Posts Tagged ‘post-colonial’

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) when young

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own, one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in another language — Raja Rao

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been on an on-and-off long bout of reading Jhabvala, short stories (especially East into Upper East), novels (The Householder, A Backward Glance and Heat and Dust) and screenplays (Shakespeare Wallah and Howards End), as well as about her (older books by Laurie Sucher and Jasmine Gooneratne, and recent by Rekha Jha, Rishi Pal Singh, Ramal Agarwal), not to omit the great pleasure of watching Merchant-Ivory films, most of whose screenplays are by Jhabvala. I would very much like to read and see more of these. Her oeuvre is enormous, and her latest critics generalize about phases, from the early books where it’s a question of “western” or English eyes and characters trying to assimilate into Indian culture, and basically being destroyed; to the middle books and stories where there is a romantic entry into Indian life from a spiritual or imaginative, a quiescent passive point of view, to the latest stories, where we see cross-cultural clashes and exploitation between western values and behaviors and traditional Indian. Older writers compared her to Jane Austen (and point to Jane Austen in Manhattan, a Merchant-Ivory film), Chekov, Thackeray, newer ones to other Indian and Anglo-Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao — and E. M. Forster.

Her writings belong firmly in the colonialist and post-colonialist genres. She herself shows this migrancy – born of Jewish Polish parents who lived in Germany, numerous members of her family were killed in concentration camps, they moved to England where she got a degree in British literature, but then she married an Indian man and spent 25 years in India, last quarter of her life in America. I found myself very drawn to her autobiographical essay, “Myself in India,” where she tells the truth about the isolated existence she endured in India, the impoverishment of the people. It can be found in this collection:

For myself until two days ago when I led a class at OLLI at Mason in discussing her stories the best I could do was come up with generalizations. Jhabvala’s stories, novels, screenplays (original, not adaptations) are mostly set after 1947/48, Indian independence after the dissolution of the Raj. These are about Indian people trying to make it in a modern contemporary world – ambitious cool – whose roots though are in the traditional Indian culture. That’s the key – minds and bodies in two worlds. Jhabvala’s stories are also strongly feminist at times. Traditional cultures are very hard on women. Subtitle to some of them: Women amid snares and delusions. You might expect the women who emerge from these imprisonments (my view) to thrive far more, do better, and here in the US I’ve see it in students (but they are already living here with parents who brought them here), but in Jhabvala’s stories while many of her women thrive at first, are social successes, succeed at high management and political positions (often unofficial) eventually they self-destruct as the two did early in her famous Heat and Dust. The enemy of these women is internal (as Woolf said was the enemy of westernized women too – the angel in the house) – but it’s not angel that bothers these women. They find themselves in an exploitative, cynical and amoral world and retreat from it — to stasis, boredom, and illusion.

I think this is now the best book on Jhabvala — the older Sucher and Gooneratne are too western-oriented

Jhabvala is fascinated by the fake Guru, this manipulation on the part of supposed holy or tranquil or utterly unmaterialistic and spiritual people (I don’t have a better word) to draw to them the belief and trust of Indian people brought up in traditions seeking to experience some transcendent divine place, eternal, complete with notions of reincarnation, to release the soul into this divine (supernatural is my word) realm by various practices and rituals. Many of the Indian characters who don’t do well in Jhabvala and other Anglo-Indian writers (especially women also deprived of agency by law and custom) look for this non-individualistic realm and will pay money and support holy people they think put them in touch with these realms. Or they become a seer themselves. She also shows that westerners with a rational, pragmatic, scientific and materialistic set of assumptions can be equally taken in. It’s not such a funny comedy of delusions, because these patterns of behavior in her fictions are linked to what I’ll call masochistic patterns of behavior where people become dependent on one another (again especially women with a man in charge), some of these dependencies might seem bizarre, unmotivated, unexplained, gaining very little and giving up all. One explanation is Jhabvala is characterizing the social milieus of her stories, not probing individual psychologies – but some of this comes from this attempt to cross over – to get into this other culture while remaining in the modern one.

Her stories are epitomies or microcosms of the clashes between these world views. She looks around detachedly. Hers is an attempt at objectivity, yet so many of the stories are so sad. People are so betrayed, so hurt. Ironically several of the stories in East to Upper East present us with women as powerful people. Where they are held back it’s from marital customs found also in the patriarchal arrangements of the western world. The women who are most fulfilled are those who never marry, or if they do, end up (in effect) leading individualist lives based on their own agency.

