In this expansive story collection, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, author of Heat and Dust and the screenplays for The Remains of the Day and A Room with a View, continues her lifelong meditation on East and West. Set in India, England, and New York City, A Lovesong for India reveals what unites us across oceans, cultures, and lifetimes.
In “Innocence,” an older couple, whose social standing is marred by a decades-old scandal, rent out rooms in their Delhi home for both companionship and income. The couple becomes deeply invested in the lives of their two tenants, but with the addition of a third renter—a beautiful and provocative woman from India—tensions in the household push the story to its feverish conclusion.
“Talent” finds Jhabvala in New York City reflecting on the friction between family and societal expectations. Magda is a talent scout whose work is her entire life until she meets Ellie, a singer whose immense ability and unguarded personality captivate Magda. Soon Ellie is integrated into Magda’s extended family—for better or worse.
This remarkable collection is the hallmark of Jhabvala’s celebrated career and a testament to her “balance, subtlety, wry humor, and beauty” (The New York Times).
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About the Author
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Dinesh never became a famous writer, but he did become a writer and published several novels. I translated one of these from the original Hindi into English and tried to get it published here, but I was told that the background was too unfamiliar to be of interest to an American audience. Of course it was very familiar to me, who had actually lived in New Delhi and was not only a witness to the principal events but a part of them.
I was also a character in the novel, where I was called Elisabeth (not my name). Dinesh himself became D, and he was the narrator. The fictional Elisabeth and the real me had both come to India to absorb the wisdom of a woman saint who lived in a tenement building near the Old Delhi railway station. The building was very old and so crammed with tenants and subtenants that it appeared to be leaning sideways. It was also very noisy, but the two rooms our teacher occupied had a peaceful atmosphere. Her disciples sat crosslegged in a circle around her while she spoke of the Absolute, both in its aspect of the inconceivably immense, and also the tiny Person no bigger than a thumb within the human heart. The real Dinesh and the fictional D had the same attitude towards our absorption in this heady stuff. He said we lived in an India made up in the nineteenth century by German professors, and that in keeping our eyes fixed on mystical and mythical abstractions, we failed to look down at the earth and the people crowding it. It was only, he said, when something unpleasant happened to us, like a sickness, jaundice or whatever, or some fat shopkeeper cheated us, or some youth groped us on a bus, or a thief made off with our credit cards — it was only then that we recognised we were living in a real place, in a city like any other; and at once our noble, our spiritual India became degraded into a country of thievery and lechery. By the time he got to this point, the real Dinesh, like the fictional D, had become very worked up; but unlike D, he recovered himself immediately and said, 'Not you, of course, this is not personal,' and he flashed me one of his smiles in which both his teeth and his glasses participated.
Dinesh and I were fellow lodgers in the house of Mr and Mrs Malhotra, a middle-aged childless couple who looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife. Both were small, delicate, and with an ivory complexion much fairer than Dinesh's slightly pockmarked skin. They had one servant, Gochi, a very old and tattered woman sweeper who called her employers Sahibji and Bibiji — a respectful address that I too adopted. At first Dinesh and I were the only lodgers, though there was another room, which had not yet been rented. The advantage of the house was that it was centrally situated, but it was almost the only small domestic residence left here and was surrounded on all sides by huge commercial buildings. It was a tiny house badly in need of whitewashing and with many cracks that expanded during the monsoon; there was a central little courtyard with a series of little rooms opening out from it. In front, there was also a patch of garden in which a tree stood, with a single living branch and a few sickly leaves hanging from it.
I was glad to be living in an Indian household, for I had not received many invitations to local homes. At that time there were many Westerners like me in love with India, and people tended to laugh at us — maybe because those of us who wore saris sometimes tripped over them, and although we were rapt while listening to Indian music, we couldn't tell one raga from another. Also, some of the foreign girls got involved with respectable Indian boys, whose families then had hurriedly to find brides for them or send them away for higher studies.
There was nothing like that between me and Dinesh, though we became good friends. He was from Kanpur, the son of a poor widow; he had won a scholarship to Delhi University, and, after graduating, had got a job with All India Radio. He wanted to be a writer; so did some of his friends, while others were painters or art critics, all of them with very little money left after sending most of their salaries home to their families. Many of these friends were gloomy and bitter, but Dinesh seemed always to be in a good mood, though I noticed that this became exaggerated in times of stress. He had a very bony face, and his pitch-black oily hair was straight and lank; his teeth were too many and too large for his mouth, but he looked charming when he flashed them in one of his frequent smiles.
