Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s latest edition of The Householder is out, and it is as enthralling a read for the millennial as it was in the 60s.By Vivek Tejuja
I was introduced to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books through Merchant-Ivory films. Ruth was a part of the trio of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. She conjured and wrote stories for them. Sometimes, she even adapted from her own novels. What I love about Jhabvala’s books is the simplicity—of language, plot and overall structure. She doesn’t pretend to be literary but ends up being profound. And yet, in all of that, not once do you not feel, as you read her books and bask in their sweet warmth, that you are still rooted in reality.
The Householder is one such book. Published in 1960, it still rings true on so many levels. India may have evolved since then and grown to be digital, yet the ethos of Jhabvala’s India remains true to date. The Householder is a book about a young man named Prem who has moved from the first stage of his life, that of a student, to the second stage, that of a householder. Prem works as a schoolteacher with minimal needs and suddenly, before he knows it, he is married to a woman he barely knows. Well, that’s how it worked in the 1960s (and sometimes even in today’s India).
The book is literally about coming-of-age as Prem realizes his responsibilities and grows as an individual; his experiences only empower him to do the right things. At the same time, he has to define himself as a husband to Indu— sexually, in a more dignified manner, and as someone who can take care of his family, no matter what. The book, in a sense, is also a comedy of manners, but mostly it is also about a small, middle-class Indian household and its perils. At the same time, Jhabvala introduces us to the intimacy and levels of comfort and discomfort between a newly-wed couple. What is hilarious is the mother-in-law’s interference in almost every decision.
Jhabvala makes the Delhi of the 60s come alive in this book. It is as though you can touch, see and smell it all: take every molecule of the city inside of you. Jhabvala doesn’t leave the secondary characters to fend for themselves. Everyone has a part to play, from Prem’s colleagues, his superior, his wife Indu, to the swami he visits for spiritual guidance; they all lend brilliantly to the story, adding up to each and every thread. The Householder is a book that may not seem to be that important or that great at the first glance, but as you go along, as the characters become familiar, and as the pages turn, you are in for a real treat. Tip: Do watch the movie The Householder starring Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu once you are done reading the book. It makes for interesting viewing.