I’m writing this brief survey blog posting tonight because of the class that went so well. I had dreaded it — three people who usually talk were not there (I knew they would not be), and I was not sure what to say about the particulars of the stories. I found their commentary and responses intelligent, sharp, with much understanding of the motives of Jhabvala’s driven ambitious characters. I’ll tell in brief concise form a little about the best stories we discussed from East into Upper East, “Independence,” “Progress and Development,” “A New Delhi Romance,” “Husband and Son,” and “Two Muses.” Sumitra, the heroine of the first, rose to heights of power, influence, and did some good in her time, but ends in angry despair. Her granddaughter wants to do a documentary about her life in order to record what was the truth of gov’t in India, but we see what kept the woman and the man she sustained afloat would never be acceptable in published forms. The four heroines and hero of “Progress and Development” begin life with high idealism; they will marry for love, have careers where they do good; they all end embittered and disillusioned, the male finding meaning in his family and children, only one of the women, Pushpa, a Mary Wollstonecraft kind of character sustaining the necessary illusions to keep going. The one who makes the best marriage as to status and the the apparent nature of her husband ends a suicide.

The last three are more domestic stories. “A New Delhi Romance” could be a story about two teenagers in the US, only it ends in an arranged marriage for the girl, selling herself to shore up her father’s scandalous fall from power and wealth. “Husband and Son” is about a woman whose society allows her no agency at all; she tries to find an outlook by becoming socially involved with a scoundrel dance teacher who when he seduces a young girl in the school is exposed for the fake he is; she ends caring for her profoundly depressed and ill husband who himself retreated from corrupt power. Last “The Two Muses,” the most autobiographical of the lot. The theme is here the distance between an artist’s life and his work, and how much an artist who is said to be creating masterpieces should be allowed to shirk his responsibility to others in real life; we watch a probably useless man being catered to by his wife, Lilo, who never reads a word he writes, and his mistress, Netta, who is responsible for his continued solvency and reputation.

I would like to read more of her autobiography and these stories are autobiographical

I feel I learned about the author in ways I just could not without live talk and give-and-take. At first Jhabvala is like this wall of guarded matter, but after a while if you persist and especially today I saw that they are in effect a real accurate commentary on the failure of Indian society to reform itself and provide meaningful modern and comfortable lives for most of its people. The politicians inhabit all the right roles, make liberal, well meaning comments, have wonderful luxurious times with one another on the tax money they get for salaries, but do nothing for infrastructure, land reform, re-distribution of income, general education. I found myself imagining Arundati Roy who won the Booker for her The God of Small Things written an invented language, half-way between a native idiolect and English –- as a candid and excellent journalist she writes for The Nation about India – very bitter at this recent turn of events with a religious bigoted dictator in charge. She would have no trouble recognizing what Jhabvala is realizing in words and exposing. As to moods, the stories can be felt as neutral or disillusioned ironic satires or melancholy bleak romances.

Next week we’ll spend a half hour on Mira Nair’s 2006 Namesake and Jumpha Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name.

I have put in a proposal to teach the following course in the spring at OLLI at Mason; I will do it at OLLI at AU too

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath & diaspora

In this class we will read E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat & Dust, & a couple of short stories &/or essays by Jumpha Lahiri (from Interpreters of Maladies) & V.S Naipaul. We’ll explore a tradition of literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions; migrancy itself, gender faultlines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre (e.g., Mira Nair movies, to wit, her Namesake out of Lahiri’s masterpiece), & specifically David Lean’s Passage to India, the BBC Jewel in the Crown (by Ken Taylor and Christopher Morahan), Merchant-Ivory’s Heat & Dust. We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.

From David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India


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The Buckingham Players on the (rainy hot) road in India, circa 1952 (1965 Shakespeare Wallah)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Six Wednesdays, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
June 23 1 to July 28
4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032 but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

In this class we will explore identity and gender politics, colonialism, emigration & slavery in three novels, viz., Caryl Philips’s Crossing the River, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s East into Upper East, and Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River. We will look at how history, law and custom, violence, cultures, economic and geographical circumstances, and the sheer need for survival affects people. What is it like to invent a new country? to live in a country that is being invented and excluding or exploiting you? Or a curiously isolated upper class who don’t belong to the country and yet are supposed to be in governing positions?  Or to live in an old country where you are not allowed to belong?  We’ll also see/discuss three movies: Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s 1965 Shakespeare Wallah; Mira Nair’s 1993 Namesake & Jane Campion’s 1993 film, The Piano. We will imaginatively go right round the world in books & movies.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Phillips, Caryl. Crossing the River. NY: Vintage, 1993. ISBN 978-0-679-75794-8
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. East into Upper East. Washington, D. C. Counterpoint, 1998. ISBN 1-58243-034-9 (Alternative edition: London: John Murray, 1998. ISBN978-0719555862)
Mander, Jane. The Story of a New Zealand River. 1975 reprint: USA, London, New Zealand, Hong Kong: Robert Hale/Whitcoullis Publishers, 1938. ISBN 0-7233-0364-9 (Alternative edition, 1920 first edition reprinted online: https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Story_of_a_New_Zealand_River/JMAkAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover; also facsimile of this: Andesite, 2017, ISBN 978-1375466561).

