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.
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!