Ruth Prawer was born in
, Germany, on May 7, 1927, the daughter of Marcus and Eleonora Prawer; her family’s heritage was German, Polish, and Jewish. She emigrated to England in 1939, became a British citizen in 1948, and obtained an M.A. in English from Queen Mary College, London, in 1951. That same year, she married C. H. S. Jhabvala, an Indian architect, and went to live in India. Jhabvala formed a profound, albeit conflicted, relationship with the country. With her Indian husband and Indian-born children, Renana, Ava, and Feroza, she has had a unique opportunity of seeing the subcontinent from the privileged position of an insider but through the eyes of an alien. Thus, rootedness in a culture and people, an issue with which she is intimate, provides a wellspring for her screenplays, novels, and stories.

The author has returned to India, to millions a place of ancient wisdom and spiritual equilibrium, time and again. Her exposure to the waves of young foreigners who descended upon India in the 1960’s only to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “mystics,” influenced such books as Three Continents. Indeed, the theme of religious charlatans permeates much of Jhabvala’s work. While she would spend three months of each year in New Delhi, Jhabvala settled in New York in 1975, living near her friends and film colleagues, the Merchant-Ivory duo. Her work on film scripts with the team, which began in the 1960’s, enriched her technique as a writer of fiction and widened her vision. One may well view this move to New York as initiating the second major influence on the author’s body of work, giving rise to her collection of short stories, East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998). Jhabvala would contribute regularly to The New Yorker.


Ruth Prawer Jhbavala’s distinctive qualities as a novelist grow from her sense of social comedy. She excels in portraying incongruities of human behavior, comic situations which are rich with familial, social, and cultural implications. Marital harmony or discord, the pursuit of wealth, family togetherness and feuds, the crisis of identity and homelessness—these are among the situations that she repeatedly explores in her fiction. She writes with sympathy, economy, and wit, with sharp irony and cool detachment.

Jhabvala’s fiction has emerged out of her own experience of India. “The central fact of all my work,” she once told an interviewer, “is that I am a European living permanently in India. I have lived here for most of my adult life … . This makes me not quite an outsider either.” Much later, however, in “Myself in India,” she revealed a change in her attitude toward India: “However, I must admit I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in India … my survival in India.”

This shift in attitude has clearly affected Jhabvala’s fiction. There is a distinct Indianness in the texture and spirit of her first five novels, which are sunny, bright, social comedies offering an affirmative view of India. The later novels, darkened by dissonance and despair, reveal a change in the novelist’s perspective.

In almost all of her novels, Jhabvala assumes the role of an omniscient narrator. She stands slightly aloof from her creations, an approach which has advantages as well as disadvantages. On the one hand, she does not convey the passionate inner life of her characters, many of whom are essentially stereotypes. Even her more fully developed characters are seen largely from the outside. On the other hand, she is a consummate observer. She has a fine eye for naturalistic detail, a gift for believable dialogue, but she is also an observer at a deeper level, registering the malaise that is characteristic of the modern world: the collapse of traditional values, the incongruous blending of diverse cultures: sometimes energizing, sometimes destructive, often bizarre. Thus, her fiction, while steeped in the particular reality of India, speaks to readers throughout the world.

Heat and Dust

Jhabvala’s most widely praised work, Heat and Dust, [presents a] complex plot which traces parallels between the experiences of two Englishwomen in India: the unnamed narrator and her grandfather Douglas’s first wife, Olivia. In the 1930’s, Olivia came to India as Douglas’s wife. Bored by her prosaic, middle-class existence, Olivia is drawn to a Muslim nawab with whom she enjoys many escapades. Invited to a picnic close to a Muslim shrine, Olivia finds the nawab irresistible. They lie by a spring in a green grove, and the nawab makes her pregnant. She then leaves Douglas, aborts her child, and finally moves to a house in the hills as the nawab’s mistress.

After a gap of two generations, the narrator, who has come to India to trace Olivia’s life story, passes through a similar cycle of experience. Fascinated by India, she gives herself to a lower-middle-class clerk, Inder Lal, at the same place near the shrine where Olivia lay with the nawab, and with the same result. The young narrator decides to rear the baby, though she gives up her lover; she also has a casual physical relationship with another Indian, Child, who combines sexuality with a spiritual quest.

Heat and Dust is unlike many of Jhabvala’s novels. It has a strong current of positive feeling beneath its surface negativism. Olivia, though she discards her baby, remains loyal to her heart’s desire for the nawab, and the narrator, while not accepting her lover, wishes to rear her baby as a symbol of their love. This note of affirmation heightens the quality of human response in Heat and Dust, which is also notable for its fully realized characterizations.

Other Literary Forms

Though Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is known mainly as a novelist, she is also an accomplished writer of short stories, film scripts, and essays. Among her collections of short stories are Like Birds, Like Fishes, and Other Stories (1963), A Stronger Climate: Nine Stories (1968), An Experience of India (1971), and How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories (1976); Out of India (1986) is a selection of stories from these volumes. Shakespeare Wallah (1965; with James Ivory), Heat and Dust (1983), and A Room with a View (1986; based on E. M. Forster’s novel) are her best-known film scripts.


Jhabvala has achieved remarkable distinction, both as a novelist and as a short-story writer, among writers on modern India. She has been compared to E. M. Forster, though the historical phases and settings of the India they portray are widely different. The award of the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975 made her internationally famous. Placing Jhabvala in a literary-cultural tradition is difficult: Her European parentage, British education, marriage to an Indian, and—after many years in her adopted country—change of residence from India to the United States perhaps reveal a lack of belonging, a recurring “refugee” consciousness. Consequently, she is not an Indian writing in English, nor a European writing on India, but perhaps a writer of the world of letters deeply conscious of being caught up in a bizarre world. She is sensitive, intense, ironic—a detached observer and recorder of the human world. Her almost clinical accuracy and her sense of the graphic, the comic, and the ironic make her one of the finest writers on the contemporary scene.

In 1984, Jhabvala won the British Award for Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best Screenplay for the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory adaptation of Heat and Dust, and in 1986 she won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for A Room with a View. In 1990, she was awarded Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle for Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, adapted from Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s novels. Jhabvala received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1992 for Forster’s Howards End and an Oscar nomination for her adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in 1993. In 1984, Jhabvala won a MacArthur Foundation Award, and in 1994 she received the Writers Guild of America’s Laurel Award.

From Vasant A. Shahane. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala." Magill’s Choice: Notable British Novelists. Salem Press, 2001. 2006. 5 Oct, 2008 <