20 December 2011

A lovesong for India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

A lovesong for Ruth
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is 84 years old and her new collection of short stories has the same calm, crystal-clear aesthetic as her previous work. It felt to my mind the way fresh, sunlit mountain air of mid-morning feels to my skin. The images it inspired were infused with the leisure, clarity, detail, and other values of the old Merchant Ivory films that she was once closely associated with. The sentences, stark and simple, frequently caused me to stop and spend a little extra time savouring them:
She ate in a very nice way, the English way, and she had taught him to do the same.
Brigitte still had male friends – she needed them to tell her what to read
After her retirement from the civil service, Mrs Lord had moved to a town famous for an ancient battle, about two hours from London.
All spoke in the same loud voices, guttural with good breeding and unchallenged opinions.
But Shoki leaped to his feet, in deference to an older man. He appeared flustered, not emotionally but socially, like a hostess with an extra guest.
The eleven stories in this book are divided under three sections; four stories in India; four in Mostly Arts and Entertainment; and three in The Last Decades. While the stories in the first section are indeed set in India, the others also have cameos of India and a few Indian characters. These are sharp caricatures and some have Indian names – Kris is Krishna instead of Christopher – or perhaps a remote Indian parent, but very little else that is recognizably Indian, quite appropriate in our global age. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was always a writer who understood India inside out and wrote with a global perspective, without bias, and without needing to revel in the exotic to make her stories attractive. And from these stories it's clear that she has kept pace with changing society: there are people here from different eras and cultures – both in India and out.
I found her characters unique and often a bit frightening, whether from the world of seedy Delhi landlords, Bollywood palaces or Hollywood starlets, scholars of oriental studies or fake ‘Oriental’ gurus, or New York clubmen living on trust funds. I found them unfamiliar
and this surprised me because in most books you can relate to at least some of the characters. As fictional characters they were satisfying in that they betrayed each other unexpectedly or otherwise suddenly showed new facets of behaviour. And they were real alright – they struggled for power in relationships, and felt stifled, and longed for privacy. Most of them suffered like anything.

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