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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “Aphrodisiac”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s “Aphrodisiac” was originally published in the July 11 & 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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Wow!  Though it has only been a few years since her last screenplay and last New Yorker short story (both in 2008), I had no idea that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was still writing!  At 84, she’s had a long career.  I know her best from her remarkable work with Merchant Ivory Productions (for which she won two well deserved Academy Awards; I think she should have won a third with Remains of the Day, or maybe not since the film’s ending just isn’t as good as the book’s) and her Booker Prize win (1975 for Heat and Dust, which I haven’t read (note I said “Booker Prize win” and not “Booker Prize winner” . . . ).

Despite all of that, I was a bit wary when I started ”Aphrodisiac.”  Its setup — Kishen, a Cambridge graduate, returns to his home in India, determined to write a great novel about India, getting the integers right: “caste-ridden villagers, urban slum dwellers, landless laborers, as well as the indecently rich of commerce and industry” — felt a bit familiar, those integers more like clichés than elements necessary to tell a great story about India.  It seems that often a story like the one Kishen wants to write comes along and its mission is to display India (or whatever other country that is often reduced to familiar images) rather than really tell a unique story set there.  It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon that showed a bunch of people on a New York street, some walking, some looking out their windows, each thinking something along these lines: “And right then I knew: I had one hell of a story, and I was going to tell it!”

Thankfully, though there is a bit of the struggle of the boy educated in the West trying to adapt to his life in the East, this story goes somewhere else and gets much more intimate.  It’s set in India, but there is much more here about human nature.

So, Kishen has returned home, and he wants to write, but he doesn’t know what.  In Kishen’s absence, his older brother, Shiv, has married Naina.  It wasn’t an arranged marriage; “Kishen’s mother was too modern to arrange marriages for her sons.”  You may have guessed it, but Naina (and her friends) inspire Kishen’s first successful jabs at writing: “You should write it down!” the girls exclaimed — and, at their urging, he began to do so.”  Soon he was writing a weekly column for a magazine.  It’s not what he dreamed, but it’s keeping him around.

And this is where the story gets interesting for me.  He wants to go back to Cambridge, has wanted that since he left there.  But “she happened: his sister-in-law, Naina.”  The story gives no reason why Kishen should be at all attracted to Naina, but he is, and we get the sense that, if asked, he couldn’t come up with one thing that made him give up all other things in order to remain in the same household as Naina.  Soon, she has her first and then second child.  They are much older, and if looks were ever the reason he felt drawn to her they aren’t any more.  To a degree, he feels repulsed by her, but he cannot leave.

As unreasonable as the story is, it is remarkably believable.  Is it really an aphrodisiac the maid gives him?  That seems like the only plausible explanation, but, of course, that can’t be true.

8 thoughts on “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “Aphrodisiac””

  1. Jerri says:

    I read it yesterday and liked it, but not enough to tear it out for my “keepers” notebook. I thought that the writing was quite fine, and the story raised some amusing questions about what constitutes an aphrodisiac – what magical thing attracts one person to another sexually. What detracted from the experience of reading it, for me, is that I’ve kind of burned out on the East/West cultural-conflict story, of which the New Yorker seems to run a fair number. That’s not a problem intrinsic to the story, and I recognize that reading it that way is limiting its potential meaning. It’s just my personal reading quirk at the moment. A couple more months of reading about crazy Southern families should fix the problem and get me back into a mood to read about crazy multicultural families.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Jerri. I read the story last week but still haven’t sat down to write about it (obviously), but my thoughts echo yours. I did like the story quite a bit, even more than I thought given that I too am a bit tired of the type of story I thought this was going to be (that East/West conflict). But it ended up, for me, being quite different. Hopefully I’ll get my thoughts up in more detail soon :) .

