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A Cross-Cultural Encounter in Ruth Prawer Jhabvalas: A

Backward Place
Dr. Ankit Gandhi, Vipul Kumar Bhawalia

Ruth Jhabvalas novel A Backward Place, published in 1965 is significant for it anticipates the
change in the sensibility of the novelist as admitted by the author herself in the essay Myself in
India. In the essay published a year later after the publication of the novel, she says:
I must admit that I am no longer interested in India. What I am interested in now is myself in
India, whichI tend to think of as my survival in India.
As mentioned by Jhabvala, the novel marks her shift from the Intra-Indian context to the EastWest encounter as experienced by her characters in India. Her growing awareness of herself as
an exile finds a perfect expression in the depiction of cross-cultural clashes in this novel. The
same issue has been dealt with at length in the two novels that follow- A New Dominion (1972)
and Heat and Dust (1975). The subject of this study is to show how in these novels Jhabvala
explores the consciousness of the Western expatriate in India and his/her struggle to effect or
resist assimilation.
In the novel, Jhabvalas efforts are primarily directed at transmuting her own complex response
to India into the varied responses of her European characters. Her statement that her interest is
now centered on herself in India doesnt indicate a simplistic identification with her European
characters. The novel portrays Jhabvalas conflicting and intellectual responses to India by means
of her characters during this phase of her life. The responses are sometimes affirming, sometimes
negative and at others ambivalent. But each response is recorded and assessed without bias.
The novel shows how the three western women, Etta, Clarissa and Judy react to life in India. Etta
has come to India in account of her sudden impulsive marriage. It is followed by her numerous
marriages and illicit sexual relationships with others. Later she finds it harder and harder to catch
young and wealthy admirers to keep her going due to her growing age. In the mean time she
finds herself performing mischievous things. Although she tries to expose herself to be charming
and sprightly at all times yet is able to please only old men like Guppy. Thus, Etta who declares

to be submerged in a lower culture, flatters and wheedles money out of men from Indias least
cultured section- the baniya or business class. Clarissa has come to India in her so-called quest
for spirituality. She professes her devotion to Indian spiritualism when she doesnt even vaguely
feel the same. One sympathizes with her when one recalls, how valiantly she tries to keep up
her quest, or at least the pretence of it, though she was getting older year by year, and lonelier
and more ridiculous, and soul and God perhaps no nearer. (ABP 117) Judy, according to
Clarissa is not to be pitied at all: She is doing very nicely. She had the good sense to realize that
the only way to live here was to turn herself into a real Indian wife. (ABP 25) Thus, Jhabvala
unmasks her European characters as pitilessly as she unmasks their Indian counterparts in her
earlier novels. Although her European characters share some of her attributes, enthusiasms,
desperations and intellectualizing tendencies yet she is impartial in dealing with them at length.
As already mentioned in this second phase of her life, Jhabvala develops an enormous guilt
complex towards the poverty and misery of India. How this poverty and misery affects even the
wealthy and privileged few in India also becomes perceptible in the novel. To the handful of
foreigners living an artificial life in Delhi, India is not urbane but poor and backward in every
sense. Poverty and backwardness are so predominant that it is impossible to pretend that they
dont exist. Clarissa, the Hochstadts, Juddy and Etta feel the agony when confronted with the
miseries of life in India, though not in the same way as Mrs. Jhabvala seems to have felt:
The most salient fact about India is that it is very poor and backward. There are so many other
things to be said about it but this must remain the basis of all of them. We may praise Indian
democracy, go into raptures over Indian music, admire Indian intellectuals - but whatever we
say, not for one moment should we lose sight of the fact that very great number of Indians never
get enough to eat.Can one lose sight of that? God knows, I have tried.1
Life in India for her and the Europeans in her novel becomes a distressing and unforgettable
chore. Transients like Hochstadts have an avenue of escape. As the assignment at the university
gets over, they are happy to go back to England. They justify their presence in India by
pretending to advance the cause of East-West synthesis. Jhabvala states scornfully: But what a
store house of memories they would be taking with them. How greatly they felt themselves
enriched by their contact with this fabled land. It is really marvelous to have the Hochstadts
talking about the all embracing love that India teaches to the Europeans. From the point of

view of the novelist, they can afford to do so because they are looking through the amused eyes
of a visitor on a short stay. The novelty of the situation pleasantly excites them. Etta seems to be
summing up the novelists view:
Etta hated to hear Mrs. Hochstadt talk like that. It was the way people who were for only a short
time and had all their comforts and conveniences laid on, so often talked. As if India ever gave
anyone anything (except of course germs and diseases). What had it given Etta, after all these
years, taking her youth, her looks, her buoyancy and charm?
Like E.M. Forsters India, the India of A Backward Place is a place where the alien spirit is put
to test. Indi trap, rejects or embraces her aliens as they deserve- assimilating the worthy and
expelling or destroying the unworthy. The ideal of worth as it is presented in this novel and in
Heat and Dust is derived from Forsterian ideology. Forster describes the worthy as possessing
four leading characteristics- curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste and belief in the human
race.2 Curiosity obviously denotes a perceptive eye for the distinctive features of an alien
ethos. A free mind indicates an ability to rise above convention and put new ideas and ideals to
test. Belief in good taste implies a faith in the value of discrimination; meaning that the true
humanist recognizes the varying needs of diverse individuals and groups. Belief in the human
race implies a rejection of racism and a respect for human beings under all circumstances.
Adding honesty and intelligence to this list of qualities completes Ruth Jhabvalas criterion of
worth. Although Jhabvala herself realizes that she doesnt possess all the qualities required for
being worthy of assimilation in India yet she respects them in others. In this novel, Judy who is
least like her creator in character and spirit affirms all experience. In fact, her voice is Jhabvalas
voice in A Backward Place. Vasant Shahanes comments on this aspect of A Backward Place are
noteworthy:
The most significant aspect of A Backward Place, which strikes me as a major element of
Jhabvalas thought process, is the dominant voice of affirmation which rings true and clear in the
various chambers of its structure. Judy seems to me the central character in the novel that says
aye to all the challenges that her life and experience present to her. More than Etta, more than
Clarissa, Judy represents the authentic voice, the dominant note of this international orchestration
in A Backward Place.