Movies (in the order we’ll discuss them):

Shakespeare Wallah. Prod/Dir. IMerchant/MIvory. Script: RPJhabvala Perf. Shashi Kapoor, Geoffrey and Felicity Kendall. Filmed in India, distributed first in the UK, India, US. Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Wallah-Madhur-Jaffrey/dp/B084GHY9RG/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=shakespeare+wallah&qid=1623697479&s=movies-tv&sr=1-1. Also for rent as a DVD from Netflix, and for sale as a DVD on Amazon & elsewhere

The Namesake. Prod/Dir. Mira Nair. Script: Sooni Taraporevala. Adapted from novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Perf. Irfann Khan,Tabu, Kal Penn. Filmed in India & Boston. Available on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Namesake-Irfan-Khan/dp/B009EE88XE/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=The+namesake&qid=1623697870&s=instant-video&sr=1-1 Also for rent as a DVD from Netflix, and for sale as a DVD on Amazon & elsewhere

The Piano. Prof/Dir/Script. Jane Campion. Perf. Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin. Filmed in New Zealand, Australia and France. Available on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Piano-Holly-Hunter/dp/B00DNO3DS6/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1GM1OZD6JFH0I&dchild=1&keywords=the+piano&qid=1623697947&s=instant-video&sprefix=The+piano%2Cinstant-video%2C152&sr=1-1. Also for rent as DVD from Netflix, and for sale as a DVD on Amazon & elsewhere

East Into Upper East (detail from cover illustration by C. S. H. Jhabvala)

Ashoke Ganguli (Irfann Khan) on the train (2006, The Namesake)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. For the first week I recommend reading Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River before we start — it is very powerful. I suggest you alternative between movies and stories in the way ordered below:

June 23 Introduction:  Post-colonialism and the novel. Slavery, Africa, Race: US & UK: Caryl Phillips, and then Crossing the River.

June 30: Crossing the River. Anglo-Indian films & books: Shakespeare Wallah.

July 7: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: 9 stories from East into Upper East: We will read “Farid and Farida,” “Independence,” “Development and Progress” (these stories are set just after India achieved its independence from the UK), “A New Delhi Romance” and “Husband and Son;” (and set in NY): “A Summer by the Sea,” “Great Expectations,” and “Broken Promises” and “Two Muses”

July 14: Finish East into Upper East. Mira Nair. The Namesake. (There is a novel by Jumpa Lahiri if you want to read or read about it but amazingly on line is the whole of her Pultizer prize winning volume, Interpreters of Maladies, and I can suggest one close in themes — finding or building a new identity, and will send the pdf; click here to access it online: http://jhou.weebly.com/uploads/3/0/8/0/30800919/interpreter_of_maladies.pdf)

July 21: Jane Mander, New Zealand & Australian colonialism, The Story of a New Zealand River.

July 28: Finish New Zealand. Jane Campion’s The Piano. Thoughts about colonialism.

Suggested Outside Reading:

