Could it be that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and her publisher were trying to capitalize on the success of Out of Africa when they decided to reissue 15 previously published short stories under the title, Out of India? Maybe so. But the title could also serve as a description of her many European-born characters living in India who remain outside the real life of the country -- one of the themes of this wonderful and wickedly observed selection.
The characters usually compensate by going to extremes, either detesting India or naively embracing it. "I want to live in India like an Indian," an English girl tells her Indian lover, a low-level clerk who lives in a tenement with his wife and children. He reacts with contempt. "You have everything in life and you throw it all away," he tells her. "Aren't you ashamed?"
Jhabvala came to India in 1951 as the 24-year old wife of a young Parsi architect. She was a Polish Jew who had been raised in Germany and educated in England, always feeling, she once told an interviewer, like a "displaced person" who had no country to call her own. India at last became home. In her first nine years in the country, she produced three children and published four novels brimming with the warmth of Indian family life.
But over the years she became less enamored of her adopted home, and more confused by her reactions to it. "There is a cycle that Europeans -- by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans -- tend to pass through," she writes in "Myself in India," the introduction to this book. "It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm -- everything Indian is marvelous; second stage, everything Indian not so marvelous; third stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself as strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down." These days Jhabvala lives most of the year in New York, yet she remains one of the great masters writing in English about India.
Most of these 15 stories are actually about Indian families, and Jhabvala has a better, more compassionate touch with them. But Americans will relate best to her Western characters, who are always entertaining and sometimes painfully familiar.
Of these, the most foolish personality is the upper-class, self-absorbed English girl who finds everything in India marvelous. This character is repeated in various forms throughout the short stories. She is usually on a spiritual quest, and is not so much interested in India as in what it might do for her.
"I'd had this idea that there was something in India for me to gain," says the wife of a foreign correspondent who spends his time at diplomatic parties and in luxury-class hotels. His wife takes third-class trains and feels so badly about the mean little lives of the men sho meets that she offers herself so solace to them. "I didn't like sleeping with all these people," she admits, "but I felt I had to. I felt I was going good, though I don't know why, I couldn't explain it to myself."
The problem is that this kind of character becomes awfully tedious after a while. She isn't all that interesting to begin with, and it's too bad that Jhabvala has spent so much of her satire on such an easy target.
The stories work better when Jhabvala has more sympathy for her main subject, as in "How I Became a Holy Mother," the best one in the collection. A 23-year-old London model with two ex-husbands and a fine sense of the absurd comes to India looking for nothing in particular, falls in love with Vishwa, a young, handsome and sensitive holy man, then winds up as his spiritual other half, worshipped as a holy mother on tours across India.
"You might have seen posters of Vishwa and me together, both of us in these white robes, his hair black and curly, mine blond and straight," the model says mater-of-factly at the end. "I suppose we do make a good couple -- anyway, people seem to like us and get something out of us. We do our best. It's not very hard; mostly we just have to sit there and radiate."
The stories about Indian families also center on women, usually upper-class ones, who are emotionally and sexually isolated in the confines of a life that society has laid out for them. The most moving of these is "The Widow." Durga's husband has died, leaving her with a fine house and memories of his "useless rag of manhood flopping against the thigh." He was already an impotent old man when her family married her off to him, and now she is happy that he is gone. She refuses to live the ascetic widow's life expected of her. It is only occasionally that she feels that "somehow, somewhere, she had been shortchanged."
She becomes obsessedd with the 17-year-old boy who lives upstairs, and when he rejects her awkward sexual advance, Durga then decides that yes, the time has come to lead the proper widow's life. Her relatives are pleased. Widows, they say, should not enjoy the pleasures of the world "and that which should have died in them with the deaths of their husbands."
Taken together, these 15 stories paint a despressing picture of life in a country where the inhabitants are often trapped by rigid social custom and the visitors by self-delusion. In the end, keveryone is a captive to India -- the real main character of this book.
Elisabeth Bumiller is a Washington Post reporter based in New Delhi.