10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 43

Intruders in the dusk and elsewhere

Philip Glazebrook

EAST INTO UPPER EAST: PLAIN TALES FROM NEW YORK AND NEW DELHI by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala John Murray, £15.99, pp. 340 These complex and delicate stories, which I should hate to have missed read- ing, are the outcome of clear intentions expressed with controlled precision. The stories are not emotional, not lyrical, but they are extraordinarily deft, each one fill- ing its 20-odd pages with sharp pictures of people busying themselves with living lives modified by shortcomings plainly visible to their creator. Half the stories take place around Delhi, half round New York, and it is a measure of Ruth Jhabvala's accuracy of observation that in no case could one of the American stories have happened in India, or vice versa; they are not stories about humanity, applicable like the para- bles to mankind anywhere, but accurate reports resulting from close scrutiny of individuals busy in their setting.

Yet there is a general theme, so it seemed to me. At the heart of many of the stories, the event which tightens their mainspring is the invasion of one person's space by another, and the consequent struggle of the host either to rid himself (or herself) of this incubus, or to tolerate it. A dying woman's New York apartment fills up with parasites; a New York estate agent has her business bankrupted by two clients who invade her own flat; two women live in terror of a maniacal son always pressing in on them; an Indian woman, leaving com- mercial failure in London to become a holy woman in north India, does not escape her husband, who follows her to settle anew to an idle life under her banyan tree. She accommodates him; the Indian women in these stories accept what is imposed on them, putting up, for instance, with a son's evil guest living in the best quarters of the family house while he brings down the son with him to execution in a Delhi jail.

The New York women, though more likely to go bananas, also accept that fate's burdens must be shouldered, that the vic- tim, indeed, may be dependent upon the interloper's vitality, and that divorce is only one move in an ongoing relationship. Donna's husband Si 'conformed to type. . . had moved out of the apartment and in with his latest girl friend', but carries on dropping in on Donna to look at his picture collection left on her walls, whilst she reacts gamely, 'constantly buying quality goods [so that she takes on] something of their aura', and 'keeping herself nice with a new hair shade'.

There is plenty of this quiet malice for her New York characters (and for Bombay wives 'closeted with their spiritual advis- ers'), but the harsh language in the book is directed against the second generation of post-Independence Indian politicians. With regret, and with pity for their etiolated lives, she writes of the inaction of the British-educated first generation who gave up power and responsibility in the face of challenge from those like 'the Milkman' of one of these stories, 'Minister of Defence',

a peasant who had worked his way up from his village council, who had been allotted one of the stately requisitioned mansions [in New Delhi], but who had no idea how to live in it.

These 'local politicians from backward states, some of whom can hardly read or write' are concerned not about the useful- ness of their ministry, but about their con- tinuance in power at any cost. In the shade snigger the Harrys and Dickoos of British- ruled India with their Gollys and their Oh My Goodnesses, useful only as tutors in protocol and manners to the men in power, watching servants drive marauding kites off the buffet by flapping starched white din- ner napkins at them. Modern India, the sprawl of Delhi, and the extinction of the large old Indian mansions which held together the members of a family, the cor- rupt politics, seem to sadden, even anger, Jhabvala's usually neutral voice.

I have said that the stories are not lyrical or passionate, due to this neutrality of tone, but the brief flame of the short story, like that of the poem, can suggest the inef- fable in a way that the novel cannot. The family house pulled down and replaced by flats, the kites driven off with starched nap- kins — both of these images, and other hints besides, strike a resonant chord. Many times, reading these stories, parallels with India's imposed-upon history, and with her independence and what she has done with it, came into my head. Again, into my mind's eye with one of her images would come the likeness of her creation to the figure of a god:

She continued to sit rigid, with her big knees planted wide apart as if made of stone . . . Suddenly she rose and her arms flailed as she beat him about the head and shoulders.

The stony immobility, followed by flailing arms, suggest a being larger than human.

These qualities fill the stories. When the lights went up at the end of each one, I regretted that I would see no more of its participants through the eyes of their cre- ator, and no longer hear her dry voice illu- minating the peculiarities of America, or revealing to me more of the fantastic ham- pering paraphernalia of Indian life.