The Teeming Imagination of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Is Her Window on a World She Avoids

updated 09/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The sounds of midsummer traffic in Manhattan drift through the open windows of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's modest room with a view. To the south her small flat faces looming facades of the fabled New York skyline; due east it affords her a glimpse of the nearby river, blue-gray and shimmering in the August heat.

In a city where nearly everyone else moves quickly, the reclusive Jhabvala, 60, stays very still. There are days when the prizewinning novelist, who has the pale, unflawed skin of an indoor creature, never ventures into the noisy streets. But her quietness does not reflect indolence. Jhabvala's room is the seat of a prolific creative life. Here she wrote much of Three Continents (William Morrow, $17.95), her powerful new novel. Here too she had put the finishing touches on the script for the movie A Room With a View, based on E.M. Forster's 1908 novel. Produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory, the film won three Oscars this year, including one for best screenplay adaptation. It was the Oscar that propelled Jhabvala into the limelight. For years known only to a small audience of ardent fans, she is now recognized as a major talent in the worlds of fiction and screenwriting.

Jhabvala's gifts as a scriptwriter have long been appreciated by Merchant and Ivory, who live in the apartment directly below hers. "Ruth is a gigantic person," says Merchant. "She is very meticulous, extremely perceptive and hasn't a single false note in any of her writing or characters. It is always just right on the spot." Since 1961 the three of them have collaborated on 13 films, among them critical successes like Shakespeare Wallah and The Europeans. But A Room With a View, which has grossed $45 million, is the team's first box-office hit.

Few novelists have bridged the worlds of fiction and screenplay writing as effortlessly as Jhabvala. "People think Ruth is unworldly," says Ivory, "that she is off on a cloud of her own. But she sees things very exactly. Most screenwriters are not fueled by any real creative gifts as writers. They are not proper storytellers. Unlike so many people who adapt classic novels, Ruth is not down on her knees before them, not daring to change anything."

Jhabvala's skills as a novelist won her England's prestigious Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975, and in 1984 she received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, which guaranteed her $55,000 a year for five years. Financially liberated, Jhabvala continued working on Three Continents, which she had started in 1983.

The effort of writing her most ambitious novel has left Jhabvala exhausted. "I feel drained for the first time in more than 30 years," she says. "I don't know if it is age or what, but it certainly wiped me out." Jhabvala's 10th novel is set, not surprisingly, on three continents—North America, Europe and Asia. In this icy tale of destruction, wealthy American twins Harriet and Michael Wishwell find themselves tragically enmeshed in the self-serving world of an ambitious Indian spiritual leader and his sinister adopted son, Crishi. The Wishwells remind Jhabvala of the young Americans she observed seeking higher consciousness during the 25 years she lived in India. "All those people came wanting to find something high and beautiful," says Ruth, "and ended up with jaundice or attached to some dreadful guru type."

Because of her married name and the fact that many of her novels are set in India, readers often assume Jhabvala is Indian. Something about her physical delicacy and the lilt of her lightly accented English adds to the impression. In fact, she was born in Cologne in 1927, though she shrinks from discussing her memories of those early years in Germany. "I think I have wiped them out," she says. "I never use them. That wasn't a conscious decision. Writers are supposed to draw on their childhood, but I never seem to draw on mine."

Ruth Prawer began writing stories when she was 6. She and her brother, Siegbert, attended segregated Jewish schools. "Going to school wasn't pleasant," she says finally. "Other children would scream after us and throw stones." In 1939 the Prawer family left for England. They stayed in Coventry for a few months, then lived in London during the Blitz. In 1948 Ruth's father, a lawyer, deeply depressed by the death of much of his family in concentration camps, committed suicide.

A few months after her father's death, Ruth met an Indian architect named Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala at a barge party on the Thames. "He stayed by my side for the entire party," Jhabvala says, "but I didn't understand anything he said. I couldn't understand his accent." Jhabvala returned to India for two years, and by the time he came back, Ruth had no trouble understanding his marriage proposal.

After their London wedding the newlyweds moved to New Delhi. By this time Ruth had graduated from London University's Queen Mary College with a master's degree in English literature. Her first impression of India was highly charged and romantic. "I thought it was wonderful," she says, "the most wonderful place I had ever been in my life. India was a sensation. It was remarkable to see all those parrots flying about, the brilliant foliage and the brilliant sky. It was a tremendous pageant. I never noticed the poverty. As we drove through the streets, I was hanging out the window. It was the world suddenly bursting into one's senses or the senses bursting into one's world. It was this tremendous sensual impact that other people have in their childhood. So India was my childhood and my best years and everything."

Jhabvala began writing soon after she arrived in India. Amrita, her first novel, was published in 1955. Jhabvala preferred, even then, to stay quietly at home, so she relied on her husband to bring back reports on their world. "He is tremendously observant and never misses a thing," says Jhabvala. "He gave me a lot of background and told me a lot of stories." Ruth also took in a great deal on her infrequent forays from home. "Sometimes I didn't go out of the house for days," she says, "and when I did it was like an explosion."

Sheltered and content, Jhabvala wrote steadily through the '50s and into the early '60s. But a trip back to England to visit her mother in 1959 left her uneasy, her feelings about living in India increasingly shadowed by a vague disquiet. Jhabvala's early novels had been about Indians in India. Now she began to write about Europeans in India. "It was a feeling of homesickness for no particular home," Jhabvala says. "India became more and more an alien place. It is not a place that you can be indifferent to. It absorbs you against your will. You can't live there and eat and be comfortable when you see how others have to live. It is all right if you are the kind of person who can do something about it, but to be a lotus eater in India..." Jhabvala's voice trails off.

In 1975 Jhabvala left for the West. At first she thought the move would be temporary, but it proved to be permanent. Today she spends nine months of the year in New York (her husband visits frequently) and three in India. The Jhabvalas have three daughters—Renana, 34, a labor organizer in India; Ava, 32, an architect in England, and Firoza, 30, a teacher in California.

Jhabvala's secluded existence is punctuated by regular visits to Merchant and Ivory's rambling house in the Hudson River valley. There, on a summer day, Ruth can be spotted, like an elusive character in an English novel, sitting under the spreading branches of an old maple tree. She reads, writes, looks out at a sluggish country pond and thinks, too, about the darker direction her fiction has taken. "The older books were quite light-hearted," says Jhabvala, after a brief silence. "But I think most of my novels do end on a deep note of pessimism. Shadows seem to be closing in. The final conclusion isn't that life is wonderful and everything is bright and cheery and in the garden."

Then Jhabvala, looking anything but gloomy, gets up and heads toward the house, one quick step ahead of a summer storm.

From Our Partners