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51 Years of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , ,

I admit it: I always thought Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in India (she wasn’t; she was born in Germany to Jewish parents). Nor did I realize she was the primary scriptwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions. And while we’re at it, I may as well ‘fess up and say that I never read anything she wrote before “The Teacher” appeared in the July 28, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.

To atone (at least a little), after reading “The Teacher,” I went back and read “The Interview,” Jhabvala’s first-ever story in TNY, which appeared almost exactly 51 years ago, in the July 27, 1957 issue. (Telling for the time, though, she signed it, “R. Prawer Jhabvala.”) And what interesting bookends these two stories make!

The narrator of “The Interview” is chronically unemployed and looking to stay that way. He is the sweet, good-looking, younger brother of his family, which is based in Bombay, I think. His older brother supports the family with a government job; his brother’s beautiful wife now runs the household; his mother is in her dotage; and his own wife, whose stupidity and ugliness he laments, wishes he’d get a job so that the two of them and their child will be able to move out on their own.

But the narrator has no desire to leave the rest of the family. Nor does he want to get a job: he’s had at least one before, which did not end well; he’s terribly afraid he will make mistakes and be yelled at. Far better, he reasons, to sit and think and let his family coddle him, because he is, he insists to the reader, a sensitive man.

The story’s poignance and the narrator’s weakness of character are perfectly encapsulated as the story comes to a close. The narrator, despite his position as a favorite in the family, is profoundly dissatisfied—and so, he notes, is everyone around him. First he describes his wife’s unhappiness, and then he goes on to describe that of the others:

… my brother, who has a job, but is frightened that he will lose it—and my mother, who is so old that she can only sit on the floor and stroke her pieces of cloth—and my sister-in-law, who is warm and strong and does not care for her husband. Yet life could be so different. When I go to the cinema and hear the beautiful songs they sing, I know how different it could be, and also sometimes when I sit alone and think my thoughts, I have a feeling that everything could be truly beautiful.

Reading that, it’s hard not to feel that the narrator’s anguished passivity is central to the unhappiness of the other members of his family … and he knows it.

Fifty-one years later, in “The Teacher,” Jhabvala writes about Dr. Chacko, who, though hardly anguished, could be an older, stronger, happier version of the narrator of “The Interview”. Like him, Chacko is charismatic—people dote on him, and give him lodging, food, and employment, so that he never lacks—and he, too, is passive. He simply accepts what people give him until they stop giving.

When we meet him, he is teaching an informal workshop in New York on a regular basis. In the course of the story, a disillusioned adherent breaks with him publicly, and the workshops come to an end. Later, the narrator asks him about it.
He said, “People move on. I move on, too.” As he did so often, he answered my question before I had asked it. “There’s always somewhere. One gets used to it.”

I said, “But wouldn’t you rather stay?”

“If there are people who wish me to stay.”

Evidently, he didn’t intend to continue this conversation, and I also realized that there was no need. It was cool outside now, in the night air. Glowworms glittered below, stars above. Instead of talking, he began to hum one of his songs. Was this his teaching? To say nothing? To want and need nothing?
So we see that Chacko’s passivity is different from that of the narrator of “The Interview,” because it has a spiritual dimension—or that’s how others perceive it, at any rate. It’s this perception that makes people want to give him food, lodging, and adulation. The irony is that it’s never clear what he teaches and writes about, though it has to do with “life and death” (which is obviously supposed to be Significant). In fact, it’s not even clear whether Chacko himself understands what he’s trying to teach.

But Chacko’s passivity is not the only point of similarity between “The Interview” and “The Teacher.” Both stories are characterized by pellucid sentences that I imagine are Jhabvala’s trademark; both are written in the first person; and the narrators (both unnamed) each persist in emotional stasis, victimized, sort of, by divorce and marriage respectively.

When we meet her, the female narrator of “The Teacher” has been divorced for 10 years and now lives in a large house outside of New York City. A pair of do-gooder acquaintances convince her to host Dr. Chacko in a cottage located on the grounds surrounding her home for what turns out to be a couple of years. She develops a mild, slow-growing, attraction to him that borders on the non-existent before finally, too late, it fluoresces into visibility. Just then, he betrays her in a minor way that might or might not be educational, but the do-gooders bring lots of orphans and “fugitives from bad homes” to fill the cottage rather improbably with the joys of childhood, and her life continues on, happily enough, though tinged with rue.

Oddly enough (though anyone reading TNY fiction on a regular basis this year, as I have, could have predicted it), she is detached and passive, like Chacko and “The Interview’s” narrator. When the do-gooders suggest she allow a stranger (Chacko) to move into the cottage, she goes along. When they ask her to give her the names of well-off acquaintances from which to request money, she complies. When they ask her to pay for the publication of Chacko’s turgid, and otherwise unpublishable tome, she writes a check.

She’s made powerless by … what? Her loneliness? It’s not entirely clear. But if so, then in her unhappiness, she is much more reminiscent of “The Interview’s” narrator than Chacko is. While she’s not the source of anyone’s unhappiness (if you don’t count one of the do-gooders, who’s a bit unbalanced anyway), she’s just as trapped by her passivity.

So: we have two stories set on two different continents and published 51 years apart that revolve around the same character, the same predicament. What surprising consistency!

I’d have to read more of Jhabvala’s work to see whether these bookends give a distorted view of her work. Probably they do; I hope they do. Still, I can’t help but wonder: should I be impressed by the high quality of Jhabvala’s work in 1957, or weep for her apparent lack of progression?

Perhaps an Emdashes reader knows …

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