  3. Ken says:

    I have to agree that the conflict here is really getting overly familiar. I liked this alright but I think Lahiri writes much better. I found this old-fashioned-obvious expository passages, rather heavy-handed symbolisms. The ambiguity about what possibly supernatural forces are at work and the ambiguity of the ending are the best qualities in a story otherwise far too schematic.

  4. Betsy says:

    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s “Aphrodisiac” follows five members of a New Delhi family: Kishen, the aspiring writer, Shiv, his successful bureaucrat of an older brother, Shiv’s wife, Naina, an uneducated rich girl from the provinces, her ancient nanny, and the mother-mother-in-law of all, a progressive economist, a modern woman. The story shimmers with tension and ambiguity, and it also explores how “the old ways” can keep a near lethal hold on us.

    Jhabvala is interested in words, so I don’t think the title is carelessly chosen. Really, I think she is asking – what is it, exactly, that gives us a thrill?

    The aphrodisiac of Jhabvala’s New Delhi story could be the betel, known as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, that Kishen and his sister-in-law Naina chew together. Presumably, it leaves both their mouths tinged with red, and so perhaps the aphrodisiac is also the delicious tension they feel by being so publicly and innappropirately linked.

    The aphrodisiac could also be the power Kishen feels in cuckolding (so to speak) his brother, or the power Naina feels in holding Kishen hostage (so to speak). Of course, there is also a thrill, one would presume, of Kishen holding his mother’s ambitions hostage as well. And in that vein, there is the way Shiv has double crossed his mother (and unwittingly, himself) when he chose the uneducated rich girl to be his wife. Perhaps the person who feels the keenest thrill of power is Bari-Mai, Naina’s ancient nanny who now takes care of Naina’s own children – so close they have her “peculiar smell”. Bari-Mai is the one who prepares the betel, the one who cooks Naina’s special foods, and the one who is suspected of poisoning the educated mother-in-law, and perhaps it is she who wields the bulk of the power in this household.

    The thrill is in the play of power so that the other knows they are in thrall.

    Kishen knows that Naina has seduced him into staying in New Delhi when he had no intention of staying; he also knows that as a part of this game she has persuaded him to tear up the tickets to England that might (or might not) save his mother’s life, and that might (or might not) give him the chance to write his great novel.

    The mother knows that (in the name of modernity) she has ceded power to her daughter-in-law; she also knows she has allowed the ancient nanny to care for her grandsons when she knows the nanny “speaks a dialect only Naina could understand.” The foul cooking smells that emanate from the Nanny’s cooking make another notch on the old nanny’s belt; it isn’t much of a leap to guess the nanny’s potions are actually behind the mother’s illness.

    Power trumps everything, especially if your victim knows they’ve been trapped. It’s delicious. The exercise of power is the real sex in this story; sex itself seems sadly absent, especially for the handsome Shiv, regardless of the story’s title.

    Another aphrodisiac here is self delusion: Kishan stays in New Delhi, writing away, perhaps fooling himself about the significance of his work.

    Julian Barnes, in his recent New Yorker story “Homage to Hemingway”, explores the question of failure in writing; his writer has some ruins in his life due to having been successful, and then has further ruins when although he keeps writing, no one wants to publish it. Here, Jhabvala asks if a writer can be in ruins (with a betel mouth to prove it) if he doesn’t write the novel he envisions: the novel that would sink its pilings into the deepest layers of Indian experience. Instead, Kishen writes charming articles for the newpaper about the girls who surround Naina – the “Real Housewives of New Delhi”. People love his stuff and think he is clever; only his mother tries to lure him back to England, where maybe, just maybe, he could concentrate.

    Whether Jhabvala herself achieves what Kishen wanted to – that is a question. He says he wants to grasp all of India at once, that he wants to express the “integers” of India: the wholeness of every experience, not just a fraction of it. There is so much humor and irony in this story that one questions whether Jhabvala is being humorous here, too. Except for one thing: perhaps she, in the compass of all of her work, is aiming at the “integers” of India as well, among them, the contrasts of wealth and poverty. Jhabvala’s use of the word “integers” is unique to me. I would love to know if this is so, or if the word has some theoretical meaning I am unaware of.

