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A Lovesong for India
There was a controversial public debate between celebrated writers Martin Amis and Clive James at a British university two years ago on the subject of age and writing. Amis held the view that writers lose their literary skills once they reach old age, naming Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike as examples. James disagreed, citing Tolstoy, Goethe and Yeats as writers who hit new heights in old age. He could have added another name, less illustrious perhaps, but with a hugely impressive output of novels, screenplays and short stories as well as a Booker Prize for her best known work, Heat and Dust. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, at 84, has just released a collection of short stories that only confirm her stature as one of the literary world's leading contemporary voices.
Largely because of the subjects of novels like Heat and Dust and her Oscar-winning screenplay collaboration with Merchant-Ivory productions, she has been hastily adopted as an Indian writer, but that is as misleading as her surname. She was born in Germany to Polish-Jewish parents, escaped the Nazi regime and immigrated to England where she was educated and took British citizenship. She married a Parsi and moved to Delhi. Almost 20 years later, after winning the Booker in 1975, she settled in New York, becoming a naturalised American. All her 19 books and as many screenplays have drawn heavily from that rich cross-cultural inheritance, with her India connection featuring prominently in both.
Her latest collection is no different. It is divided into three sections, "India", "Mostly Arts and Entertainment" and "The Last Decades", but most, if not all, convey a sense of familiarity, the theme of birds of passage, much like her, winging erratically from one situation to another, one country to another, one relationship to another, but always with a feeling of inevitability. Whether it is love lost or gained, success or failure, life or death, parting or coming together. What is equally and reassuringly familiar is the style, languid and easy, concise and precise, no grand flourishes or extraneous padding, but with the power to appeal to a wide cross-section of readers. As always, her life imitates her art, with identity playing a major role in her works. The loss or the discovery of it runs through this collection in subtle ways.
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