This is the debut novel of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, most famous for her 1975 Booker Prize winning novel, Heat and Dust, and for writing the screenplays of several Merchant-Ivory films, two of which she won Oscars for. I love these movies and have also enjoyed her books immensely, including Heat and Dust, so I was delighted to come across a book of hers that I had not read. Born in Germany and raised in England, she moved to India after getting married and chose it as the setting for many of her novels. I have found that she brings a unique sensibility to her writing – a merging of the insider’s and outsider’s perspective that is hard to find in books written by other Indian authors. This was in full display even in her debut novel, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will.
The story is about Amrita and Hari, who are ostensibly in love with each other and want to get married but are thwarted by their respective families as they belong to different socio-economic classes. While the story of star-crossed lovers is as old as the hills, especially in India, this one is distinctly different. It is more of a comedy than a drama or a tragedy. The focus is not so much on the love story of the protagonists, but on the detailed descriptions of each member of their families, delving into their personalities, their relationships with each other, their interactions with other people, and their day to day lives. And all of this is done with so much warmth and humor that you feel an affection for each one of these characters, all the way from Amrita’s stern and stately grandfather, a retired barrister, to Hari’s nieces and nephews, a brood that his sister is continuing to add to because her husband, like so many others, “still thought of nothing but [his] own pleasure.”
In addition to the melee of characters, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will is filled with so many details about life in India at that time – it was published in 1955 — that it serves, I think, as a good record of what newly independent India, still shaking off the vestiges of colonialism, was like. You get the impression that Jhabvala observed every little detail of life in her adopted country, not taking anything for granted as native-born Indians might tend to do, and was able to capture that on paper. The result is a vivid portrayal of life in India, in all its festive messiness, teeming with vignettes on everything from the food that was cooked to wedding celebrations to the abundance of servants in upper-class families to long-distance travel by train with the “shame” of having to be in the third-class carriage. It was so close to my own childhood memories of India that reading the book made me feel extremely nostalgic. This, along with how well-written and easy to read it was, made Amrita: Or to Whom She Will a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Amrita: Or to Whom She Will
Author: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Publisher: Fireside (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: June 1955
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.