    Another aphrodisiac is the lazy life their wealth has bought them; even with the children, Kishen and Naina live a life a little reminiscent of “Sex and the City”: no cares, lots of style, and no housecleaning.
    How could Kishen give that up for a cold weather life in England?

    In an interesting article in the Guardian (March 19, 2005), Maya Jaggi tells how Jhabvala was born of a well-to-do Polish Jewish family in Cologne, how they escaped to England in 1939, how they survived the Blitz, how Ruth married Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to Delhi. Not only is Ruth a double outsider, but possibly Cyrus is also somewhat of an outsider himself – being Parsi, he would have been born into a tiny ancient community of Zoroastrians. He is named Cyrus, I point out. (Maybe you knew all that!) At any rate, Jhabvala describes herself as someone “blown from country to country, from culture to culture, till I feel – til I am – nothing”. But she says, “I like it that way.” She relates her being able to imagine the lives of others to Keats’s Negative Capability.

    At any rate, she has volumes and volumes of work that attest to her ambition.

    Jaggi quotes Jhabvala: “First I was so dazzled and besotted by India. People said the poverty was biblical, and I’m afradi that was my attitude, too. It’s terribly easy to get used to someone else’s poverty if you’re living a middle class life in it. But after a while I saw it wasn’t possible to accept it, and I also didn’t want to.”

    The question is – how accurate is her vision? In her defense, Jhabvala is in that insider-outsider category occupied by Nabokov and Conrad, writers who get us more clearly than we get ourselves. de Toqueville’s assessment of America falls into this category, as does Ruth Benedict’s assessment of pre-war Japan, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. Does Jhabvala belong to this exclusive membership?

    On a completely different note: thank you, Trevor for reminding us that Jhabvala is 84. This makes the appearance of this story, among other things, an act of performance art. I am inspired – inspired – by the high wire nature of the endeavor.

    In the end, though, I thought the story was terrific: the characters, the questions, the mysteries. To me, it felt intelligent and entertaining at the same time.

  5. Trevor says:

    Betsy, it’s good to have you back! I finally had a few minutes to sit down and write down a few of my thoughts. I believe we are much in line with this one!

  6. Betsy says:

    Thank you, Trevor, it’s good to be back! Glad to hear you liked the Jhabvala. I have never read one of her collections – so that’s another title for me to add to my list. Welcome back to you, too!

  7. Aaron says:

    Hey, I get to be the dissenting voice again! I found this one to be a big turn-off: the story didn’t seem to be about anything, and while I’m glad that you (Betsy) found the story to “follow” five characters, I don’t really think it followed *any* of them, nor do I think that the supernatural/metaphorical/literal use of the titular aphrodisiac accomplishes much of anything. Is the point simply that love — or plain uncontrollable desire — makes us do foolish things? That it holds us captive? You hardly need *this* story to say that.

    As for the two characters we *do* follow, Naina and Kishen — I understand that the story spans twenty years and so it is inevitable that the characters should change, but I don’t understand the ways in which they have done so. Naina is first described as “young, shy, scarcely educated” and yet when we meet her, she is far from shy (with her gaggle of friends). Soon after, though, she seems to be entirely on her own (save for the silent and obtuse Bari-Mai), save for the time she spends with Kishen. The children appear briefly as fifteen-year-olds, just long enough for the word divorce to be mentioned and abandoned (we don’t learn why this is so, neither from a character nor cultural viewpoint), and Shiv’s a bit of a mystery, absent as he is. If Naina truly is poisoning the household, and if Shiv is aware enough of it to constantly argue and potentially sleep around (though why Naina would worry about this is beyond me), then their actions make little sense….

    I was hoping for so much more; cultural stories, overdone as they are, usually win me over with their descriptions alone, and this was remarkably light on sensation . . . especially for a story called “Aphrodisiac.”