The most deadly attack on Indias backwardness and the most determined resistance to
assimilation come from the neurotic aging beauty Etta. She fights a losing battle against
alienation and old age. Her buoyancy and youth have left her by the time we get to know of her
in the novel. She had once been young, vivacious and pretty enough to have a number of
admirers around her:
Starting with her first husband, who had brought her out to conquer and charm this virgin
territory, where lively blondes such as she were few and far between enough to be at the highest
premium. There had been a succession, which in the folly of her youth she had thought
inexhaustible, of young Indians: all with this in common that they were, on the one hand
fascinated with and completely uncritical of the ways of blondes and on the other, were all wellborn, well-bred, charming, slender, athletic with black eyes and black hair and strong white teeth
forever at the ready to flash at all her witty sayings. At that time all had been as wonderful as she
had a right to expect; and yes- when India; had appreciated her and she had been able, with a
fully and generous heart, to return the compliment. (ABP 167)
This is Ettas past history. She is now conscious not only of the ravages of time but also of the
effects caused by a cruel harsh climate. She is ageing fast. She is also aware that her admirers are
getting fewer and fewer and she cant afford to pick and choose her company. She feels trapped
in India. She would love to go back, at least for a brief spell but lacks the resources to do so.
Although she is not as poor as Clarissa yet she appeals to the generosity of crude, newly rich
hotelier Guppy, who ironically regards her with a sort of easy, good- natured contempt. When he
tells her that he is going to Cannes for a hoteliers conference, she pockets her pride and begs
him to take her along on the trip:
As soon as she had spoken, she heard the much too naked appeal in her own voice, so she
quickly tried to cover it up. Ill make my hair in a bun and buy a shorthand note book and Ill be
a super secretary for you- enables him, if he so chooses, to take it as a joke. And that was how
he did choose to take it. (ABP 123)
Etta is weary of India, its heat and dust, its germs and diseases. Like Jhabavala, she longs to free
herself, to escape from the awful squalor all around her. The reader never really sympathizes
with her plight because she overstays her hospitality in India. At the end, we have a clear view

into her psyche when she ponders on her fate: She lays on her bed and smoked and thought
about Europe. It was infinitely distant and infinitely desirable. But she was afraid of it too. Here
at least she had her personality; she was Etta, whom people knew and admired for being blonde
and vivacious and smart. In Europe there were many blondes She knows that she is no longer
young and may not be as acceptable there. Now she realizes that she is woefully out of date:
She no longer knew the way they dressed there, or the way they talked, or the fashionable food
they ate and the drinks they drank, the books they had read, the conversations they had held with
one another while she was out here. (ABP 213)
Etta has, in fact, become the no where person of the expatriate fiction who rejects the East to
be rejected by the West. In fact, Ettas life in India is, with some differences, a conscious
mirroring of the novelists vision of her own destiny. Though Jhabvala presents Etta as a
character of little worth and one who comes out to India for all the wrong reasons, an element of
genuine sympathy has gone into her making for she closely represents the novelists own impulse
towards exclusion at this point of her life in India. In Myself in India, Ruth Jhabvala describes
her life style in terms that bear an uncanny resemblance to that of Ettas:
I have a nice house, I do my best to live in an agreeable way. I shut all my windows, I let down
the blinds, I turn on the air-conditioner.All the time I know myself to be on the back of this
great animal of poverty and backwardness. It is not possible to pretend otherwise Even if one
never rolls up the blinds and never turns off the air-conditioner, something is bound to go wrong.
People are not meant to shut themselves in rooms and pretend there is nothing outside.
Thus Jhabvalas A Backward Place is a study of how these western women react to the
life in India. Except Judy, India has no place for any of her expatriates who are either expelled or
left to stagnate and even decay. The Hochstadts leave India and are soon forgotten. Clarissas
mental confusion and self-delusion remind her of the meaningless of her life in India. Etta has
come close to destruction. This is the final impression registered in the pages of Backward
Place. In all these reactions we get a glimpse facet of Jhabvalas own experience of India.

Notes
1.
2.
3.
4.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Myself in India, An Experience of India, p.8


E.M. Forster, Gide and George, Two Cheers for Democracy, p. 231.
Vasant A. Shahane, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1976), p.72.
Shantha Krishnaswami Glimpses of Women in India (Delhi: Ashish Publishing House,
1983), p. 316.