Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala “The Judge’s Will” was originally published in the March 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Click for a larger image.


In “The Judge’s Will,” Ruth Prawer Jhabvala unfolds a neat, entertaining story that fools the reader. Many thanks to Jhabvala for giving us yet another deft, insightful, provoking story. I liked the precision with which Jhabvala reveals her characters: a pair of estranged spouses from two different worlds and two different generations — a Delhi judge and his much younger, beautiful Bombay wife. Despite their broken marriage, they doggedly continue living their separate lives in the same “Indo-Victorian” house, each making their own adaptations. The wife has made the mistake of espousing her son to him, and so they have him, too, still living the playboy life from home in his thirties. The judge’s adaptation is that he has had a secret life for twenty-five years:  an affair with the now 40 year old Phul, an affectionate flower, who has been the judge’s mistress since 16 or 17.

The judge is nearing his death, and he indulges his whim: that he can control things and “enforce” his will even after his death. He wants to be sure that his wife does not destroy Phul, who we learn is barely educated. What neatly emerges, however, is that as the judge unfolds his secret life, he is suddenly confronted with a new understanding of his own wife. The reader, too, has her own realizations.

The pleasures of the story are several; among them, the pacing of the spousal battle is masterful. But I also notice the sharp language, where the son, for instance, asks why he must be always be caught “between a pair of scissor blades.” The primary pleasure, though, is the way the beautiful Bombay wife, Binny, seems at first embarrassing and then — sympathetic. Binny proceeds from grating, to selfish, to childish, to something much more. It seems that the two women, the wife and the mistress, are indeed different versions of the same caged animal.

We watch Binny take up a game of chess with her bed-ridden husband, a game in which she is so distracted she “forgets” her life-long habit of losing to him. And in the moment that the judge sweeps his losing game to the floor, all is revealed. Binny’s stupidness, her acquiescence to age-old ideas, and Phul’s as well, are both revealed.

The reader is left with the pleasure of her own story to write — what the three of them will do (the wife, the mistress, the son) once the judge is dead.

But I have this additional thought: how appropriate the story is to this particular month, when Sheryl Sandburg has enraged half the world with her rich ideas. She says women should work harder and demand more. At the moment, most women are stuck in a practically impossible situation: they must do more at home and earn less at work — both situations controlled by men’s ideas about their worth, both situations controlled by women’s acceptance of these ideas. So Sandburg says, Demand more, both at home and at work.

This would, of course, upset the “Victorian” house we have made for ourselves.

Have modern American women made a deal like Binny’s? Do they lose the chess game on purpose? To satisfy some “Indo-Victorian” demands they sense in the culture? Do American women agree to their particular impossible marriage of work and home because of rules being enforced by the dead hand of old values? And do they become like both caged birds and wild animals, not demanding the equality they need and enduring the paralysis that results?

Well, Jhabvala does not preach. With my apologies to both you, Trevor, and to Jhabvala, it’s me, I admit, who has made the choice to preach. I feel in Jhabvala’s presence, however, an energy of perspective and imagination. I am grateful to her for this story.


Oh, I’m very excited to read this and will have my thoughts here shortly. Thanks Betsy!

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By |2013-03-18T12:02:20-04:00March 18th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala|13 Comments


  1. Rosalind Kurzer March 28, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks Betsy for your interesting comments. Ultimately, this is a sad story about human relationships in a culture that women are still second class. The ending is great, with characters moving out of their comfort zones.

  2. Regina Hutschnecker April 2, 2013 at 4:53 am

    Thank you Betsy. This story left me quite puzzled when I read it yesterday. Thanks to your comments, I have been able to find a new meaning in it.

  3. Betsy April 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks, Rosalind and Regina. I’m so glad you both enjoyed Jhabvala’s story, too.

  4. Trevor April 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Sad to hear that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died today. What a remarkable career.

  5. Jon in NYC April 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Fascinating that this was the last or one of the last stories Jhabvala created before she died.

  6. Ken May 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    What I took from this fine story was that they have reached a sort of realignment at the end. She realizes that he “considers” (the word is italicized by Jhabvala) her and that she is needed by him and so she agrees to help protect Phul, the mistress. I know this is very late but, Betsy, if you are out there and read this, tell me if you think I’m on the right track. I thought this was really excellent, much better than her previous story. I just read, above, that she has passed away. This is a very fine, late work.

