Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, CBE (7 May 1927  3 April 2013) was a German-born British and American Booker prize-winning novelist, short story writer and two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter. She is perhaps best known for her long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions, made up of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

BornRuth Prawer
(1927-05-07)7 May 1927
Cologne, Weimar Republic
Died3 April 2013(2013-04-03) (aged 85)
New York City, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • screenwriter
  • short story writer
Notable awards1975, Man Booker Prize for Heat and Dust
1984, BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Heat and Dust
1984, MacArthur Fellowship
1987, Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for A Room with a View
1993, Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Howards End
Cyrus Jhabvala (m. 1951)

After meeting Cyrus Jhabvala in England, she married him and moved to India in 1951; Jhabvala was an Indian-Parsi architect. The couple lived in New Delhi and had three daughters. Jhabvala began then to elaborate her experiences in India and wrote novels and tales on Indian subjects. She wrote a dozen novels, 23 screenplays, and eight collections of short stories and was made a CBE in 1998 and granted a joint fellowship by BAFTA in 2002 with Ivory and Merchant.[1][2] She is the only person to have won both a Booker Prize and an Oscar.[3]

Early life

Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne, Germany to Jewish parents Marcus and Eleanora (Cohn) Prawer.[4] Marcus was a lawyer who moved to Germany from Poland to escape conscription and Eleanora's father was cantor of Cologne's largest synagogue.[5][6] Her father was accused of communist links, arrested and released, and she witnessed the violence unleashed against the Jews during the Kristallnacht.[5] The family was among the last group of refugees to flee the Nazi regime in 1939, emigrating to Britain.[6] Her elder brother, Siegbert Salomon Prawer (1925–2012), an expert on Heinrich Heine and horror films, was fellow of The Queen's College and Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.[6]

During World War II, Prawer lived in Hendon in London, experienced the Blitz and began to speak English rather than German. Charles Dickens' works and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind kept her company through the war years and the latter book she read while taking refuge in air raid shelters during the Luftwaffe's bombing of London.[7] She became a British citizen in 1948. The following year, her father died by suicide after discovering that 40 members of his family had died during the Holocaust.[6] Prawer attended Hendon County School (now Hendon School) and then Queen Mary College, where she received an MA in English literature in 1951.[6]

Literary career

Years in India

Jhabvala lived in India for 24 years from 1951. Her first novel, To Whom She Will, was published in 1955. It was followed by Esmond in India (1957), The Householder (1960) and Get Ready for Battle (1963). The Householder, with a screenplay by Jhabvala, was filmed in 1963 by Merchant and Ivory. During her years in India she wrote scripts for the Merchant-Ivory duo for The Guru (1969) and The Autobiography of a Princess (1975). She collaborated with Ivory for the screenplays for Bombay Talkie (1970) and ABC After-school Specials: William - The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1973).[8]

In 1975, she won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust which was later adapted into a movie.[9] That year, she moved to New York where she wrote The Place of Peace.[8]

Jhabvala "remained ill at ease with India and all that it brought into her life." She wrote in an autobiographical essay, Myself in India (published in the London Magazine) that she found the "great animal of poverty and backwardness" made the idea and sensation of India intolerable to her, a "Central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis."[10][11] Her early works in India dwell on the themes of romantic love and arranged marriages and are portraits of the social mores, idealism and chaos of the early decades of independent India. Writing of her in the New York Times, novelist Pankaj Mishra observed that "she was probably the first writer in English to see that India's Westernizing middle class, so preoccupied with marriage, lent itself well to Jane Austenish comedies of manners."[10]

Life in the United States

Jhabvala moved to New York in 1975 and lived there until her death in 2013, becoming a naturalised citizen of the United States in 1986. She continued to write and many of her works including In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), Three Continents (1987), Shards of Memory (1995) and East Into Upper East: Plain Tales From New York and New Delhi (1998) portray the lives and predicaments of immigrants from post-Nazi and post-World War Europe. Many of these works feature India as a setting where her characters go in search of spiritual enlightenment only to emerge defrauded and exposed to the materialistic pursuits of the East.[10] The New York Times Review of Books chose her Out of India (1986) as one of the best reads for that year.[7] In 1984, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.[12]

In 2005 she published My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past with illustrations by her husband and the book was described as "her most autobiographical fiction to date".[5]


Her literary works were well received with C. P. Snow, Rumer Godden and V. S. Pritchett describing her work as "the highest art", "a balance between subtlety, humour and beauty" and as being Chekhovian in its detached sense of comic self-delusion. Salman Rushdie described her as a "rootless intellectual" when he anthologised her in the Vintage Book of Indian Writing while John Updike described her an "initiated outsider".[5]

