Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “Aphrodisiac”

07/27/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011.

PLOT: Kishen, an ugly young writer, returns from university (Cambridge) with the intention of writing about “the deepest layers of the Indian experience: caste-ridden villagers, urban slum dwellers, landless laborers, as well as the indecently rich of commerce and industry.” He moves in with his mother and elder brother, Shiv, as well as Shiv’s new wife, Naina, who is described as “very young, shy, scarcely educated” but is actually the opposite. Over the course of twenty years, he loses himself to Naina’s possibly supernatural temptations, unable to leave now that he has “Touched the Breast of Mother India,” caught up in this woman’s selfish sickness, the lethargic charm she casts around her.

EFFECT: Negligible. Jhabvala hardly seems to care about her characters, and is so intent in using Naina as some sort of metaphor for the condition some young men of India find themselves bewitched by that she fails to tell much of a story, and the result is far from compelling. The family’s melodramatic cook is so suspicious of Naina’s wizened nurse that he takes to sleeping in the kitchen, Kishen’s mother falls ill with an undiagnosable condition, and Shiv, a politician, is so decorously depicted that his arguments and long absences from his wife are conducted entirely in the background. It’s so bland, in fact, that Jhabvala’s use of Indian words (think Junot Diaz’s peppered Spanish) stands out like a hitchhiker’s thumb: she wants to take us somewhere, but we’ve no idea where.

CONCLUSION: One man’s aphrodisiac is another man’s repellent. Jhabvala spans such a long period of time that the opening of her story hardly resembles the end, which would be fine if we understood the ways in which these characters changed (beyond the superficial description of Naina’s increasing weight and inexplicable devilishness). Just as Kishen’s aspirations are swept under the table, so too is his character; if the point is that we lose ourselves to our appetites/desires, shriveling up if unfulfilled for too long, this was hardly the best way to make that point.

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