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