Just when one had Ruth Prawer Jhabvala fixed as a writer of clever novels of manners in the British mode but with an Indian setting, she produced Heat and Dust (1975), a work that was more acutely perceptive about the Anglo-Indian experience than any other novel (including those of Paul Scott) since A Passage to India. Then, with In Search of Love and Beauty (1983), she boldly and unexpectedly transferred her setting from India to America. But she brought with her an essentially Indian theme: the relationship of a circle of needy and demanding disciples to the authoritarian guru at their center. In this case, the guru figure is not an Indian but a charismatic Jewish refugee of the Thirties, Leo Kellerman, and his circle consists of well-to-do refugee women from Germany and Austria who feel bored and stranded in New York; years later, when he is seventy, he establishes an Academy of Potential Development, which attracts not only distraught women but youthful followers from the counterculture as well. Mrs. Jhabvala casts a very cold eye indeed upon most of these people, and her novel, while skillfully constructed and often amusing, is flawed, I think, by what seems to be a virulent dislike of—or contempt for—most of her characters.
Three Continents is both longer and more ambitious than any of her previous works, and it, too, deals with the corrupted relationship between leaders and disciples. Her complex story, with its vast array of characters, is told by the naive narrator, Harriet Wishwell, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a rich but rapidly decaying American family. Harriet is also a principal figure—in fact the anti-heroine—of the often sordid tale that she tells. Her feckless parents having been divorced when she was six, Harriet and her adored twin brother, Michael, were raised by her paternal grandfather, a rich diplomat assigned to various posts, chiefly in the Middle or Far East. Educated at international schools, both twins are restless and dissatisfied with their American heritage, and both are looking for what Michael, who has spent a good deal of time wandering about India, refers to as “om, the real thing.” “While our parents were having marital squabbles and adulterous love affairs,” explains Harriet, “and our grandparents were giving diplomatic cocktail parties, he and I were struggling with concepts of Maya and Nirvana, and how to transcend our own egos.”
At the novel’s opening, Harriet is staying at Propinquity, her mother’s inherited house in what is presumably Connecticut, trying to decide whether or not to return to college for her sophomore year. While she is dithering about this decision, Michael telephones from London to say that the somewhat neglected estate must be cleaned up and made ready to receive some very important friends whom he has made in India. Arriving like royalty with an entourage, these visitors not only take over Propinquity but quickly come to dominate the lives of Harriet and Michael, their mother, Lindsay, and Lindsay’s lesbian girlfriend, Jean.
At the center of this invasion is an Indian princeling known as the Rawul, a stout and imposing figure with English manners and fine English clothes who enjoys good living but sees himself as the savior of world civilization. To this end he has created a movement called the Fourth World—a movement that aims to transcend all political and racial boundaries and establish a universal state founded upon peace and love. With him are his beautifully dressed wife, known as Rani, a voluptuous Eurasian whose name was once Renée; and their adopted son, Crishi. The latter is also Eurasian—a handsome, sleepy-looking young man (though not as young as he looks) with olive skin and faintly slanting eyes, who, whenever he appears, induces in both Michael and Harriet a shock “as of a live electric wire suddenly coming into contact with an innermost part of one’s being.” Michael, who is homosexual, sees Crishi as the embodiment of the om, the real thing, and Harriet too becomes obsessed by him. Finally, there are the followers: the pale, intense, overworked, and rather sexless group of young men and women who have devoted themselves to the Rawul and his movement. Over this retinue Crishi, in the name of the Rawul, exercises absolute and sometimes brutal power.
Lindsay, the mother of the twins, impulsively decides to donate Propinquity to the Rawul’s movement, to become its American headquarters. The grandfather dies, leaving Harriet and Michael as his heirs; they will have the full disposal of the estate when they reach twenty-one, and it quickly becomes clear that they intend to sign over everything to the Rawul and the movement when they are legally able to do so—despite objections from their father and the family lawyer. The twins now form a threesome with Crishi, in and out of each other’s rooms at all hours and swimming together nude on moonlit nights beneath the waterfall at Propinquity. When at last Harriet and Crishi make love, Harriet becomes sexually in thrall to him, living for those nights when he comes, very late, to her room. She suspects that he is sleeping with Michael on the other nights, but she can never bring herself to ask her brother directly.
Crishi’s relations with overripe Rani-Renée are equally murky. She asks Harriet to marry Crishi, claiming that he is too shy to do so himself. And later, when they are married and living in London, she joins them in bed; the sexually intoxicated Harriet is ashamed of this experience but voices no objection to it. It becomes clear, too, that Rani and Crishi are involved in a complex smuggling operation that provides the financial base for the Rawul’s movement until such time as the twins’ fortune becomes available. Apart from sex, the marriage between Crishi and Harriet seems hardly to exist:
It was a strange time for me in London. Although everyone else was very busy working for the movement, I had nothing to do except wait for those few hours when Crishi came to be with me; if he came, that is. I went around on my own, traveling on the tops of buses, walking through the parks in the rain. I went to museums and looked at pictures and antiquities, and went to see films in multiple cinemas…. I was so crazy with sex at the time, I went to some porno ones too, and that was strange, with all those men in raincoats, sitting very still and concentrated.
