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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Like the lady who married Vikram Seth’s great uncle, Ruth Prawer was a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. However the Indian she married, a Parsi architect, returned to India, so that it was as an Indian that she established herself as a writer. Indeed The Householder, her best known novel before she won the Booker Prize, had an emphatically Indian subject, a young man who takes time to fall in life with the wife to whom he had been married by arrangement.

Much of her work however was British in subject matter, if not in outlook. Esmond in India for instance is about a Englishman working in India after independence, who nevertheless behaves as though he could get away with anything. He is married to an Indian, but has an English mistress, and also takes advantage of various Indian women to whom his race marks him out as something special. Jhabvala’s exposure of a certain type of Englishman abroad, after Empire but with a sense of privilege, parallels Paul Scott’s account of the same phenomenon in a brilliant vignette in The Jewel in the Crown.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2011
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