Ruth Prawer was uprooted from her home in Cologne, Germany, at a young age in 1939 and became one of many Jewish refugees in England. She married Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to India in 1951—a move that would inspire the majority of her work. In 1975, she moved to New York, and stayed there until her death on April 3, 2013, after years of declining health.
“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” she told UK publication The Guardian in 2005. “I can’t ever remember not being all right wherever I was. But you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place, or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in.”
With her Indian surname, Jhabvala (pronounced Job-va-la), and her penchant for depicting the daily truths of urban Indian life, many mistook her as being of Indian descent.
Her friend and fellow novelist Anita Desai told The Guardian that Jhabvala had “always written about the new worlds she’s entered,” rather than focusing on the past.
British writer Caryl Phillips told The Guardian, “She understood loss of language, land, and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herself—first in the heart of the old empire, then in the cradle of a newly independent country, and now in the center of the new American empire.”
Jhabvala separated her movie-industry work from her novel and short-story writing.
“With fiction, it’s mine entirely,” she told Denis Faye of the Writers Guild of America in a recent interview. “You have to do everything yourself that, in a film, the director does, the actors do, the set designer does, the camera man does, the whole crew. A novel is more than a blueprint. You have to work out everything yourself.”
Although some of her original stories were made into films, she generally preferred to adapt the works of other writers for her screenplays.
She admitted to Faye that she had to “disrespect” authors such as E.M. Forster, the writer behind Howards End and A Room With a View, to change the characters so they were suited to the screen. She worked closely with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory on many films.
At the beginning of the interview, she had warned Faye that it might not last long, as her asthma made speaking difficult.
She continued writing in her last years despite failing health.
Short-story writer and critic Aamer Hussein described Jhabvala’s writing to The Guardian: “She wrote with a hard realism as well as great compassion.”
“I never care whether all that much is going to be published or not,” Jhabvala told Faye. “As long as I can sit down in the morning and all these things come alive for me, that’s fine. And it does come alive still.”