Jhabvala was initially assumed to be an Indian among the reading public because of her perceptive portrayals of the nuances of Indian lifestyles. Later, the revelation of her true identity led to falling sales of her books in India and made her a target of accusations about "her old-fashioned colonial attitudes".[3]

Jhabvala's last published story was "The Judge's Will", which appeared in The New Yorker on 25 March 2013.[13]

Merchant Ivory Productions

In 1963, Jhabvala was approached by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant to write a screenplay for their debut black-and-white feature The Householder based on her 1960 novel. During their first encounter, Merchant later said Jhabvala, seeking to avoid them, pretended to be the housemaid when they visited. The film, released by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1963 and starring Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu, met with critical praise and marked the beginning of a partnership that resulted in over 20 films.[14]

The Householder was followed by Shakespeare Wallah (1965), another critically acclaimed film. There followed a series of films including Roseland (1977), Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), The Europeans (1979), Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), Quartet (1981), The Courtesans of Bombay (1983) and The Bostonians (1984). The Merchant Ivory production of Heat and Dust in 1983 won Jhabvala a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the following year.[8]

She won her first Academy Award for her screenplay for A Room with a View (1986) and won a second in the same category for Howards End six years later.[9] She was nominated for a third Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the following year for The Remains of the Day.[3]

Her other films with Merchant and Ivory include Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), Jefferson in Paris (1995), Surviving Picasso (1996), A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998) (the screenplay for which she co-authored with Ivory), The Golden Bowl (2000) and The City of Your Final Destination (2009) which was adapted from the eponymous novel by Peter Cameron and was her last screenplay.[8] Le Divorce which she co-wrote with Ivory was the last movie that featured the trio of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala before Merchant's death that year.[15]

The Merchant-Ivory duo was acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest collaboration between a director and a producer although Jhabvala, too, was a part of the trio from the very beginning. She introduced the composer Richard Robbins, who went on to score music for almost every production by Merchant-Ivory beginning with The Europeans in 1979, to the duo after meeting him while he was the director of Mannes College of Music, New York.[16] Madame Sousatzka (1988) was the one film she wrote which was not produced by Merchant Ivory.

Some of Jhabvala's scripts generated controversy. Jefferson in Paris attracted charges of historical inaccuracies and racism while Surviving Picasso ran into trouble with the Picasso estate that denied them permission to use his paintings in the film.[3]

Personal life

In 1951, Prawer married Cyrus Shavaksha Hormusji Jhabvala,[17] an Indian Parsi architect and, later, head of the School of Planning and Architecture.[14][1] The couple moved into a house in Delhi's Civil Lines where they raised three daughters: Ava, Firoza and Renana.[14][1] In 1975 Jhabvala moved to New York and divided her time between India and the United States. In 1986, she became a naturalised citizen of the United States.[8]


Jhabvala died in her home in New York City on 3 April 2013 at the age of 85. James Ivory reported that her death was caused by complications from a pulmonary disorder.[18][19][20] Reacting to her death, Merchant Ivory Productions noted that Jhabvala had "been a beloved member of the Merchant Ivory family since 1960, comprising one-third of our indomitable trifecta that included director James Ivory and the late producer Ismail Merchant" and that her death was "a significant loss to the global film community".[21]





Novels and short story collections

  • To whom she will : a novel. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1955.[24]
  • The Nature of Passion (1956).
  • Esmond in India (1958)
  • The Householder (1960)
  • Get Ready for Battle (1962)
  • Like Birds, Like Fishes (1963)
  • A Backward Place (1965)
  • A Stronger Climate (1968)
  • An Experience of India (1971)
  • A New Dominion (1972; published in the United States as Travelers)
  • Heat and Dust (1975)
  • How I Became a Holy Mother and other stories (1976)
  • In Search of Love and Beauty (1983)
  • Out of India (1986)
  • Three Continents (1987)
  • Poet and Dancer (1993)
  • Shards of Memory (1995)
  • East Into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998)
  • My Nine Lives (2004)
  • A Lovesong for India: Tales from East and West (2011)
  • At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (2018)

Short stories

Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
The judge's will 2013 "The judge's will". The New Yorker. 89 (6): 88–95. 25 March 2013.

