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My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past:
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala


Just a couple of says ago, I received a student thesis on one of my works of fiction. The highlight of that document for me was a pictorial representation of the important images in my book. It ranged from Shringar to books to food to violence to building/furniture to toys and profanity…..If I were to apply the same to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, what would score the highest would be this image: a tenement somewhere in Delhi, a room in it with big patches of damp, cattle, pigs and assorted vendors rooting through it. Closely followed by an image of an Indian sweet bearing within it a fatal disease and then running neck to neck with it, western doctors who have forgotten how to diagnose let alone treat the disease….

Stemming from a central question: what would happen if I was granted an alternate life form this collection of nine renditions of a woman's life story. The circumstances could differ from a boarding house in London to a heritage home by the Hudson River to a house in the Civil lines of Old Delhi to an apartment in New York but the woman is always the same. In most cases of European origins, not so attractive, scholarly almost always, and ruled by overbearing men or women to whom she is willing to play servile handmaiden…and then, in almost every story is the presence of India.

A deep well from which the character draws life changing experiences. The woman has encounters[ Hindi cinema has forever changed the meaning of this word for me, never mind…] with India: feckless men with dark Indian eyes, charming shop clerks, spiritual gurus, Goa, Ganges, Delhi and the foot hills of the Himalayas but the effect they have and the changes they cause are the same.

Naturally when these images and their cause-effect begin to repeat again and again with all the aplomb of Jacob's ladder, I began to tire…. Surely there is more to India? Even in the fifties and sixties which seem to be the possible time frame for this collection, India offered more….

Jhabvala knows it. For we see that in A Choice of Heritage, the most Indian of these stories and truthfully Indian in that sense, we are not subject to those wide-eyed occidental impressions. In many ways, it is the lead story of this collection for it captures the world of a woman of supposedly mixed parentage [British and Indian]. It is perhaps also the one story that is truly free of cliché.

There are two other stories that work excellently. Ménage and My Family. Perhaps it is because the author resists the temptation to spice it up with India and restrains herself to a lone and almost photographic image - the central character in Ménage is drawn by what she think is her companion's vulnerability merely because his shoulder blades, glimpsed as they bathed in the Ganges, seemed frail-. Jhabvala captures effortlessly and with remarkable beauty in these two exemplary narratives the intrinsic theme of the book namely a quest for 'someone better, stronger, wiser, altogether or other….'

The quirky but very attractive cover of this book has a wary publisher's warning in near equal weightage to the author's name. So that it reads Ruth Prawer Jhabvala For Sale in India only. It would have been more prudent for the publisher to instead have said Not to be Sold in India.

For Indians reading this collection of stories, what could ruin its impact are the hackneyed and recurring images of India which I am sure has palled even a Western reader's imagination….

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