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

The King’s Speech (2010)

CLICK HERE to read my new post ‘Oscar Winners 2011’

Update Feb. 27, 2011: The King’s Speech just won 4 OSCARS: Best Picture, Best Director Tom Hooper, Best Actor Colin Firth, Best Original Screenplay David Seidler.

Update Feb. 13, 2011: The King’s Speech just won 7 BAFTA’s: Best Film, British Film of the Year, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor & Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Music.

Update Jan. 30, 2011: The King’s Speech just won the Best Cast in a motion picture and Colin Firth Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight.

Update Jan. 30, 2011: Tom Hooper just won the Directors Guild Award.

Update Jan. 17, 2011: Colin Firth just won the Best Actor Golden Globe last night. To read his acceptance speech, click here.

Colin Firth must be feeling the pressure now.  I don’t mean the likely Oscar contention.  I mean, how is he going to surpass himself in his next film?  That’s the trouble with having reached your career best, so far.

But that is not going to be an issue at this point, because it is in celebratory mode right now, yes, even before the Oscars.

The King’s Speech first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2010, and won the audience award.  Since then, it has seen more and more accolades.  At present, the film has been nominated for seven Golden Globes and four SAG Awards on this side of the Atlantic.  Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter have all won their acting categories at the British Independent Film Awards in December, with David Seidler seizing Best Screenplay, and the movie garnered the Best British Independent Film Award.

A moving real life story about the struggle of King George VI (Colin Firth) to overcome a life-long stammer, as he was reluctantly crowned king after his older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated the throne in 1936 for love of an American divorcee.  Bertie, as his family called him, was fortunate to have a devoted and loving wife (Helena Bonham Carter), who found him an unconventional speech therapist from Australia, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The film builds on the development of their friendship leading to the exhilarating climax at the end, when the King gives his first war-time speech to his nation, rousing up their support against Germany.

It all began with screenwriter David Seidler being evacuated out of Britain to America upon an imminent Nazi attack at the brink of WWII.  To the then three-year-old Seidler, the treacherous trans Atlantic ordeal was so devastating that in his subsequent childhood years after arriving America, he had to struggle with a debilitating stammer.  During the war years, he had listened on the radio to the speeches by King George VI, whom he learned was a fellow stutterer.  With the King as a model, Seidler was motivated to overcome his own stammer.

The idea of telling the true story of his personal hero remained with Steidler for decades. He had been doing research on the King and found the son of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, Valentine, who had preserved his father’s notes.  As a loyal ex-subject, Steidler wrote the Queen Mother requesting her approval to use her late husband’s story for a movie.  The following was the reply from Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales:

“Dear Mr. Seidler, thank you very much for your letter, but, please, not during my lifetime.  The memory of those events is still too painful”

The Queen Mother passed away in 2002, at the age of 101.  Seidler could now publicly work on a story that had captivated him all his life.  But the Royal Family needs not worry.  The screenplay that Seidler has written, and the film that ultimately comes out from director Tom Hooper is every bit dignified, respectful and artistically executed.  What more, the very human suffering and the exhilaration of overcoming an impediment are movingly told.  Overall, the film is a poignant portrayal of a courageous man, a beautiful friendship, and a loving family.

Colin Firth has presented to us a reluctant hero, won us over from the start with his vulnerability and insignificance, and kept us on his side with his perseverance and loyalty.  As the Queen Mother had put it, it is painful to watch him struggle to be heard.  The walk to the microphone, then an advancement in technology, is as grim as the dead man walking to his execution. No wonder there is the Brahms’ Requiem.

In an interview, Seidler mentions how Firth had asked him for specifics on the stuttering experience, and strived to live it in his performance. Powerful method acting indeed as Firth found himself so involved in the role that he had experienced tongue-tied episodes at public speaking.  Click here to listen to the in-depth interview with David Seidler at Stutter Talk. For a pre-Oscar interview with Seidler, Click Here to find the link to a BBC news clip.

Geoffrey Rush is the crucial partner in the bromance.  Without his devotion and humour, the relationship between therapist and client could not have risen to the level of trusting friendship necessary for effective treatment.  It is not a cure, but the breaking down of barriers, psychological and social.  Herein lies one important element of the film’s success, humour.  We are treated with lighthearted moments in the midst of struggles, unleashing the humanity to shine through.

As for the music. First off, I must say I’ve enjoyed the original music by Alexandre Desplat.  The timing and editing is particularly effective, an example is the rehearsal scene.  But the reverberations have been the selections of German music, in particular, Beethoven’s 7th second movement the Allegretto being used at the climatic King’s speech.  My view is that the war was against Nazism, the tyranny and atrocity committed by Hitler and his regime.  Considering Beethoven’s struggles with his own hearing loss, and his vision of freedom and brotherhood, he could well be a universal symbol of resistance and resilience, significant beyond national boundaries. And who can protest against the lofty and hauntingly moving Allegretto.  I’d say, good choice of music for the climax.  And after that, the mutual look between the two friends into each other’s eyes with the warm, soothing slow movement of the Emperor Concerto, what better way to end the movie.

What better way to start the new year.

~~~ 1/2 Ripples


To read my post Oscar Winners 2011 CLICK HERE

To read my post on the book The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved The British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, CLICK HERE To “The King’s Speech: Fact and Fiction”

To listen to the historical archive of the actual speech by King George VI, click here.

For a review and critique of the music in The King’s Speech:

‘The Music of The King’s Speech’

Movie Music UK: Alexandre Desplat

Mary Kunz Goldman, music critic

To read a detailed Colin Firth Interview

To see a video clip of Colin Firth interviewed at TIFF