Sunday, 7 February 2021

Book review: A Backward Place, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1965)

God know how long this old thing has been in my collection, but since moving house my books have been shifted around so new ones have come into my sightlines. I pulled this one of the shelf recently and found it completely engrossing.


It outlines in Austenish fashion a community of expatriates in Delhi who revolve around each other like satellites. Among them are Indians of different kinds who also go about their lives in peace, though this is relative due to the friction that ensues when Judy’s husband Bal comes up with an idea to set up a theatre company.

You mightn’t think that such a premise would furnish adequate drama for an entire novel, but here you have the proof that it’s possible to make such a story entertaining. The wit is rapacious, gobbling up characters and spitting them out when it’s finished with them, as though they were cough drops and itself a child of nine. Never satisfied with one – for example Etta (turning 40 and past her prime, a woman with no visible means of support) – it turns on another – for example Clarissa (Etta’s bosom buddy, a woman having problems with her landlord, and who is in need of a place to live).

The title is ambiguous in its intent, but having read the book it’s meant tongue-in-cheek. Then again, the arrow has an oblique trajectory, and Bal, in particular, comes in for some criticism. Given Jhabvala’s ability to grasp the subtleties of cultural references from both sides – the European and the Indian – her intent must be understood as primarily empathetic. But not completely so. There is still enough fuel in the tank once the vessel has been emptied of spite and shallow posturing to find reason to think that Indians stood in need – at the time the book is set (and it’s evidently a contemporary setting; see publication date above) – of some honest brokerage vis-a-vis the past and the future. 

India has, it appears, a long way to go to before it can successfully reconcile itself to history, and while it’d be too much of a stretch to say that Jhabvala is reactionary – a near concept while reading certain parts of the book, notably the picnic near its end – her expressed personal acumen should perhaps be taken as a corrective to some unattractive personality traits. Bal evinces an emphasis on face, a sense of victimisation that can be used to justify poor conduct, male privilege, and an inability to easily forgive – such characteristics, that might be taken to address questions about the Indian psyche, are offset against positives: ambition, dreaminess, inclusiveness where it comes into contact with identity, and a Romantic urge to attain perfection. Bal is finely drawn, as is Judy, his English wife, and the contrast between them is a source of intrigue as the matter of how to support the family gradually resolves itself in the plot.

Judy is timid but decent and loves Bal very much. On the other hand you have the scatterbrained Clarissa’s misguided ideas about Indian spirituality. She is a salutary figure as well, summing up attitudes belonging to an entire generation of Westerners who harboured – and many still must do so – consuming fantasies about the subcontinent that seem, on account of their force and frequency, to be a reaction against earlier attitudes, ones that had allowed for the relegation of India to second-class status, and that dated from the early 19th century.

Beyond such ideas Jhabvala is concerned with social mobility and how it relates to people’s identities. When Bal’s actor friend talks about setting up a production company, Bal asks Judy for cash so he (Bal) can travel to Bombay to enter into discussions with Kumar. But Judy, the family breadwinner, is sceptical and thinks of all the times Bal has had big dreams that never got off the ground. She won’t easily part with 200 rupees for train fare and meals – and you ask yourself: why doesn’t Kumar pony up the necessary to enable Bal to comply with his wishes? Kumar is not short of the ready.

Cartoonish and sketchy as some of the characterisation is the overall effect is profound. Even the secondary characters – such as the Hochstadts – spring to life at unexpected moments to deliver a rich stream of meaning to the reader. 

At once satirical and elegiac, Jhabvala’s novel is delicious and can’t see how it’s possible that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is classy realism of a popular kind but it is unassailably competent and hilariously funny. There are no postmodern tricks here and, with money a foundational plot device, the story is rooted firmly in the world of affairs. Its cultural angle is all show. At heart what these people worry about is how to pay for a taxi or whence will derive money for the theatre company. Within the budding grove of ‘A Backward Place’ a universe abounds with delight.

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