by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Originally published in the July 11 & 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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.