During her wanderings Harriet allows herself to be picked up by a Middle Eastern man, follows him to his dingy room, and submits passively to his love-making. She is grateful that it is over so soon and that she hasn’t enjoyed it at all. “I realized that my ravenous need was not that of one physical animal for another but for one particular human being—for Crishi, for my husband, whom I loved.” Crishi reminds her of the Indian myths of the Lord Krishna, who teases his adoring girls (the gopis or cow-herders of the legend), hiding from them, “just showing a glimpse of himself every now and again to keep them in line.” Crishi-Krishna is as elusive, as tricky, as glamorous and cruel as any god.
In summarizing less than half of this crowded novel, I have left out all mention of perhaps a dozen characters and several dozen incidents. As the title suggests, the action moves from the United States to London and then to India—to Delhi, where the situation becomes increasingly sinister, and ultimately to the Rawul’s desert principality, where, on the eve of her twenty-first birthday, the cage door at last swings shut upon the deluded, hapless, and besotted Harriet. With each move, still more characters are introduced, and episode follows episode in a seemingly endless chain.
There are, I suppose, other parallels to Indian mythology or epic in the novel besides the story of Krishna and his milkmaids: Harriet and Michael, for instance, could perhaps be seen as princely twins who fall under the spell of an enchanter who cheats them of their inheritance. But this is a line of inquiry that does not seem worth pursuing. Three Continents comes to us primarily in the guise of realistic fiction, and the phenomenon of the guru or cult figure, together with the abnegation—at times reaching murderous or suicidal extremes—of his followers, is an aspect of late-twentieth-century pathology (or, if you prefer, of spiritual neediness) that could be the subject of a revealing story. Though it seems to promise such a story, Three Continents fails, in my opinion, chiefly because Mrs. Jhabvala, by entrusting the telling of her story to a young woman who is naive almost to the point of stupidity, has, in effect, put her own literary intelligence under wraps. The use of a callow or otherwise unreliable narrator may be an effective device in a brief or relatively brief work, but after more than four hundred pages the reader demands more clarification or enlightenment than poor Harriet Wishwell can provide.
Although near the beginning we are told that much time has passed and that Harriet is retrospectively trying hard to see the Rawul, Rani, and Crishi as she saw them when she first met them, we are never given the advantage of her hind-sight or mature reflection. At the end of the novel she is still as deluded—and almost as young—as in the opening pages. The reader observes what is happening to her with increasing dismay but feels (in my case at least) more exasperation than either horror or pity. Harriet’s mode of narration unflaggingly hurries us from event to event, never really pausing long enough over one to make it dramatically memorable or to register its full significance. Her somewhat breathlessly declarative style suggests all too clearly the passivity of her character:
Sometimes I wondered about the Rawul, how he was taking these developments in his family; but I don’t think he was too much aware of them. He lived on another plane. He was there to change the world. Anna said he was crazy, and while it was true that there was a strange light in his eyes, I still believed it was the light of the skies he had gazed into so much, and everything he had seen there and dreamed. While the rest of us revolved around him, immersed in our preoccupations, he stood alone—or would have, if it hadn’t been for the Bari Rani. For her he wasn’t this almost symbolic figure, but a husband who often enraged her, whom she fussed over and fought with and said was getting too fat.
While there are many passages of vivid description, there is little analysis of the sort that would enable the reader to grasp—or even to speculate intelligently about—the implications of a particular episode or relationship. There are too many people and events—among them Harriet’s sexual enslavement to the increasingly villainous Crishi—for which we have to take her less than adequate word, with no other perspective from which to observe the situation. The Rawul’s hold over his followers, to take a central example, is never clarified. As perceived by Harriet, he is, despite the light in his eyes, a mostly bland and gracious presence with a program to sell—and a vaguely political, rather than religious, program at that. Though Harriet reports that he can be eloquent about transcendental internationalism, he is hardly the charismatic leader to whom a disciple would offer up not only his wealth but the very governance of his life. The Rawul is no Ramakrishna or Swami Muktananda, who, with the mere touch of a peacock feather, could reduce a devotee to a state of sobbing ecstasy. With the failure to give the Rawul’s power imaginative force, Ruth Jhabvala provides us with little more than a lengthy spectacle of fools, dupes, and knaves at their antics. As an admirer of her previous work, I had expected more.
