Imagined destinies
Shastri Ramachandaran

My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past.
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. John Murray. Pages 276. Rs 395

My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible PastA nation is an imagined community. When identity can be imagined, and invented, it seems only natural that the individual would want to reinvent her life, speculate on an alternative life and live other lives. Everyone wonders, at one time or another, how it would be to live another life than the one s/he is living. And it is an intriguing and alluring prospect: the process of inventing in one’s imagination what — if we were to be granted an alternative life — would remain constant and what would be different. Yet, few persist with such musings to any conclusive end. Instead, they read fiction (and watch films and plays) to live vicariously the other lives that never come to full form in their imagination. This is one test of great fiction: how it can draw the reader to live the life scripted by the narrator.

So, when it happens, that the narrator herself comes forward with a powerful rendering of imagined, alternative lives that might have been lived, the reader is thrown off balance, much to his own delight. The reader was looking forward to living another life elsewhere, packed with things that didn’t actually happen to him. Instead, he is confronted with the narrator putting herself elsewhere; not once, not twice but nine times. "I may have been trying out alternative destinies — this time not, as usual, for fictional characters but for myself", she reveals in the introductory Apologia. To live nine lives in imagination, reinventing every leaf of each life is wondrously enchanting. All the more so, when the narrator who reinvents herself is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She does it with a magical finesse, where words weave web after illusory web, transporting the haplessly seduced reader to worlds he may have dreamt of vaguely but knew not how to populate with characters, relationships, events, happenings, cultures, habitats and emotions.

Jhabavala’s My Nine Lives is her first novel after nine years. These Chapters of a Possible Past, as the sub-title states, are "potentially autobiographical". As she says in the Apologia: "even when something didn’t actually happen to me, it might have done so." The countries and cultures in the nine stories are where Jhabvala has lived and the settings are New York, London and India. Love, the tangle of relationships and existential issues are but a few of the elements in these stories where unhappy marriages, the life of an artist (actor, painter or musician), states of emotional and cultural exile and spiritual quests unravel in unconventional ways.

The sheer mastery of prose delivered with her characteristic balance, wit and humour is absorbing for the manner in which the loud is emphasied with subtlety, and the disparate rendered as a vivid kaleidoscope. The book has an attractive and painterly cover with illustrations inside by her architect-husband C. S. H. Jhabvala.

THE publishers have done well to re-issue select backtitles of the author: Heat and Dust, which won the Booker in 1975 and was made into a film that has now become a classic; Out of India, which is a rich tapestry of the many Indias unfolding in 15 stories; The Householder, though a novel about a young teacher in New Delhi and his eventual coming to terms with marriage, is also social commentary that is a treat because it doesn’t read like a treatise; and Esmond in India is a brilliant depiction — through the tale of two families — of Indian life and facets of class, culture and values around the time of Independence suffused with the familiar sights and smells.

All these four books, each priced at Rs 200, with covers that remind you of period paintings or photographs are welcome, for when you finish reading one of Jhabvala’s novels, what you wish to do is read another of hers. Never mind that it was published 40 or more years ago, and that you have already it or seen the Merchant-Ivory film version of it.