Esmond in India, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 1990, Touchstone Library 208 pages (1st published in 1958).
In our inaugural column for BookMarks we said we would look in four places for books to review in this space:
- intercultural books
- the best travel writing
- the best science fiction
- the best expatriate fiction
We have sampled the first three categories in previous newsletters, and this month we present a book of expatriate fiction. By expatriate fiction we mean fiction—novels or short story collections—that have either as their defining theme or one of their preoccupations the clash or at least the meeting of cultures. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster is a classic example. We could have started there, but that book is so well known that we have decided to start with a lesser-known but no less brilliant book about India, one by an author we suspect many readers may not know.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is not as well known today as she was in the 1980s and 1990s, and then she was probably better known for the movies for which she wrote the screenplays—as part of the 3-person team which included Ismail Merchant (producer) and James Ivory (director)—than for her novels and short stories. She won Oscars for two of her screenplays, one of which, Heat and Dust (starring Julie Christie), was based on her novel of the same name (which also won the Booker Prize). While her novels are not strictly autobiographical, she did live much of what she writes about, or at least observed it up close. She was born into a German Jewish family, fled to Britain ahead of the Nazis, met and married Cyrus Jhabvala, and moved to India where she lived for a number of years before ending up in New York City.
Esmond in India is one of her many novels featuring stories of expats encountering, living in, adjusting to a foreign country. Or not adjusting at all, in Esmond’s case, actually loathing the place, in fact. There is probably not a single overt cross-cultural observation in Esmond in India. The book isn’t about cultural differences; it positively oozes them. In brief, it’s the story of the hapless British expat Esmond Stillwood, trapped in a spectacular mismatch with the beautiful but simple-minded Gulab with whom he lives in their apartment in New Delhi, along with their young son Ravi. Nearly everything about Gulab disgusts Esmond, while for her part all Gulab wants to do is to be left alone so she can smother Ravi with kisses, cook him good Indian meals with plenty of ghee, and take him to her mother’s house whenever she can and stay for as long as she can—just three of the many things Esmond can’t stand and which he strictly forbids.
There are two parallel plots involving two other Indian families in Gulab and Esmond’s orbit, into one of which Esmond is drawn with life-changing consequences for the radiant Shakuntala, the result, inevitably, of a cultural misunderstanding. As noted, the book never wears culture on its sleeve; it’s a novel, not an essay. But culture lurks just beneath the surface of many scenes, occasionally bursting forth for a brief moment in all its destructive power.
Nearly every scene Esmond is in, and even in those he is not in but during which Indians talk about him, reeks of the tensions produced by even the slightest of cultural differences. Here is Gulab, for example, at a loss as to how to live in her own apartment, which has been Europeanized by Esmond’s taste in furnishings.
Gulab, lying on the floor felt as comfortable as she ever felt in that flat. It was not really convenient to her way of living. In her mother’s house she had been used to vast rooms and little furniture, so that she had been able to lie on an old stringbed in the middle of an otherwise empty room, floating on a great sea of cracked marble flooring under a high, high ceiling fretted—a sky with clouds—with flaking frescoes. But here, in her husband’s flat, she was hemmed in by furniture, there was no room to lie down, no room to move at her ease. Oh yes, everybody said what nice furniture it was and how clever Esmond was to make so much of that small flat. He had utilized every corner, fitted in divans and shelves and coffee tables, all very low and modern and, so they said, attractive. But Gulab could not see any purpose for such furniture; it only prevented one from being comfortable.
This is just one of numerous moments in the book where Jhabvala evokes a dimension of culture to illustrate how uncomfortable it can be to be out of place, in this instance in your own country. There are many similar moments involving Esmond where one cultural practice or other or even just the sight—or the smell—of something a little bit too Indian sets Esmond off. Ironically, Esmond is something of an expert on Indian culture—poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture—and has put together a modest livelihood lecturing on these topics to expatriate audiences. He makes his living off India; he just can’t bear the people or the place itself.
There is a brief moment near the end of the book that illustrates what I mean when I say Esmond in India is not about culture per se but that it “oozes” culture. It’s just one short sentence, tossed off in passing, it seems, but it manages to be shocking—and it’s because of culture. We know from two or three places earlier in the book that Esmond absolutely forbids Gulab to cook Indian food for Ravi (which the little boy loves) because it smells up the house and because after he eats it, Ravi himself smells of ghee and spices—he smells of India—and this infuriates Esmond. Late in the book Gulab, Esmond, and Ravi are eating dinner together, and Jhabvala suddenly tosses us this sentence: “[Esmond] stifled a sigh and helped himself to more macaroni and cheese.”
Macaroni and cheese—in three words Jhabvala evokes the menacing spectre of cultural difference. This is not a story of how culture enriches; it is a story of how it destroys.