Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – birthday 7th May
According to the synopsis of this novel on Goodreads – The Householder is a witty novel. There is certainly a kind of bittersweet comedic quality to some of it – but I’m not sure I’d call it witty exactly. I’m just being pedantic perhaps – for me, while The Householder is a comedy of manners – I found myself indulging in an occasional wry smile, rather than chuckling into my book. Nonetheless this is a charming touching novel which I found by turn, sad and heart-warming. Jhabvala beautifully depicts 1960’s Delhi society – particularly of the low waged educated classes. The dusty crowded streets and cramped living conditions, hoards of indolent young men, inattentive in large college classrooms – the difficulty of making ends meet, the strangeness of new responsibilities, Jhabvala captures it all perfectly.
Prem is a young teacher at a second (or even third) rate college – he knows he is not particularly good at his job and that his salary is barely sufficient to keep himself and his new wife – who is already pregnant. Life is not easy for Prem, he is shy and has no real friends in Delhi. His wife Indu is something of a mystery to him, theirs was an arranged marriage – and he is daunted by the responsibility of a wife and a home, and embarrassed by Indu’s pregnancy. When Prem’s mother announces she intends to visit her son, Indu reveals she is intending to go home to visit her mother. Prem doesn’t want her to go – but has no idea how to make her stay. Finding his salary too small, and his rent too high, Prem needs to pluck up the courage to speak to his employer and his landlord, tasks he finds himself quite unequal to. Invited to a college tea party Prem is desperate to create the right impression – the thought of a salary rise always at the back of his mind.
“He watched her drinking her tea and noticed regretfully that she was not doing so with the refinement which would be required at Mr Khanna’s tea-party. He brooded about this for a while, then got up and followed her into the bedroom. She was lovingly dusting a picture of Mother and Baby which she had recently acquired and hung up on the bedroom wall. Baby was very stout, with big fat folds in its legs, and Mother had a simpering expression and held a sunflower in one hand.
‘When you drink tea’ Prem said, ‘You must hold your little finger up in the air, like this.’ He demonstrated, and she watched him in amazement. Suddenly she gave a very strange sound and continued quickly with her dusting. ‘What is there to laugh at?’ he said crossly. “
Once a week Prem meets Raj – his one friend from his pre-Delhi life in Ankpur, Raj has been married longer than Prem, already has a child, works in a government office but lets Prem pay for their tea each time they meet. Poor Prem longs for the intimate confidential chat the two of them had enjoyed before their marriages – desperate to talk to someone about his difficulties at home and at work, but is unable to open up to Raj – who clearly has his own preoccupations. When Prem meets German tourist Hans he is embraced for his supposed Indian spirituality – and enjoys meeting the Swami that Hans has discovered.
When Indu does go to visit her mother, Prem is amazed at how he misses her, yet he seems unable to write and tell her so – embarrassed should any of her family read the letter – and having his mother around again is not quite as he had imagined either.
As Prem finds his way in his new way of life – he begins to feel differently about the bewildering array of responsibilities he has. Prem is one of life’s innocents – and for a time, in trying to please the people around him, he only serves to make himself less happy. We see Prem mature as he begins to understand his wife and the reality of his life and how to manage it. Jhabvala certainly manages to portray the lives of ordinary people in India faithfully, and in such a way that the reader instantly loves the characters.
This was the second of the Jhabvala books that Liz loaned me to read during my month of birthday reading. This charming novel then brings my birthday reading to a close. I know May has not quite finished – but I needed to get on with the next book in the Hardy reading challenge – my re-reading of Wessex Tales which I’m already enjoying very much.