Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fiction is always a treat, and although I am not fond of short stories, I make an exception for Jhabvala’s. When I heard she had a new collection of short stories, A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West, I immediately found a copy. I have spent a week savoring these exquisite stories, many as richly developed as her novels and as perfectly crafted as the work of Henry James.
Jhabvala, who has written 20 books, won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust and two Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay for Merchant-Ivory films, A Room with a View and Howards End. Born in Germany of Polish parents, she and her family fled the Nazis in 1939 to England, where she learned English, earned a master’s in English, and married an Indian architect. After they raised their family in India, she divided her time between New York, London, and India. She is a U.S. citizen.
Much of her fiction is set in India, but several of these stories are set in the U.S. The collection is divided into three parts, “India,” “Mostly Arts and Entertainment,” and “The Last Decades.”
In “Innocence,” my favorite story, there is a kind of double narrative: the narrator’s memories run parallel to a novel written by her Indian friend Dinesh, in which he calls himself “D” and her “Elisabeth.” In India, while she studied with a “woman saint,” she lodged in the small house of Mr. and Mrs. Mathotra, “a middle-aged childless couple who looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife.” Her fellow lodger, Dinesh, who worked at All India Radio, despised her spiritual quest, and informed her that her ideas of India were those of 19th-century German professors. But when she wants to have a more down-to-earth conversation, he only reluctantly fills her in on the background of their landlords, who sometimes talk mysteriously about their “problems.” It seems they embarked on a misguided venture regarding gold speculations, for which Sahib went to jail. But “Elisabeth” and “D” are fond of their landlords, and when they need money, they suggest that the couple take in a third lodger, Kay, a rich, beautiful Indian wastrel who whiles away her time seductively combing her hair. This third lodger is the catalyst of marital jealousy and violence, and the strong feelings of the married couple come as a surprise.
Many of the stories are about older people’s entanglements and obsessions with beautiful young people who are in some ways lost souls. In “Talent,” a gifted singer, Ellie, takes advantage of her agent, Magda, claiming she has no place to live and moving in. But Magda’s composer cousin, Robert, is the real mark: Ellie is interested in starring in Robert’s next musical. This manipulative young woman worms her way into Ellie’s family with a series of lies, and hurts Magda. But in the end only the genius of Ellie and Robert matters.
In “Pagans,” the widowed Brigitte, “large-limbed and golden as a pagan goddess,” forms a rewarding nonsexual; friendship with a young Indian man, Shoki. He has written a screenplay, but is really valued for his beauty and manners. When Brigitte’s sister Frances comes to L.A. to persuade her to move to New York, the charming Shoki changes her attitude and spirit. But in the end it is the beautiful people who matter.
Perhaps the most perfectly-crafted story in the collection is “At the End of the Century.” Celia, a psychotherapist, becomes obsessed with the pregnancy of her younger half-sister Lily. Lily, a guileless young woman who cannot take care of herself, wanders around New York with a blank sketchbook and eventually marries a poet, who does not live with her; she continues to live with Celia. We soon become aware that Celia’s fears about Lily’s pregnancy are real, but events unfold astonishingly in this unconventional love story.
The title story, “A Lovesong for India,” is my least favorite. So often this happens in collections of stories: the title story seems weak and I cannot fathom why they chose it. In this rather slow story, TC and his English wife, Diana, live in India, and are very comfortable so long as he is in the provinces. As he rises in the Civil Service, he is eventually transferred to New Delhi, where he works in a position he dislikes. their son, a teenage delinquent, grows up to be an unscrupulous businessman. And in the end it is the son’s crimes that, paradoxically, bring honor to TC and happiness to this couple.
This is a stunning book. Jhabvala should win the National Book Award. Isn’t it about time she won? But I always think this about my favorite authors.