Bari, Deepika, “The Namesake: Deepika Bahri is Touched by Mira Nair’s Vivid, Sonorous Account of Immigrant Life in an Adopted Home City.” Review in Film Quarterly, 61:1 (Fall 2007):10-15
Friedman, Natalie. “From Hybrids to Tourists: Children of Immigrants in Jumpa Lahiri’s Namesake,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 50:1 (Fall 2006):111-28
Hoeveler, Diane Long, “Silence, Sex, and Feminism: An Examination of “The Piano‘s” Unacknowledged Sources,” Literature/Film Quarterly 26:2 (1998):109-116 (I will send this by attachment)
Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. “Myself in India” (reprinted in An Experience of India). Or Heat and Dust. NY: Simon & Shuster, 1980 (Book Prize winner)
Ledent, Benedicte. Caryl Phillips. Contemporary World Writers. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002
Lahiri, Jumpa. The Namesake. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Lazarus, Neil. The Cambridge Companion to Post-Colonial Literary Studies. Cambridge, 2004.
Moffatt, Kirstine. “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60
Moody, Ellen. Early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, “The Householder/Shakespeare Wallah” to Roseland/Heat and Dust” (& The Europeans, w/bibliograph), Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2021/06/12/early-merchant-ivory-jhabvala-films-the-householder-shakespeare-wallah-to-roseland-heat-and-dust/ June 12,2021
Phillips, Caryl. Cambridge. NY: Vintage, 1991. Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 19/11. London & NY: New Press, 2011; The European Tribe. NY: Vintage, 1987. And “One Grim Evening: The Colonial Migrant in Britain,” Times Literary Supplement, December 18, 2020.
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: Twenty-One years of Merchant-Ivory films. London: BFI, 1983.
Singh, Rishi Pal. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Novels: Woman amidst Snares and Delusions. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2009.
Sucher, Laurie. The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: The Politics of Passion. NY: St Martin’s, 1989.
Turner, Dorothea. Jane Mander. NY: Twayne, 1972.

Ada (Holly Hunter), Flora (Anna Panquin) and their piano and goods on the beach waiting to be moved into Alisdair Stewart’s house by the Maoris (The Piano 1993)

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Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825), A sketch of Klaarfontein, South Africa

Dear friends and readers,

My third and last report on the EC/ASECS conference held 12-14 November at West Chester University, Pa, with the broad topic of networks: (see 1 and2)

We are now at mid-morning, the second session on Saturday, 10:30-11:45 am. I chose a session which seemed to be about the colonialist and global experience of British people as recorded in their writings, “Oriental Networks: Culture, Commerce and Communication.” Greg Clingham chaired. Jennifer L. Hargrave’s paper was on the early and still remembered British missionary. Robert Morrison as reflected in his didactic outline for educating his two children in India. Her text was Morrison’s China: A dialogue (1821), a series of ten imaginary conversation with his children where Morrison imagines himself teaching his children about Canton, China. Within his limits, Morrison attempts to teach understanding and toleration, to enable his children (and by extension readers) to see analogies between some British and Chinese practices towards women. He sees the Chinese as having a highly literate and sophisticated society, and thought Westerners could learn from China (and elsewhere).

William Zoffany (1733-1810), The Palmer Family

Baerbel Czennia also talked about the intersection of cultural practices, and used contemporary paintings by British travelers and agents, and Anglo-Indian (the phrase had not achieved currency as yet) ones from the Indian communities to demonstrate that in India the colonializers attempted to make out of their allotments of the Indian private landscape small English worlds through landscape and by appropriating the British picturesque conventions. She had reproductions of watercolors of English and Indian landscapes.In these it’s a matter of erason, omission and what we have left are Europeanized Indian landscapes. Baerbel had slides of the work of Zoffany, of William Hodges, of their successors.

William Hodges (1744-1797), A view of the City of Benares (1783)

Hastings’s home in England, Daylesford shows the influence of Indian forms. Kew would combine scientific research with the bogus landscape gardens. She talked of individuals involved in intercultural networking so the gardens we have today derive from a complex of complicated relationships in previous history.

The third paper, Greg Clingham on Lady Anne Barnard’s diaries and journals from South Africa and her drawings. Happily, there are editions of her watercolors and drawings, which give us insight into settler colonialist and sheerly imperialist communities; and of her Cape Diaries, abridgments as well as vast compilations. He particularly recommended the riches to be found in her letters: there she combines a colonialist, personal caustic melancholy, and Scottish aristocratic sensibility and perspective.


She has a need to tell of what she sees while deprecating her views: she will tell of watching slaves carry heavy bundles on their bare-backs to pack up a family who are leaving; these bundles contain sticks and other objects the slaves count on getting once the day is done and they can go back to their living quarters. She shows how attached she is to her close family and friends, including low status women. she also drew people and scenes that she saw, did watercolors. It’s hard to tell what readings she wanted us to take from her pictures: we can notice that most of her white women are turned away from the camera- or painter’s eye, while the slave is seen frontally; she cannot hide her breast-feeding or body from the viewer. We cannot know how accurate these drawings are and how much they reflect conventional ways of drawing disparate classes of people, but there is a depth of feeling in them.

The discussion afterward was as wide-ranging as the three papers put together. There was not much critique from a post-colonial perspective but rather specific questions on the specific people brought up and some of the texts quoted, e.g., Baerbel had quoted Pope’s Windsor Forest. People wanted to know about Morrison in later life. I mentioned how I had heard paper about slave-dealers’ letters and that from these we can gather that an African woman with hanging breasts was seen as especially desirable (fecund, healthy, as a wet-nurse, sexy?) at the same time as small high breasts were valued as that was seen as the European white norm. So if Lady Anne draws black women with full hanging breasts (as one of Greg’s pictures showed) this might not be a mirror of what she saw but conventional prescriptive norms.