Critical studies and reviews of Jhabvala's work

Anthologies and encyclopedias
  • Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth (2000). "Passion". In Bausch, Richard; Cassill, R. V. (eds.). Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (6th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 801–813. ISBN 978-0-39397-508-6.
  • Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth (2005). "Two more under the Indian sun". In Mishra, Pankaj (ed.). India in Mind: An Anthology. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 108–130. ISBN 978-0-37572-745-0.
  • Prawer Jhabvala, Ruth (1999). "An experience of India". In Ross, Robert (ed.). Colonial and Postcolonial Fiction in English: An Anthology. New York: Garland. pp. 189–209. ISBN 978-0-81531-431-8.
  • Serafin, Steven, ed. (1999). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. Vol. 4 (L-Z) (3rd ed.). Farmington Hills, Michigan: St. James Press. ISBN 978-1-55862-377-4.
  • Bailur, Jayanti (1992). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Fiction and Film. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers.
  • Katz, Susan Bullington, ed. (2000). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Conversations with Screenwriters. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. pp. 1–8. ISBN 978-0-32500-295-8.
  • Crane, Ralph J. (1992). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New York: Twayne. ISBN 978-0-80577-030-8.
  • Crane, Ralph J. (1991). Passages to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers. ISBN 978-8-12071-355-0.
  • Jasanoff, Maya (7 January 2019). "A passage from India : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the art of ambivalence". The Critics. A Critic at Large. The New Yorker. 94 (43): 62–67.[25]
  • Rai, Sudha (1992). Homeless by Choice: Naipaul, Jhabvala, Rushdie and India. Jaipur: Printwell. ISBN 978-8-17044-241-7.
  • Shepherd, Ronald (1994). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in India: The Jewish Connection. Delhi: Chanakya Publications. ISBN 978-8-17001-096-8.
  • Sucher, Laurie (1989). The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: The Politics of Passion. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-33342-196-3.

Selected screenplays

Year Title Other notes
2009The City of Your Final Destinationscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Peter Cameron
2003Le Divorceco-written by James Ivory, adapted from the novel by Diane Johnson
2000The Golden Bowlscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
1998A Soldier's Daughter Never Criesscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Kaylie Jones
1996Surviving Picassoscreenplay
1995Jefferson in Pariswritten by
1993The Remains of the Dayscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
1992Howards Endscreenplay, adapted from the novel by E. M. Forster
1990Mr. and Mrs. Bridgescreenplay, adapted from the novels by Evan S. Connell ("Mr. Bridge" & "Mrs. Bridge")
1988Madame Sousatzkascreenplay, adapted from the novel by Bernice Rubens. Directed by John Schlesinger
1985A Room with a Viewscreenplay, adapted from the novel by E. M. Forster
1984The Bostoniansscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
1983Heat and Dustscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Jhabvala
1981Quartetscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Jean Rhys
1980Jane Austen in Manhattanwritten by, inserted libretto "Sir Charles Grandison" by Jane Austen
1979The Europeansscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Henry James
1978Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictureswritten by
1977Roselandstory and screenplay
1975Autobiography of a Princesswritten by
1970Bombay Talkiescreenplay
1969The Guruscreenplay
1965Shakespeare Wallahscreenplay
1963The Householderscreenplay, adapted from the novel by Jhabvala


  1. Watts, Janet (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  2. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927–2013)". Outlook. 3 April 2013. Archived from the original on 9 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  3. Childs, Martin (4 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Author and screenwriter who won two Oscars and the Booker Prize". The Independent. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  4. Merchant, Ismail (9 April 2012). Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. p. 94. ISBN 978-1-61703-237-0. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  5. Jaggi, Maya (19 March 2005). "Brave new worlds". The Guardian.
  6. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". The Daily Telegraph. 3 April 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
  7. Liukkonen, Petri. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Books and Writers. Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 9 February 2007.
  8. Raw, Laurence (2012). Merchant-Ivory: Interviews. University of Mississippi. pp. xix–xxii. ISBN 978-1-61703-237-0.
  9. "Novelist, Oscar winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dies". Mint. 3 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  10. "Passages to India". The New York Times. 18 July 2004. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  11. "Between The Lines: Love and loathing in India". Mint. 5 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  12. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  13. Rothman, Joshua (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's stories". The New Yorker. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  14. "She came, she saw, she wrote". The Hindu. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  15. "In Remembrance: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Lambda Literary. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  16. "Richard Robbins obituary". The Guardian. 13 November 2012. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  17. Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects vol. 29 and 30, ed. S. Kumar, 1963, pg 41
  18. Schudel, Matt (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 85". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  19. Gates, Anita (3 April 2013). "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
  20. "Oscar-winning screenwriter of 'Howards End' and 'A Room With a View' dies". Entertainment Weekly. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  21. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Dead: Oscar-Winning Screenwriter And Novelist Dies At 85". Huffington Post. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  22. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". British Council. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  23. "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala". Merchant Ivory Productions. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
  24. Published in the United States as Amrita.
  25. Online version is titled "Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the art of ambivalence".
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