  7. Betsy May 7, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Hi Ken – I have been watching your fast progress through all these stories and have been thinking about when and where to jump in. This would be a good first place! I do agree with you that Binny has agreed to protect Phul. For one thing, Binny has been going every day, and for another, it is as if in protecting Phul she is protecting a part of herself, some part that was unprotected in the past. I like your note about how the story turns on the word “considers”. I agree, too, it is a wonderful story. Wild, really. I would love to know when Jhabvala actually wrote it. I look forward to a biography of her.

    In the meantime, I am drawn to a book brought out by Jhabvala in 2005 entitled “My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Probable Past”. In that book she mixes hypotheticals, memoir and fiction, but says it’s all true. It would make a nice companion to Munro’s “Dear Life”. What’s also appealing is that it’s basically a set of stories, not a linear autobiography, and not a a novel.

    So – gradually I will answer your other posts. I was just kind of mesmerized by the rapidity of all these. Just waiting to see where you end up!

  8. Ken May 15, 2013 at 4:30 am

    Thanks, Betsy. I just went and looked at your comments on my previous comments. I just wrote about “Marjorie Lemke” and will be back on (frenzied) pace soon after a week off where I was too busy grading my students’ papers to do anything else. I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley tomorrow. She’s very reliable. That Braunstein was not a happy way to resume my New Yorker reading.

  9. Jon May 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

    I liked this story and thought the author deftly handled Binny’s transition to a sympathetic character. The issue of female friendship was very interesting–I wondered if Binny dropped her friends because they reminded her of the part of herself she had grown to hate. The issue gets highlighted in the 3rd to last paragraph, and I’m not sure what to make of the second Freud diss–is he the modern equivalent of the old ideologies and customs? (I.e., another set of ideas that keeps us from treating and considering each other humanely?) Or does this reflect Binny’s bitterness over the inability to help her son more?

    And, to broach a touchy subject, as regards the original review, I appreciate Betsy acknowledging the preaching. In general, I’m just not a fan of approaching fiction as a form of ideological polemic. One could also ask a number of questions about how the story related to modern treatment of mental illness. I’d argue that that approach would take you equally far from the richness of the actual story.

  10. Jon May 18, 2013 at 9:27 am

    P.s., Oh, the ending. I found the ending sad. Binny is not able to accept the intimate moment with the Judge (reminding us of her inability to achieve intimacy with other woman, either). I think it’s not such a simple thing as to blame it on culture of how woman were supposed to be, though the contribution from there is of course front and center (” overdue at the salon”). Binny just seems very conflicted about how to express her love (and who to express it to. (But we do get reminded of her essential humanity in her acknowledging the responsibility to “the secret one.”)

  11. Betsy May 19, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Jon, point taken on the issue of polemic. Yesterday’s WSJ had a long article on current feminist issues in India (rape and wife beating); One of the lenses with which I have to approach Indian literature must be current thought in that country, just as one would approach Native American literature in this country with current thinking on and off the reservation, just as the unraveling of apartheid has to be one of the lenses in viewing South Africa. That Jhabvala had been living in New York city for a very long time inevitably adds (for me) the American (feminist) lens as well.

    But, point taken. A great writer deserves great care with their great purposes. I have her Nine Lives home from the library as I write, hoping to get to know her art and ideas better (as for me art is always craft and vision married).

    On “the richness of the actual story” – that is the heart of the art, as you point out. I enjoyed your remarks about the ending – thus making the individual point about the individual Binny, upon whose artful creation, upon whose believable life the story depends.

  12. Jon May 19, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Betsy, thanks very much for taking the trouble to respond.

    Your mentioning of South Africa helps me understand your perspective better. I note that posted a recent comment on Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” and, if I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I missed much of the richness of that book because I didn’t have the “unraveling of apartheid” top of mind while I was reading.

    I hope I can become a better reader by developing more and more lenses through which to view fiction. So, I appreciate your comments in helping with that.

  13. Betsy May 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Jon – But your original point regarding the reviewer’s tone is well taken. As you must have noticed, Trevor’s tone is ever steady, reserved, even-handed, respectful, and modest! As for me, when snatching a hot iron from the fire, a little caution (as in a nod in Trevor’s direction) would be in order.

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