  8. Betsy says:

    I agree with you, Aaron, that Jhabvala doesn’t develop any of the characters. There is a flatness to the figures in this carpet. I think what I liked about the story was the concept of looking at the web of human interaction – that a family could develop a social system that worked, but worked very poorly as a home for real love or real individual fulfilment.

    In the recent New Yorker of August 1, a poem appears by Amrit Majmudar entitled “Dothead”. I am curious to take a look at his other work, two books of poetry especially his upcoming novel, “Partitions”.

    The poem deals with the Jhabvala “outsider” situation from a different point of view – that of an immigrant Indian child’s rage at his blockhead American “friends” for the way they misunderstand who he is, who his mother is, what his cultural heritage really is. “World History,” remembers the speaker, “that week was India –myths, caste system, suttee, all the greatest hits.”

    The question here, to me, is Jhabvala’s point of view: ultimately, she has a very, very distanced point of view. She, for instance, is not represented in her story. There is no character associated with in her disembodied voice. In contrast, Majmudar’s poem is so angry that distance is hardly possible, except that he achieves a kind of distance with the poem format: one can safely assume that this poem expresses his anger at a variety of misunderstandings that he has experienced, and that this one episode subsumes many others, and therein lies the distance.

    As to the question of distance, however, I also notice what feels like to me intense respect for his mother and for his heritage. The poem stands up for her. Now I would remark that the poem feels awkward, as Jhabvala never does. The speaker is awkward remembering the awkward incident and his awkward feelings and awkward actions. This naked awkwardness and the poem’s lack of distance to it is what makes the poem so memorable.

    In what way, then, is Jhabvala naked? Certainly not in her overt love for these characters. They are interesting to her. So the problem goes even further than the fact that she doesn’t develop any interior life for any of the characters. The problem may lie in the fact that she finds their behavior interesting. When does that study of “interesting” people illuminate, and when does it cross the line? In “Aphrodisiac”, Jhabvala is very studied, very witty, very arch. My question of her remains – is she an accurate reporter? Reading Majmudar, the question expands. Is she just another blockhead who doesn’t get what is really going on? Does Jhabvala love Indians enough to create a picture of what actual life is like ? Or does the distance embody condescension? Or is her purpose larger than the individual, and does her love reside precisely in the distance she embraces?

    Jhabvala is working in satire; think Tom Wolfe, think Charlotte Simmons. Certainly the Duke University life that he was satirizing from his advanced age was a foreign country. Wolfe loves Charlotte Simmons passionately, however. (She is a stand-in for his daughters, I believe.) Wolfe is defending Charlotte, the way Majmuder is defending his mother – you get the impulse that made both men sit down at their typewriter. The impulse is a combination of exquisite tenderness for the daughter or the mother, as well an emotional determination to defend their honor and their life against “other” – the villains.

    What interests me about Jhabvala is what makes her sit down to write. What exquisite tenderness is her motivation?

    Watching “The Wire”, reading about its creators, you know that its creators are outsiders. The power of “The Wire” resides in its exquisite tenderness that is sustained throughout the vast story. We can almost bear the exquisite tenderness, however, because of the vast sweep of the story. I suspect that Jhabvala’s work is aiming at a vast sweep.

    What I want to know is whether she has the tenderness required, masked or not, that breathes life into the sweep. From my point of view, the most interesting character in this story is the matriarch. Jhabvala’s greatest tenderness seems to be to her, but we find her inner life revealed only obliquely, through her aspirations for her sons, her actions, her decline. That oblique revelation is a device, and I suppose it is a reader’s taste that dtermines whether it works or not. For me, it works. So it remains for me to read more of her.

    But I would be curious to know what Amit Majmudar thinks of Jhabvala. Like Chinua Achebe on Conrad, Majmudar’s reaction to Jhabvala could be intensely interesting. I wish the New Yorker would publish that!

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