By contrast, R.K. Narayan’s new novel, which also deals with a spellbinder of sorts, is short and unassuming. Readers familiar with his previous novels (there are thirteen) and his collections of stories find themselves transported back, once again, to the imaginary small city of Malgudi (population approximately 100,000) in southern India, back among the street vendors and vagrants, the station masters and sign printers, the autorickshaw drivers and the loquacious habitués of the Boardless Hotel. It is a relaxed and seedy place where relics of the former Raj coexist with “improvements” fostered by the new regime, and where no one is ever too busy to pry into his neighbor’s business or to order a cup of coffee at the Boardless.
Our guide this time is Talkative Man:
Some affectionately shorten it to TM: I have earned this title, I suppose, because I cannot contain myself…. I’d choke if I didn’t talk, perhaps like Sage Narada of our epics, who for all his brilliance and accomplishments carried a curse on his back that unless he spread a gossip a day, his skull would burst.
TM is a rentier and a bachelor who lives in a big inherited house on Kabir Street. Ambitious to become a journalist, he scours Malgudi for possible subjects, which he then writes up in pieces that he sends off—unsolicited—to various newspapers, hoping that they will print at least a few lines to fill up space. He goes regularly to the Town Hall library to check the newspapers for the possible appearance of one of his reports. It is there that the old librarian introduces him one day to an important-looking man dressed in a blue suit, tie, and shining shoes—an outfit seldom seen in Malgudi.
The stranger is Dr. Rann, actually Rangan (“a hardy Indian name which he had trimmed and tailored to sound foreign; the double N at the end was a stroke of pure genius. One would take him to be a German, Rumanian or Hungarian—anything but what he was”). He announces to TM that he is from Timbuc-too (“a lovely place on the west coast of Africa. A promising, developing town—motor cars in the streets, skyscrapers coming up—Americans are pouring in a lot of money there”) and that he is working on a project for the United Nations. In search of a quiet town in which to organize his material in peace, he has come to Malgudi, where he has been living in the bedbug-infested waiting room of the railway station. At first skeptical of Dr. Rann’s claims and irritated by his pretentions, TM is at last won over to the point of finding him suitable quarters—in his own house, as it turns out.
What follows is a farce so gentle that the reader’s attention and emotions seem drawn along by the slenderest of threads. TM files a story on the man from Timbuctoo. It is accepted by an editor who insists upon a photograph of Dr. Rann to accompany the article. For good reason, as it turns out, Dr. Rann is leery of being photographed, and TM has to arrange for the picture to be taken surreptitiously. The upshot of all of this is the arrival at the railway station of “a six-foot woman (as it seemed at first sight), dark-complexioned, cropped head, and in jeans and a T-shirt with bulging breasts, the first of her kind in the Malgudi area.” She has seen the article and photograph and has come from Delhi to reclaim her runaway husband. Meanwhile, Dr. Rann has been attempting to seduce the innocent young granddaughter of the old librarian.
The complicating and unscrambling of these events occupies the rest of the novel. The dark lady’s life history is related at somewhat tedious length. There are some funny scenes—particularly the one in which Dr. Rann causes a near riot during a public lecture at the Town Hall on his favorite obsession: the existence of an insignificant-looking weed that by the year 3000 will cover the entire globe, causing the collapse of the planet:
Where it appears no other plant can grow. It swallows every scrap of vegetation near at hand, root, stalk, and leaf; it quenches its thirst by sapping up groundwater however deep the water-table may be. I have in my collection a specimen—a wire-like root three hundred feet long when it was pulled out. Under a microscope at the root-terminal were seen sacs to suck up water. Ultimately no water will be left underground, in rivers or in the sea, when billions of such sacs are drawing up water and evaporating them at the surface.
The deputy minister from Delhi who introduces Rann’s lecture is a politician who goes on for more than an hour about his past relationship with Gandhi and Nehru and then hurries off to the airport for another meeting before Dr. Rann can even begin. Despite such bits of satire—and there are a number of them—Talkative Man as a whole seems a somewhat perfunctory performance. Dr. Rann is a sketchy figure, to say the least, and his unmasking as a consummate confidence man and multiple bigamist is brought about in a rather mechanical fashion, as is the rescue of the librarian’s granddaughter from his nefarious intentions. One finishes with the impression that R.K. Narayan is relying upon his well-known charm and ease of manner to lull his reader into accepting a rather slight comic sketch in the place of a deeper and fuller work. The engagingly apologetic postscript with which Talkative Man ends suggests that the author is perfectly aware of what he has—and has not—achieved. “I had planned Talkative Man as a full-length novel,” he tells us, “and grandly titled it, ‘Novel No. 14.’ While it progressed satisfactorily enough, it would not grow beyond 116 typewritten sheets, where it just came to a halt, like a motor car run out of petrol.” Perhaps the horsepower of this particular vehicle was rather low to begin with.
October 8, 1987