A Lovesong for India Tales From East and West By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Counterpoint. 224 pp. $26.
Reviewed by Madhusree Mukerjee
If these 11 exquisitely crafted stories are indeed love songs, they sing not so much of India as of the vulnerability of the human heart. Now in her 80s, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala sketches, with a few deft strokes, the longings and losses of people she encountered or perhaps imagined during her sojourns in India, England, and now America.
Here one meets the obese poetess Anuradha, who effortlessly casts a creative and erotic spell over her prim Prussian translator. One encounters the frail Lily with her white-blond hair and diaphanous shifts, who traipses along Manhattan’s streets as if she were on an English meadow. The characters can be strange, their actions close to inexplicable — but somehow they convince and move.
Born Jewish in prewar Germany, Ruth Prawer emigrated with her parents to England in 1939. Nine years later, her father committed suicide on learning of the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust. Growing up with the deprivations of postwar Britain, she met and married an Indian architect, Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, and moved with him to Delhi — and the opulence of colors and scents thrilled her.
India would be the birthplace of the author’s three daughters and the setting for her first stories. Jhabvala’s novel Heat and Dust, which describes an Englishwoman tracing and reliving in India the scandalous affair of her ancestress, won a Booker Prize in 1975. The author meanwhile struck up a productive partnership with the (now late) producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory. Her screenplays for ARoom With a View and Howards End would win Oscars. She now lives in Manhattan and describes herself as discomfited by Indian poverty.
In A Lovesong for India, Jhabvala looks back on a life lived long and fully among creative people on three continents. Several of the characters are old women who tenderly remember loved ones they lost to time and fate. Others are writers, actors, poets, singers, or critics, whereas the ethereal Lily simply has an artistic temperament. Jhabvala’s humor is gentle, her pen marking tender spots without pressing too hard. But her caricatures, as of the overpowering Anuradha or the godlike movie idol Abhinav — who claims his delectable daughter-in-law as his consort — would be vicious if they weren’t so true.
Often the interactions are subtle: In the first story, “Innocence,” for instance, the allure of flighty Kay, with her luxurious mane of hair, inadvertently exposes the attraction that her married landlady feels for another lodger, the nondescript but kind Dinesh.
Still, when East meets West, it is the Indians who dominate. Anuradha turns her translator, Maria, into her willing slave:
The poetess, a huge mound rising, pressed against her with her fat hot flesh, suffusing her with the by now so familiar, so beloved smell of rose-scented oil, garlic and perspiration.
The fake guru Dr. Chacko steals his benefactor’s silverware, but he still leaves her feeling enriched by their encounter; the impoverished screenwriter Shoki enchants a Hollywood heiress and her sister with his regal manner and earnestness; and the mixed-race Kris (for Krishna) exerts an inexorable force over movie producer Nathan by virtue of his sheer beauty.
These imbalances in power appear to reflect Jhabvala’s own early infatuation with India; indeed, now that the love has withered, there may even be a faint hint of hostility. The only inapt note in the book is its title.
Whites also exert power, but here the equations are more complex. The seemingly fragile Ellie entrances her agent Magda with her magical voice, but Ellie herself is captive to the coldhearted pianist Robert, into whose life she insinuates herself. This story is set in Manhattan, the only city that can match Delhi’s abundance of sensation. The childlike Lily walks its pavements day and night:
It was what she liked best in the world — street smells, petrol fumes, leaking gas pipes, newly poured tar, pretzels, mangoes from Mexico, Chinese noodles, overblown flowers — the exhalations of the city, the densely populated streets that she traversed from one end to the other, walking lightly on sandals so flimsy her feet might have been bare and treading on grass.
Tragically, Lily is as breakable as she looks.
Occasionally one encounters the English or American countryside, which is also full of life:
Everything around her was stirring and murmuring, shot through with the trickling of the little brook that was choked in some places and in others so clear that stones could be seen shining inside it.
London, by contrast, is drab, as in the story about a British spy, Paul, who is cast in the mold of a Victorian adventurer in exotic lands. Paul’s habitual secretiveness is accepted unquestioningly by his austere but ardent American wife, his giggly Indian mistress, and his patient mother — who learn of the existence of one another only when Paul is murdered.
Ultimately, however, Jhabvala’s subject is the human heart. Her stories speak to the essential impossibility of ever really knowing, let alone owning, another human being, especially someone you dearly love.
Madhusree Mukerjee is the author, most recently, of “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II.”