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FICTION : OUT OF INDIA: SELECTED STORIES by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Morrow; $16.95).

August 03, 1986|Merle Rubin

The daughter of Polish Jews, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany in 1927, went to England as a refugee in 1939, and later married an Indian architect. They lived in Delhi from 1951 to 1975, and subsequently divided their time between Delhi and New York. Against this background, which strikes the casual observer as a litany of dislocation, the distinctive identity of one of today's leading novelists and storytellers has taken unforgettable shape.

The 15 stories in "Out of India," culled from Jhabvala's four previous collections, feature a rich array of characters, Indian and European, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor, male and female. Many of the stories are told from particular viewpoints, in memorably individualized voices. Irony is the keynote, as we listen and watch in fascination how, through passion, vanity, indolence, ignorance, or a lethally limited amount of knowledge, so many are undone by their own volition.

As gripping as any of the stories, yet even more relentless in its candor, is the author's introduction, "Myself in India," which first appeared in London Magazine. Speaking for herself, in her own voice, Jhabvala baldly declares: "I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year. . . . I must admit I am no longer interested in India. . . . If I hadn't married an Indian, I don't think I would ever have come here, for I am not attracted--or used not to be attracted--to the things that usually bring people to India."

Making no attempt at softening what she perceives, she describes the poverty, the squalor, the disturbing mixture of savagery and sanctity, and the unendurable oppressiveness of the summer heat. How, then, does an "irritable" European with "weak" nerves, sitting in her air-conditioned room with blinds drawn, survive amid conditions she deplores? How does someone "not interested in India" draw upon these alien, yet familiarized surroundings as material for her fiction? By recording her impressions in the clear light of her prose. Alienation is a secret wellspring of art.

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