Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, prolific German-born writer of Jewish descent who lived on three continents, including two decades in India, died at 85 yesterday at her home in New York. A critically acclaimed writer, Jhabvala was compared to Jane Austen by critics for her satirically astute voice.
Jhabvala’s stories took place in locales as far flung as the American Midwest and India and examined with precision the themes of dislocation and the sense of being rootless. She was most famous for her cinematic collaborations with American director James Ivory and Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant – a partnership that yielded six Academy Awards. She remained steadfast in her conviction that her own fiction – including novels and short-stories chronicling her life on three continents – was what mattered most to her.
A master storyteller, Jhabvala is the only person who has won both the Oscar (for her screenplay adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View, 1985 and Howards End, 1992) as well as the Booker Prize (for her novel Heat and Dust, 1975). In total, Jhabvala wrote 23 screenplays in collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, which also included adaptations of Henry James’s The Bostonians (1984) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
To maintain this output, Jhabvala wrote three hours every morning without fail, and was publishing work until weeks before her death. The Judge’s Will, her final piece published in the New Yorker, was released just last month. Her last book of short stories titled A Lovesong for India was published in 2012
Speaking of their eclectic creative partnership, Merchant, who died in 2005 in London, said: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!”
But none of this was a stretch for Jhabvala, who was born in Germany, moved to England, married an Indian architect and then later moved to New York. For her, writing was an intrinsic part of who she was. "One is just born that way,” she told The Guardian. When she penned her first composition in 1933 at the age of six she said she felt “flooded with my destiny.”
Born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, the daughter of Jewish lawyer Marcus Prawer from Poland and Eleanora Cohn, Ruth’s family fled Germany when she was 12 in 1939. Her entire extended family remaining in Germany died in the Holocaust.
Majoring in English literature at Queen Mary College, University of London, she then married Parsee architect Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi. It was through total immersion in India that she found her voice as a writer.
Merchant and Ivory initially approached Jhabvala after reading her novel The Householder, which tells the story of a young Indian husband. After converting the book to film in a black and white Indian film, it was shown in American theaters in 1963.
Other India-centric screenplays she collaborated on as a member of the creative trio included Shakespeare Wallah (1965) about a British family of actors in post-Raj India, Bombay Talkie (1970), set in the Bombay film industry, and The Guru (1969), about a British rock star who goes to India to learn the sitar.
In the 1970s, she migrated yet again to New York and spent the remainder of life roving between the United States and India. Ultimately, she became a dual British-American citizen and her husband joined her in New York.
Jhabvala is survived by her husband as well as three daughters, who between them married an Indian, an Englishman and an American and are living (with a total of six grandchildren) in the three countries that Ruth lived in but that never managed to make her feel entirely at home.
“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” she told The Guardian in 2005. “I can't ever remember not being all right wherever I was, but you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in.”