my literary apprenticeship with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Anita Desai in The Guardian:

ShahsiAlipur Road was a wide avenue lined with enormous banyan trees, and my mother and I would go for walks along it – to Maiden’s Hotel, which had a small library, or further on to the Quidsia Gardens. And, across the road, I’d see a young woman pushing a pram with a baby seated in it and a little girl dancing alongside it. She was a married woman clearly, and I a student at the University of Delhi, but glancing across the road at her, I felt an instinctive relation to her. Why? She was revealed to be a young woman of European descent – German and Polish – who was married to an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in rooms in a sprawling bungalow just off Alipur Road. When her mother, a German Jewish woman from London, visited her, Ruth searched for someone she could talk to. I think it might have been Dr Charles Fabri, the Hungarian Indologist who lived in the neighbourhood, who suggested she might meet my German mother, who had also come to India on marrying an Indian, 30 years before, in the 1920s. A coffee party – a kaffeklatsch – was arranged so the two could indulge in their shared language in this foreign setting. I can’t imagine how or why, but Ruth decided to follow their meeting, after her mother had returned to England, with many others, on a different level – that of daughters. With extraordinary kindness and generosity she would have me over to their house, one filled with books, the books she had brought with her from England where she had been a student at the University of London when she had met Jhab. Perhaps it touched her that I was so excited about being among her books, talking to her about books. After that whenever I came away with an armful of books on loan, with her talk still in my ears, I felt elated, a visitor to another world, the writers’ world I had only imagined and now proved real. I would go home to scribble at my desk with a new, unaccustomed sense of the validity of such an occupation.

…Ruth became ill, her family worried about her. In those days if she ever saw I was myself going through some anguish over life or writing, she would not question or probe but instead rally me – and perhaps herself – by quoting Thomas Mann: “He is mistaken who believes he may pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life,” or asking, laughingly, “What would you rather be – the happy pig or the unhappy philosopher?” making light of it but not taking it lightly herself. It must have been at this time that James Ivory and Ismail Merchant entered her life when they came to India in search of material for a film. They found it in an early novel of hers, The Householder, which she adapted for the screen for them. She said “Films made a nice change for me. I met people I wouldn’t have done otherwise: actors, financiers, con men,” and moved to New York, buying an apartment on the Upper East Side where Ismail and Jim lived.

More here.