimental form in which the reader is addressed directly, through monologues, letters, and journal entries, both by characters and the author herself. Jhabvala attributes these innovations to the influence of her writing for the cinema.

Heat and Dust contains two parallel stories, skillfully interwoven to contrast two time periods fifty years apart. The earlier of the two stories, Olivia's story, set in 1923, invites comparison with E. M Forster's A Passage to India. The later story, that of the unnamed narrator, which began in response to her reading of Olivia's letters, updates the 1923 story, and reveals Jhabvala's postmodernist interest in the effect of text on life.

Since moving to America, Jhabvala's interest has moved away from Indian subjects and settings. In In Search of Love and Beauty, which focuses on a group of German and Austrian refugees in New York, Jhabvala writes for the first time on a sustained level about the German-Jewish background she knew as a child. At the center of this novel and her subsequent novel, Three Continents, is a concern with the search for identity and heritage—and an attempt to explain and understand the sense of alienation and expatriation that has been her own experience as well as that of many of her Western characters. While these novels mark a new phase in Jhabvala's writing career, it is clear to the reader familiar with her oeuvre that the concerns of her Indian fiction have not been entirely left behind; both novels share much in common with her later Indian fiction. The guru figures, Leo of In Search of Love and Beauty and the Rawul of Three Continents, recall, among others, the unprincipled Swami of A New Dominion, while the seekers of these novels are variations on the young questing figures like Lee of A New Dominion and Katie of "How I Became a Holy Mother," for example. An interesting development is that for the first time in her fiction Jhabvala explores the backgrounds of the Western characters who populate her Indian fiction.

In her 1993 novel Poet and Dancer, India as a locale is altogether absent, and the presence of an Indian mother and son is too peripheral to the main narrative to bring the spirit of the place into the work. And so in some ways Poet and Dancer marks the greatest single shift in Jhabvala's career as a novelist. In other ways, though, there is still common ground between this work and her earlier fiction. At the heart of this novel is an exploration of the dichotomy between good and evil—played out through the destructive relationship between Angel and her cousin Lara, whose love Angel obsessively pursues—that is reminiscent of the destructive relationships between the many seekers and bogus gurus found in her earlier work.

Maintaining the shift away from India begun with In Search of Love and Beauty, India as a literal landscape exists only in the recollections of a few characters in 1995 novel, Shards of Memory, where the principal settings are again New York and London (specifically the limited geographical locations of Manhattan and Hampstead). Yet in other ways, India, like continental Europe, pervades the very core of this novel, and is literally in the blood of the Kopf family. Shards of Memory is intrinsically a family saga, concerned with four generations of the Kopf and Keller families and their involvement with "the Master"—the latest in a long line of such spiritual leaders to appear in Jhabvala's fiction. Here, though, the question of whether or not the Master is a charlatan is of less consequence than it is in earlier novels and stories. Instead, Jhabvala's focus is entirely on the bonds of family.

The oriental and occidental locations that characterize the two major phases of her novel writing career are effectively juxtaposed in her 1998 collection of short stories, East into Upper East, which carries the Kiplingesque subtitle, Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi. Six of the stories in this robust collection are set in New Delhi, a further seven in New York's Upper East Side. The final story, "Two Muses," the only exception to the two-town pattern promulgated in the title, deals with the German-Jewish community in North-West London between 1939 and 1951. Its only companion in Jhabvala's writing is "A Birthday in London," included in her first collection of short stories, Like Birds, Like Fishes, almost 40 years ago.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's reputation as a writer of fiction has been built around her Indian novels, particularly the Booker prize-winning Heat and Dust. Her later novels show that she can write equally well about America and Europe, and suggest that she is an international writer who deserves to be numbered amongst the best novelists writing in English today.

—Ralph J. Crane

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