Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Tribute to Rootlessness

On April 3, one day before Roger Ebert died, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away from illness at the age of 85. Her death seemed to have been overshadowed in the next few days by Ebert’s. I feel here’s a life that ought to be noted as well, but maybe for a special reason.


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was best known for her Oscar winning adaptations of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View and Howards End. Her other screenplays include Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and The Bostonians, among a total of twenty-six.

But for Ruth (to discard formality and to focus on the person, allow me to call her Ruth), adapting screenplays was only a hobby. Her main calling was to be a writer of her own stories. She had heeded that call with fervour since childhood. Guardian’s obituary mentions Ruth once said about her writing time as “the only three hours in the day I’m really alive.”

There are thirty titles by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on Goodreads, including novels, short story collections, and her works in anthologies. Among her accolades, most well known is the 1975 Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust, about the meeting of East and West in India. Her short stories had been published in The New Yorker since 1957, thirty-nine of them. Her latest appeared just one month before her death. She is the only person who had ever won both the Booker and the Oscar. Two Oscars, to be exact.

Reading her obituaries from several sources, I’m more intrigued by this matter of laying down roots, or rather, of rootlessness in the landscape of our life.


Ruth was born in Cologne in 1927 to a Polish father and a German mother. Her family was assimilated Jews in Nazi Germany. Her grandfather was the cantor in Cologne’s biggest synagogue. Her father Marcus was a lawyer. Assimilated or not, Ruth and her brother had to flee with her parents in the nick of time in 1939 to England. She was 12.

For the next twelve years, she grew up in London, learned a new language, adopted a new identity, and later graduated in English literature from Queen Mary College, London University. In 1948, upon finding out all members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, more than forty of them, Ruth’s father took his own life.

In 1951, when she was 24, Ruth married the architect Cyrus Jhabvala in London and followed him back to his native country India. Another uproot and transplant, this time, to a whole new continent. They settled in Delhi. For the next 25 years, Ruth immersed herself in her adopted country as a wife, mother, and writer. Colonial and post-colonial Indian life, East-West relationship and caste conflicts became her subject. Despite her effort in total immersion, she had not taken roots in India.

Finally, In 1976, a third continent, as Ruth and her husband moved to New York City. There, she found a place closest to a notion of home, paradoxically, because of “many people like herself: refugees, outsiders, interesting American discontents,” wrote the remaining Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborators, director James Ivory, in Time magazine’s tribute.


While still in India, Ruth had already collaborated with Merchant and Ivory on several movies. Now in New York, she lived in an apartment on the same block as they. The proximity of actual geographical location fostered a prolific period of their lives. Together, they had joined hands in more than twenty productions. Their forty years of collaboration remains the longest in movie history.

Ivory Jhabvala Merchant
Ivory, Jhabvala, Merchant

How did rootlessness affect her perspective? In Guardian’s obituary, I found this inspiring excerpt:

I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel—till I am—nothing.” And yet, she said, this was one of her strengths. Many of her stories are about a kind of inner travel: feeling rootless, her protagonists find new ways to feel at home in the worlds they happen to inhabit.

Perhaps, in the vast landscape of literature, such rootlessness is essential for the imagination to take flight. Rootlessness allows flexibility and fluidity of navigation, the freedom to roam. Rootlessness can more readily unlock the wayfaring spirit within, and embrace change.

One result of being rootless could well be the hybrid identity. Amusingly the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team itself is a good example. Producer Ishmael Merchant was a Muslim from Bombay who had settled in America; director James Ivory is the son of a French-Irish American; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a Polish-German-Jew from Cologne, Delhi, London, and New York City.

Perhaps as Nick Carraways, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, observes, only by being “within and without” can we see “the inexhaustible variety of life.”


Related posts and links:

Obituaries and tributes from The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Paris Review, Time Magazine, The New York Times.

Since 1957, The New Yorker had been publishing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories, a total of 39, her last appeared only one month before her death. Thanks to The New Yorker, we can now read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories online.

My book review of Howards End, my post on the Merchant Ivory production of Howards End, my review of A Room With A View (TV, 2007)


Photo Sources:

First photo from The Paris Review; Second photo from The Telegraph

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

14 thoughts on “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Tribute to Rootlessness”

  1. I’ve loved all of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s collaborations in Merchant Ivory, but knew very little about Ruth herself. Thanks so much for telling us about this fascinating and brilliant woman, who was a citizen of the world.


    1. Cathy,

      Reading her is very different from watching the movies. You can try the short stories at New Yorker online, just click on the link at the end of the post.


  2. Thanks so much, Arti, for posting this. I have always admired what work of hers I knew (obviously not much by the list you share) but knew nothing of her background which I find fascinating in every single way. I think I may need to check out some of the novels now.


    1. Jeanie,

      I’ve been a long time fan of Merchant Ivory movies, albeit not every one is great, but the two Oscar winning Jhabvala adaptations are very good. Have you watched them? Howards End and A Room With A View? You can have a taste of her writing with the short stories online at The New Yorker.


  3. A brilliant woman. Thanks for posting this. Rootlessness can be both a strength and a weakness – it depends on the individual. Jhabvala embodies the best of what it can mean for a writer.


    1. Rati,

      You’re totally right. All along we’ve known the notion of rootlessness only from a negative frame of reference, that’s why I particularly highlight this perspective of Jhabvala’s just to present the positives. She indeed had embodied the best of it for her writing. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!


    1. Sim,

      I like most of Merchant Ivory’s productions… particularly the two Oscar winning ones. But not as much the later works though.


  4. As so often happens here, I’m not familiar with Ruth’s work. You would think that after years of reading The New Yorker I at least would remember her name – but, no. It’s quite amazing, really, as I usually at least skim the magazine the day it arrives and spend some time reading articles.

    Well, no matter. I can catch up now, thanks to your link.

    One little detail caught my attention – the prolific period that resulted when geographical proximity was added to the mix. It made me think of the Yahoo boss who recently decreed, “No more telecommuting”. Whatever her reasons, she did say that she felt person contact added to creativity and productivity. At least in this case, it certainly did.

    As for rootlessness – I think in some cases it can be compared to transplanting. When I pull up an amaryllis to put it in a new pot, for example, it comes with roots that have developed in its old pot. In the same way, every time I’ve left someplace – the midwest, Texas, LIberia, San Francisco, Salt Lake City – some of the roots I put down in each place have remained attached. If we put down deep, thick roots, it may be more painful to be pulled out of our pot, but we carry those roots with us to our new place, and they nourish us, too.


    1. Stefanie,

      Fact is, she wasn’t a household name that people would right away identify… unlike Roger Ebert. Therefore, much less news coverage.


  5. A beautiful post on Ruth Jhabvala. I have unfortunately never read any of her works and this is first time I’m reading about her. And since fortunately I did read now I am inspired to read her writings. I am sure they would reveal to me more about the ‘inner travels’ which right now intrigue me so much.

    And, a lovely blog you’ve got here!

    Thank you 🙂


  6. A lovely post Arti … sorry I’ve taken a while to respond as I was on the road when you posted it … a bit rootless! I’m going to send a link to this to my wayfaring-writer daughter. I think she’ll enjoy it a lot. I like her (and your) thoughts on “rootlessness”. Being rootless (for a while) does break little patterns of thoughts, encourages us to see things through different eyes. That would help the creative spirit a lot I expect.

    Of course I loved their co-productions but have never read one of her novels. I have Heat and dust here on the TBR/pile-of-shame. I should promote it.


  7. What a beautiful post – so expertly paced and alighting on just the right details. I knew so little about her before, and now you make me want to know much more. Thank you!


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