Chronicler of the vanishing moment
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To a character in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's collection of short stories, A Lovesong For India, published last year, is attributed a yearning for "a recognisable India". Diana, an Englishwoman married to an Indian civil servant, had been in the land for a remarkably short time, from her husband's district posting to his ascent in Lutyens' Delhi, for it to have ceased to be entirely recognisable. But for the reader devoted to Jhabvala's fiction, it is quite easy to understand this sense of lost familiarity with the world as it had once, so fleetingly, revealed itself to have been. It is what we went back to her for, book after book of emotions we did not apprehend but the emotions (of dislocation, alienation, bewilderment, shock) were recognisable on every first introduction.
Many ways have been suggested to telescope the sweep of Jhabvala's fiction into short phrases, but it is this felicity of compelling a yearning for a recognisable moment that marks her out as one OF the two most important novelists/ short-storyists writing on India in English (the other being R.K. Narayan), this unfailing ability to present the condition of an age and time by capturing that vanishing moment, that span that made it comprehensible and then never again so.
Take these opening lines from The Householder (1960): "Prem sat at the only table they had and corrected his students' essay papers. The table was a very frail and shaky one, made of thin cane, and it would have been more comfortable to sit on the floor. But he felt there WAS a certain dignity about sitting at a table; his father had always sat a table when correcting papers. It as unreasonable, of course, to consider dignity, when there is no chance of any of his students seeing him; but he considered he would be better for it afterwards, when he was returning their papers. He was not too good at enforcing discipline, and that made him a little afraid of his students and in need of all the moral support he could give himself."