He and I walked around the public parks and gardens, taking shelter from the hot sun in a mausoleum or other pavilion to carry on our discussions. These were mostly about his writing. He had some strong ideas, principally that he could write in no other language but his own; for though his English was fluent, he said his thoughts could only be expressed by the tongue his mother had given him. But he laughed at my idea that it was really impossible for anyone not Indian to understand India. 'Oh I see,' he said with the amused irony that was his favourite mode of debate. 'So it is your opinion that we are not like other humans but completely different, completely monstrous and bizarre? . . . And by the way, what about you? What about this?' he said, though with a smile, indicating my sari. 'Why are you wearing it? Why are you loving our music, not to mention our food, our parathas and tandoori rotis and so on? And also, may I ask, why are you here at all? Isn't that bizarre?' He didn't give me time to answer — and anyway, what was there to say? We all of us here in Delhi, all of us pale foreigners, said it over and over, about what we were missing at home, what we were finding in India. 'Yes yes yes,' said Dinesh, still smiling with all his teeth, 'I've heard about it — our spiritual dimension — only where is it, can you tell me that? Can you show it to me? Never mind, let's speak about something more interesting, like for instance — '
'The Malhotras,' I said. 'Our landlords.'
Dinesh disliked gossip, but he had, reluctantly, filled me in a bit about them. They were obviously middle-class, educated people — both spoke good English, and he was, or had been, a lawyer — but marred by a scandal many years earlier. Dinesh briefly indicated that it was something to do with gold smuggling and that both of them had been involved. I was surprised: both of them? It was not impossible to believe about Sahib — there was something anxious about him, as if he wanted very much to be liked, or even forgiven. He was always eager to make conversation with us — when he was at home, that is, which was not all that much. He would leave in the morning, in his black tie and panama hat, giving the impression of going out to some business. However, one tended to run into him in a modest coffee house, sitting over a cup of coffee and talking to the waiter. One afternoon I saw him standing in a cinema line, and when he caught sight of me, he laid his finger on his lips, amused and tolerant of himself. He usually came home late at night, and then Bibiji would tell us he had been delayed in the office. She said it in a very serious tone of voice, giving no one grounds for suspicion that there was no office.
He liked to tell us how he had studied law in England and had eaten dinners at the Inns of Court. When he spoke about England, it was as if he were talking of a familiar friend. He mentioned Lord's Cricket Ground and Lyons Corner House and several other places that I, as an American, he added in a kind way, couldn't be expected to know about. He was interested in hearing about the States too — he had never been there but was hoping to go one of these days, as a tourist not as a student. What, he joked, was there left to study, at his age? Then he regularly asked me to guess how old he was. When I as regularly said thirty-five, which was at least ten years younger than he could have been, he smoothed his hair and chuckled that he had always managed to fool the world about his age.
Had he actually been in jail? He sometimes referred to his 'trouble', as though he expected everyone to know what this had been. Dinesh told me, after I persisted in asking, that he had done time as a prisoner awaiting trial. He had been at least partially cleared and placed on probation, though stripped of his licence to practise law. It was the two other accused in the case who had been given long jail sentences; they were more palpably guilty than he who had been their dupe, and one of them had a previous record. And what about her? Dinesh shrugged, said that she'd had to make several court appearances before the case against her was dropped. When I asked him how he knew, he said it had all been in the papers and everyone knew. After that, he wouldn't say any more but went on talking about our usual subjects, India and literature.
It was impossible to think of Bibiji's involvement in a criminal case. She was so proud and dainty, with the folds of her sari falling smoothly to her feet; her bangles were only glass, but probably they replaced some gold jewellery that was, due to circumstances, temporarily absent. Unlike her husband, Bibiji did not leave the house very often. Maybe she was afraid of meeting people and having to guess what they were thinking. In every exchange I had with her, she was scanning my face for information — not about me but about herself, how much I knew. But like her husband, though in a more guarded way, she seemed eager for conversation with her lodgers, Dinesh and myself. There were no visitors ever, though she was fully set up to receive them, in her living room. This was the front room, and it was furnished with a blue sofa, two matching armchairs and a carpet. She owned a china tea set and every afternoon she took it out and sat on the blue sofa to enjoy several cups of tea with digestive cookies.
Whenever I happened to be at home, she invited me to join her. She repeatedly impressed on me how Sahib had studied in England and was a professional person, and how she herself had been educated at a ladies' college where she had studied domestic arts and music. Sometimes she took out her harmonium and sat with it on the carpet and sang songs that may have been erotic or spiritual. She said she appreciated my love of Indian culture and that I wore the Indian sari. Here she rearranged its folds a little bit for me, and passed from talking about me to Dinesh.
