Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Search Of Love And Beauty

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge

A LOVESONG FOR INDIA Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Comparisons have often been drawn between the work of Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A gentle melancholia pervades most of their tales, whether set in India or elsewhere, with characters being drawn into relationships and predicaments that, more often than not, leave them more alienated than before.  In their quests for rootedness, many such characters, one imagines, would echo the words Nehru so famously wrote in his autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West...out of place everywhere, at home nowhere”.

Desai’s latest collection of short stories, An Artist of Disappearance, was released earlier this year; now, as a handy counterpoint, we have Jhabvala’s own collection, A Lovesong For India. Translators, civil servants and others ill at ease with the ways of the world find a place in both volumes. To read both is to find that Desai is the better craftsperson, at the level of sentence and structure, while Jhabvala, less delicate but no less evocative, is more accomplished in creating the sweep of a life in just a few pages.

In A Lovesong For India, one finds the same preoccupations that have concerned Jhabvala from almost the start of her writing career. The search for redemption in the form of allegiance to spiritual figures; unequal relationships between disparate characters; and the faint Jamesian pulse of the seductive charms of an older civilization for those from newer cultures: all these can also be found in earlier stories such as the well-known ‘How I Became a Holy Mother’ or ‘Two More Under the Indian Sun’.

The stories here are largely divided between those set in India and those set elsewhere – primarily New York City’s Upper East Side – as was the case with Jhabvala’s earlier East Into Upper East. A last section comprises what could be said to be a combination of the two. Given the number of stories that feature variations on the theme of unequal alliances, the collection could well have been titled Odd Couples. An Oriental scholar from America comes to Delhi to be drawn into the muddled private life of a charismatic, ageing poetess. A lonely talent agent in New York takes under her wing a strange, waif-like aspiring singer. An influential film critic is drawn to a conniving actress. A fifty-something widow of a Hollywood studio head takes up with a young Indian writer-director in LA. An ageing Bollywood star starts to rely more and more upon his daughter-in-law. (Interestingly enough, though many of the characters are drawn from the worlds of film and entertainment, Jhabvala, as before, manages to keep her scriptwriting and fiction writing in separate compartments. The stories here are anything but cinematic in the telling, being more concerned with interiors than exteriors.)

Other stories bring to mind yet other aspects of Jhabvala’s work. There’s a whisper of Three Continents, for example, in the story of the secretary who moves to London to work with a charismatic director, only to find him becoming besotted by her brother. With the title story, though, there’s evidence of a newer, brasher India edging out the old in the contrast between the actions of an upright civil servant and his more business-minded son. Another trope, that of the differences between ‘real’ and ‘translated’ versions of India is touched upon in the tale where the American narrator translates the work of an author who was her former flatmate in New Delhi.

The story with which the collection ends is an odd, ethereal tale of an unlikely courtship between two wraith-like individuals, with much more being implied than said. The spectre of AIDS, the contrasting ties of blood and of marriage and the enervating effects of time are all encompassed in a somewhat eccentric mix. It’s deftly done, but undoubtedly strange in its wide ranging arc.

As with Desai’s stories, here, too, there are no pat endings. Rather, one is left with the plight of those who find themselves in scenarios not of their choosing, with a sense of life going on after the printed stories come to a close. It’s been said of Chekhov that, at the end of his stories, he returned his characters to life, and he himself once wrote that “obligatory for the artist is not solving a problem, but stating a problem correctly”. Bearing the burden of their problems, Jhabvala’s characters continue onwards – as one of her titles puts it – in search of love and beauty.

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