Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The East-West Encounter: A Dominant Theme in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Fiction

Mrs. Kalpana Jawaid


A Dominant Theme in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Fiction

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born of Polish parents in Germany and came to England with her family in 1939. She was educated in England and took her degree (M. A. English) at London University. She married an Indian architect and they had three daughters. She lived in Delhi for 15-20 years. At present she is staying in Manhattan in the U. S. A.

Jhabvala has written novels and 4 volumes of short stories. She was awarded the Booker Prize for her book “Heat and Dust” in 1975. Her novel, “The Householder” has been filmed and she collaborated with the director James Ivory in writing the script of the celebrated film “Shakespeare Wallah.” They have also worked together on the film scripts of “The Guru,” “Bombay Talie” and recently “The Europeans.”

It is really surprising how Jhabvala, who has devoted herself totally to the Indian scene, has received so little recognition from the press and the public in India. She is neither brutally frank like Nirad C. Chaudhari, nor traditional in her themes like Mulk Raj Anand or R. K. Narayan. She has chosen for her subject-matter, the most vitally modern aspect of contemporary Indian life–the East-West encounter. She very accurately portrays the people and the situations peculiar to this theme. One of the main reasons for this could be her foreign origin. As she has herself said in an interview she feels like an “outsider-insider”–meaning one who does not belong to India by birth but by living long enough here, is able to comprehend and depict Indian culture realistically.

Jhabvala will be counted as a modern writer of contemporary India; contemporary not in the sense of time but in the context of ideas. She has been writing for the past twenty-five years about Indians. But the problems that she has taken are the ones of modern India. It sounds almost impossible but we can find an explanation in the fact that social change is a very gradual process. The seeds of change are planted easily but it takes a considerable time for them to reach maturity. Each step towards maturity brings its share of trials and tribulations.

The seeds of change in present day India were planted with the withdrawal of the Britishers from India and the forming of an independent Constitution of India. But political freedom does not necessarily mean social freedom. Years of subjugation to the British had left their mark on the Indian mind. There was a tendency to blindly ape anything British. As to its validity, the past provided that. But as time passed, education spread, better social conditions were created and political awareness increased. The Indian recognised his right to stand as an individual. Technological advances and international communication facilities kept bringing the West into his life. Initially after independence (1947) there was a strong anti-British lobby. But the changing times mellowed it down. Since an anti-West lobby would have seen against progress and change, the anti-British lobby on its own petered out into personal prejudices and grudges.

India is a cosmopolitan country. We have the Aryans, as well as the Dravidians, the Mongol’s as well as the Parsians, all settled in varying numbers. Similarly we have the Britishers too. Those who stayed in India cannot be ignored, just as those who keep on coming cannot be. This social interaction with the British has, led to a conflict in behaviour of the typical Indian who flounders between feelings of alienation and affinity. Affinity for its traditions, for the land, its beauty, its complexities, its religion, its people, its humaneness and alienation from the harsh climate, the fillh, the corruption, the tenacity of beliefs – the Britisher sees in India.

East-West encounter

So when a Britisher (West) meets an Indian (East) it is a relationship based on wariness. A very delicate balance has to be maintained throughout. One is merely sensitive and aware of his shortcomings while the other is only too aware of this feelings, tries hard to ignore it and yet behave in a way which will slowly finish it. Jhabvala’s use of this problem as one of the main themes in her fiction is perfectly understandable, since she is herself a foreigner, settled in India.

It frequently happens that half-baked knowledge of one another leads to a hasty marriage. But just observing a society is quite different from being a part of it. Social norms, family demands, one’s own personal expectations, all lead to a lot of difficulties in a personal relationship like marriage. The young couple find that it is not a question of only understanding each other, but of living together in surroundings which are familiar to one and alien to the other.

So, the conflict is two-fold. One is personal, the other is social. Frequently the economic aspect also steps in. The political side is a very rich one for controversy but Jhabvala prefers to leave it to the politicians and touches upon it in passing.

The British ruled India and are very much here still as visitors, as residents, as interpreters of the Indian scene. The impact of the West can be felt in every aspect of Indian life – social, political, industrial. Big cities were naturally more exposed to this air of change and so Delhi is an apt choice for Jhabvala to portray these changes.

Eastern and Western attitudes in Indian behaviour

Not only in personal relationships but in social behaviour too, the British influenced the Indians. A lot of so-called modern ideas of mixing of the sexes, equality, a separate status for women, meat-eating and not performing religious rites, are imported. Side byside the conservative attitude of segregation of the sexes, women’s place in the house, abstaining from sex and meat and religion as a dominant factor of life continues. How can a reconciliation be brought about between the two? As long as the two exist, there is bound to be a conflict between the Eastern and the Western attitudes in an Indian’s behaviour. Jhabvala very delicately handles this explosive relationship in most of her works.

It would suffice to say that anybody who has a genuine affection and concern for the present cultural crisis which India is going through, will greatly enjoy reading Jhabvala’s works. Her vision is simple, straightforward, without any complexes like superiority and alienness stepping in. She is like an artist who utilises her canvas, revealing scenes and situations as and when seen. The inferences to be drawn from them are entirely upto the onlookers, to be coloured by their own subjective reactions and analyses. In this sense Jhabvala is definitely a true artist.

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