After lunch, Daniel Edelstein offered a description of a digital mapping of the French enlightenment, using the most recent standard editions of letters by universities. The following YouTube will provide an explanation by Prof Edelstein himself. He is talking about some of the details he used in his address:

The YouTube also leads to a site that explains a good deal of the project’s resources, aims, interests. Prof Edelstein first described in detail the categories used, justified the way the letter-writers were divided, which writers were brought in by virtue of their having written a number of letters. He seemed to concede his team seemed often to be going to a great deal of effort to come up with a confirmation of what many people reading the upper class French respected philosophes in France and elsewhere had thought: Paris for example, was an important nub. His data showed the group was a highly aristocratic set of people, mostly male, well-connected, often holding positions of authority in gov’t, a very literary group (tiny percentage of people working in scientific endeavor).

The paper stirred more opposition and fundamental debate than I’ve seen in a long time. It came out very quickly that his team did not take into consideration as central players women’s letters for which there is no standard edition. They seemed not to have taken into consideration lost letters; letters not saved because not valued, not written by upper class people. One woman said if Prof Edelstein had said his data was about an Enlightenment group that would have been more accurate. I asked if we were to do the same kind of winnowing, using standard university editions for English writers, if we found most of the people did not have high positions in gov’t, that might help explain some of the differences between what happened in the 1780s in England and in France. Someone said one value of such data is that it will help against unexamined assumptions: now we see how few of the philosophes were science-minded. As the debate became a little hot, Prof Edelstein answered one query about why they omitted English sources with the half-quip that England did not have an Enlightenment. What about Edinburgh? How does one define Enlightenment?

Mid-20th century suggestive illustration for masquerade ball

I was able to stay for the first two papers of the afternoon sessions and my last choice was for “Little Explored Networks in Frances Burney and Jane Austen.” Linda Troost chaired. Julian Fung argued that Burney’s Cecilia is a dark and pessimistic complaint/satire about the depravity of society, a society unlikely to reform. We see a network of vice, characters are intricately connected to people who want to do them harm. You cannot escape corruption because you are dependent upon people deeply engaged in it. She has some good characters outside of these networks but by force of custom and obligations conferred they too are compelled to make bad decisions. Characters debate whether you can go against society’s norms (theoretically) while the action of the novel shows people trying to resist and failing to. We see serious problems (such as how to make money, how to avoid debt). He felt the novel is a dystopia. It ends with a qualified seemingly cheerful resignation, but we can see underlying it currents of anger and grim realism.

Sylvia Marks began with Burney’s first novels (Caroline Evelyn, burnt and Evelina) and then discussed how Cecilia emerged from Burney’s Witlings after her two fathers (Charles Burney, and “Daddy Crisp”) prevented her from finishing and having the play staged. Sylvia drew out the parallels between characters in the play and novel, show how Burney’s use of the genre “conduct book” allowed her to avoid offending any specific individuals she might have had in mind (e.g., Elizabeth Montagu). Sylvia too saw Burney’s second novel as dark: it’s an uneasy depiction of treacherous, prodigal, blind, sycophantic elitist characters; experience teaches very few anything. As with The Wanderer we have a woman looking to support herself, who comes across ordinary nightmare situations along the way.

It was growing dark and I had a three hour drive home so felt I had to leave. I regretted not being able to stay for the papers on Austen, the last reception (hors d’oeuvres, beer, and wine) and, even more, a workshop led by John Bellomo, a fight choreographer, with student actors, where members of the society were invited to learn the simpler movements of saluting and stage combat. From photos it looks like it was fun. As we all know duelling was (unfortunately) central to male upper class culture, and violence remained on the surface, part of daily life, what with executions, the brutal treatment of animals by many, permitted violence inflicted on wives and children, pressing and flogging of servants and sailors.

The close of David Nokes’s 1991 BBC Clarissa: a duel to the death between Lovelace (Sean Bean) and Belford (Sean Pertwee)

As usual I can’t take into account all sorts of talk about the 18th century and academic studies and teaching which occurs in the interstices of time. One conversation I remember in particular about pregnancy, childbirth in the 18th century, how new sources and methods and perspectives are providing a new outlook on this aspect of women’s lives in the era. I came away with new titles, and possible projects to join in on.


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