She told me that she had first met him at a bus stop: on the arrival of the bus, there had been the usual rush in which she had been pushed to the ground. In the scramble to get aboard, only one person had bothered to help her up: yes, Dinesh, thereby missing the bus himself. But he didn't care about that, only wanting to make sure that she was unhurt. It was obvious to him at once that she was not the sort of person who would usually be found taking a bus; so that even before they knew each other, he had responded to something delicate in her nature, as she had to the same in his. When she said that, she looked at me for the first time directly and not, as usual, aslant with shyness and anxiety.
Dinesh was very attentive to her. He took care that the water buckets were kept filled during the hours when the municipal supply was turned on (six to eight in the morning, six to nine in the evening — I remember it so well!). He noticed whenever she was running short of tea leaves and filled her little canister, buying tea with his own money, though of course she always paid him back. Neither of them could afford to be as generous as they may have wanted. But she took care of him as he did of her — she said he was like a younger brother to her. When his glasses broke, she mended them with tape; or she cooked a little more of the dish she prepared for herself and her husband for their evening meal.
This meal she and Sahib always ate alone in their bedroom. Usually the door was kept shut and no sound came from behind it. It was only when I came to read Dinesh's novel that I learned how they did not eat in silence but amid fierce and bitter whispers, in which each blamed the other for what had happened. This too was revealed to me not by Dinesh but by scenes in the novel narrated by D.
It was D who described how Sahib had first met their two fellow conspirators. This had been in the same sort of coffee house where he could still be met — the same stains of ketchup on the tablecloths — but at that time he was part of a very jolly group that included freelance journalists, a doctor who had lost his licence and the younger son of an industrialist. This last was trying to start a business of his own, and he introduced his prospective partner into the circle of friends — a different type from the rest, with cruder jokes and more oil on his hair. A businessman, he called himself; eager to ingratiate, he stood treat for a round of chicken kebabs.
Sahib had completed his studies several years before but had not yet rented an office — he intended to do so the moment he had some clients; so it was at home that the two partners came to visit him. They said they needed a lawyer to draw up their contracts and he was just the person they were looking for. Bibiji served glasses of sugared lime water to get a look at them for herself. Later she confided to D that from the start she had doubts about the businessman but that she liked the son of the industrialist. He was not much more than a boy, very well spoken, and with manners learned at one of the best schools in the country.
They came every day, and soon they offered Sahib a partnership in their business venture. All they asked in return was a small investment to help with the initial purchase of gold from certain reliable sources, to be resold at fantastic profits via other reliable sources. He was hesitant, he said he would have to consult his wife. It was then, according to the novel, that they began their secret whispering behind their closed bedroom door. She objected to their total lack of business experience, he mentioned the promised profits, and they argued to and fro, their whispers getting lower and lower as though they were engaged in some criminal activity. And the two partners came every day, and every day Sahib told them he was thinking it over.
Then one morning, when Sahib had left on his usual round, the son of the industrialist came to see Bibiji. She was just enjoying a cup of tea and chatting with Gochi, her old sweeper woman, who squatted nearby with the glass of tea that was part of her wages. On the arrival of the visitor, Gochi gave a last hasty sweep to the floor before taking her bedraggled appearance out of sight, while Bibiji took out another cup to serve the guest. He admired everything — not only the cup but the sofa suite, the carpet and the wall-hanging of Little Boy Blue in cross-stitch that she admitted to be the work of her own hands. It was obvious to him, who was himself from a fine home, that she and Sahib came from good families. He admitted that this could not be said of his partner — but then went on to describe a deal this partner had successfully concluded, with astonishing profits. The same result could confidently be expected of their own project. One day, he promised, there would be an even costlier carpet on this floor, even bigger, heavier bangles on Bibiji's wrists. And maybe she wouldn't be in this house at all but in one of the new mansions in the diplomatic enclave, with a motor car standing before the door. No, he smiled, no need for her to learn to drive, a chauffeur would be at her disposal day and night.
He had to pay her only two more morning visits before she informed her husband that she was adding her jewellery to their input of capital. At that Sahib cried out in shock and touched the gold that had adorned her since the day of their wedding. She laughed at him: bigger, better bracelets would be bought, rings, and ropes of pearls, and what would he say to a motor car with chauffeur? All this was described in Dinesh's novel — how she persuaded him, brought him around. His account is in no way censorious; it is with affection D describes her joyful little cries and gestures at the prospect ahead. It is in subsequent chapters that D narrates the scenes of the nightly whispering behind their bedroom door, each blaming the other for what eventually happened. 'You were lucky,' Sahib told his wife. 'It was you — you who should have gone, you who were guilty, not I.' For answer, she only raised her thin arms to show that their sole adornment now was some coloured glass bangles bought from a street hawker.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Lovesong for India"
Copyright © 2012 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Also by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,
A Lovesong for India,
School of Oriental Studies,
MOSTLY ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT,
The New Messiah,
THE LAST DECADES,
Death of an English Hero,
At the End of the Century,
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