At the End of the Century by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — heat, and a handful of dust

Financial Times
By Nilanjana Roy

It was no surprise to read in an 1993 profile of the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala that she was a fan of Martin Scorsese’s films. Her short stories, more even than her novels and the screenplays she did for Merchant Ivory productions, conceal violence, betrayal and a tangle of human passions and follies beneath their stylised, polished surfaces.


At the End of the Century collects 17 of her stories in an overview that is a pleasure to read, even if you’re familiar with the work. Written between 1963 and 2013, they cover Delhi, New York and other places, shifting from the lives of gurus and their seekers in Indian ashrams to eastern European refugee pianists and prosperous émigrés in New York; from Art Deco buildings on the Upper East Side to large Lutyens-era bungalows in government New Delhi.


Some tales are from previous short story collections, and several were first published in The New Yorker. This is the first major selection of Jhabvala’s short stories to appear after her death, aged 85, in Manhattan in 2013. She had grown up in Germany, survived Kristallnacht and lived in India with her husband Cyrus Jhabvala from the 1950s onwards before moving back to New York in 1975.


In a 1979 lecture, Jhabvala was as unsparing with herself as she was with any of her characters. She was a writer “blown about from country to country, culture to culture”, “a cuckoo forever insinuating myself into others’ nests”. That dislocation gave her a special status, and in her strongest stories — “The Widow”, “Ménage”, “Desecration”, “Pagans” — she doesn’t eavesdrop on the lives of strangers as much as she slips, chameleon-fashion, into their skins.


Jhabvala had a gift for tackling the messiness of human lives, the chance decision that has savage repercussions. In one story, “Great Expectations”, a woman only dimly aware of her own terror of being alone falls into a parasitical relationship with a family of beautiful drifters, who allow her to support them at great cost to herself. In “Desecration”, a commonplace affair brings first degradation and then destruction into the life of a married woman called Sofia, who cannot stop herself from pulling her house down around her ears.


Some stories are still sharp — “The Widow”, for instance, which captures the plight of the Hindu goddess Durga, surrounded by flocks of greedy relatives and assorted hopefuls, and thwarted in her attempts to find either son or lover in the person of a young man whose mother is her tenant. Others can feel like pressed flowers — no longer relevant, the original perfume lost, trailing a flavour of dust.


Many stories, especially those set in Delhi or small-town India, feel dated, peopled with stock characters — earnest women in search of swamijis or “an Indian experience”, seeking spiritual epiphany or the “sensuality in the East” or both; Englishwomen who stayed on too long in India, growing to resent the smells, the dust, the spicy, greasy food. Her charismatic gurus morph in the later New York and European stories into demanding men of artistic temperament who can’t keep house for themselves. Her women characters often blur into one another — they make disastrous financial and moral decisions, plunge headfirst into new countries, new experiences, new loves, flailing in the quicksand of their own decisions.


Jhabvala wrote many of her short stories in the years when she was writing screenplays for Merchant Ivory films — Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust, Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day among them. Her ability to capture location, setting and dialogue, her attention to detail — but also, the ironic distance she preferred to maintain — were common to both her screenplays and her short stories.


And At the End of the Century certainly has its share of glittering pleasures. In a warm and generous introduction, writer Anita Desai writes: “Could our drab, dusty, everyday lives yield material that surely belonged only to the genius of a Chekhov, a Jane Austen, a Woolf or a Brontë?” Yet it was in “this ordinary, commonplace world” that Jhabvala found her best material.


Three of her collections were originally published with “India” echoing insistently in the titles — Out of India, An Experience of India, and A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West. She wrote in “Myself in India”, an introduction to Out of India, about the stages of enthusiasm that Europeans in India, including herself, went through: “It goes like this — first stage, tremendous enthusiasm — everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable.” And she drew a vision of how she survived, writing: “I shut all my windows. I let down the blinds, turn on the air-conditioner.”


This was Jhabvala’s strength and weakness, and it shows in these selected stories. She survived by preserving her isolation, turning her back to what she found most astounding, most compelling, in order to write.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala