Dear Ruth, we’ll miss you

Devaki Jain on the writer behind the intriguing Ivory-Merchant films

 I WILL miss Ruth Prawer Jhabwala. One of the most gentle, affectionate women that I have ever met, she became a dear friend.

     We first met at the home she and her husband, Cyrus Jhabvala (‘Jhab’, as he was known to us), had shared on the Ridge in Delhi. The year was 1967. Jhab had struck a friendship with my husband, Lakshmi Jain, as far back as in the 1950s. Lakshmi was then the General Secretary of the Indian Cooperative Union, which at that time was managing the Central Cottage Industries Emporium. It was Jhab, an architect by training, who had performed the miracle of transforming a musty, almirah-ridden salesroom into a modern, accessible display-style shop. The mutual admiration and cooperation between the two men continued over the years and Lakshmi recruited Jhab’s help in not only designing the Super Bazar that came up in Delhi’s Connaught Place in 1966 – the year Lakshmi and I got married –  but in designing and implementing the Apna Bazar, that was located in the INA market area of the city.

     What struck one about Ruth was her transparency. I asked her how she was able to write such brilliant books while she brought up three daughters. It was a heart-felt question. At that stage, I was struggling to do anything more than mind my baby son and keep up with my teaching commitments even though I, too, nursed great ambitions to write fiction. She told me that the best way to find the time to write was to re-locate one’s writing desk to the centre of a big room where the young children were allowed the freedom to sleep, cry, play, and fight! She told me, “Do not try to find a quiet room to do your writing. It can only happen in the midst of that chaos.” In Bombay (now Mumbai), she said, the family had lived in a one-roomed flat – a very large room with a kitchen attached. “In fact, it gave me the most free time to have the children around me while I wrote. So the first trick is: Don’t try to put the children anywhere else if you want to have time to yourself!” she had stated, and laughed so uproariously that I still remember her mirth.

     In a way that was Ruth, absolutely straight, incapable of anything but the truth in everything she said, did – in the way she lived. She found the behaviour of Indians fascinating. As she and I became closer, we would meet as friends, not necessarily because of the friendship of our respective husbands. I could see that basically she was a keen observer of life around her, the societies in which she lived and enjoyed portraying it all through fiction. I do not think she had any particular distaste for Indian society. She just found intriguing the fact that it threw up so many types of customs and behaviours. The comedy of it all, struck her above all.

     Another highlight for me was when Ruth invited me, along with one of her “favourite men”, namely my husband, for the opening of the Ivory/ Merchant film, ‘The Householder’, at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. We were privileged as we had seats next to Ruth, somewhere in the middle of the hall. She had her own way of displaying the pure joy she felt – this time it was to see the film in a way that did not entail a public exhibition.

     An image that comes back to me, and which would never fail to delight me, was that of seeing Ruth and Jhab sitting deep in the back of the huge car – whether it was a Buick or a Chevrolet, I do not remember – relaxing and driving on the Ring Road from Rajpur Road to New Delhi. I would pass their car quite frequently as I drove on the opposite side of the road on my way to the university. The two looked like the lovers they were, driving like royalty on that big wide road in that big car.

     As we grew older Ruth, I think, began to find ‘the heat and dust’ of India overwhelming. Moreover, apart from the traffic, buses and crowds, so many dimensions of Indian society were changing. All this must have contributed to the move she and her husband made in trading Delhi for New York in 1975. But they kept their flat in Alipur Road, and would come back during the cold New York winters to catch up with Delhi’s lovely winters and springs. It was a safari that their daughter, Renana, used to facilitate as the years went by. For us, it became a ritual to meet them during these visits.

     Today, as I write this, I recall the easy way in which I could sit and talk to her about the hundred and one things – the books she was writing or the work I was doing – even as our husbands laughed and enjoyed their anecdotes of the work they did together in the 1950s and 1960s. I missed that annual reunion this year. Both Ruth and Jhab had begun to feel weaker and couldn’t make their way to Delhi. Their daughters, each a significant player in creative global fields, were Ruth’s passion. My heart goes out to them on their loss of her quiet but critical guidance at all times. And Jhab? I cannot bear to think… with Lakshmi gone, I understand well the loss of a lifetime companion.

     A book of Ruth’s short stories, located not in India but in other parts of the world, was released just a year or two ago. As I read it, I can see so clearly Ruth’s ability to capture the character of the people she wrote about, and her humour that was never far away. (WFS)


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