Senior Power: Still Alive?

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday May 10, 2011 - 08:05:00 AM

“Is he still alive?” If you’re over the age of, say, 65, how many times have you heard or said or thought that! Moving quickly on…

Unique and well-known in world literature, this 86-year old writer of fiction is definitely still alive and writing, although unrecognized in the United States until recently. Identify the writer whose control over language and form as well as sympathy and humor and brilliant comment on how we live our lives are praised by critics!  


Ruth Prawer’s family was Jewish. Her father was a lawyer from Poland and her mother’s father was cantor of Cologne's largest synagogue. In 1934, her parents were arrested during a Nazi parade. On her way to her segregated Jewish school on Kristallnacht, she could see mobs going down the street smashing windows, and she returned home. Sponsored by friends in Coventry, the Prawers moved to London. She read War and Peace and Dickens in the air raid shelters.  

After earning an M.A. in English from London University, she married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala (pronounced JAHB-vah-lah,) a Parsi architect, and moved to India in 1951. (Parsi refers to a member of the larger of the two Zoroastrian communities in South Asia; the other is the Irani community.) For the next 24 years, this small strong woman raised three daughters, wore saris, and began writing novels and stories that often dealt with the clash of East and West.  

Her ironic, comic, and incisive examinations of contemporary Indian social relations from a Western sensibility are generally accepted as among the best of Anglo-Indian writings. Whether she is a true Indian novelist has been questioned. The Householder (1963) was her first motion picture project with Merchant Ivory Productions. Shakespeare Wallah (1965), a classic film for which she wrote both story and screenplay, was her first collaboration on an original project with director James Ivory and produer Ismail Merchant (deceased). Prawer Jhabvala was in her sixties when she began writing screenplays for them. 

Films, she says, were a "nice change for me; before that I sat at home. I also met people I wouldn't otherwise have done: actors, financiers, con men." Though Jhabvala does not usually appear on the set, Ivory describes her as "merciless and exacting" in the editing room. "I like to come in again on the rough cut," she says. "I was only interested in editing and inter-cutting that influenced my fiction a lot."  

In 1975 she received the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel written in the English language by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, and a mark of distinction even for nominees. She won for her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, in which the hippy narrator in 1970s India retraces her grandmother’s experiences as an English bride in the 1920’s disgraced by an affair with a maharaja. She received the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for Best Screenplay for the filmed adaptation of Heat and Dust. The DVD bears the title Autobiography of a Princess. 

Uniquely able to adapt novels by other authors for the motion picture medium—E. M. Forster’s Room with a View and Howard’s End, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and the screenplay for Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and for her adaptation of Bernice Rubens’ Madame Sousatzka, she is also able to create original screenplays. Jefferson in Paris (1995) proved controversial, depicting an American icon enamored of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore his children, a fact subsequently confirmed by DNA tests. "If the film came out now, no one would turn a hair, … but then people were outraged. To me, it seemed a terrible thing that they kept slaves, but not such a terrible thing that families were intermingled. What else could have happened?" 

Her early comedies drew comparisons with Jane Austen, in their anatomy of power within westernized, extended families, or the slow growth of love in arranged marriages. She found affinities with Jewish culture in an emphasis on family and humor. All of her early books were written as if she were Indian. "In England, I had started writing as if I were English; now I write as if I were American. You take other people's backgrounds and characters; Keats called it negative capability." After ten years of immersion in India, Jhabvala turned to ironic satires on westerners in India, not colonials but hippies in the 1960s and 70s, who confused sex with spirituality.  

In the 1970s, after a quarter century in India, the Jhabvalas moved to New York. Since 1986 she has had dual British and US citizenship. Her recent work has been set in set in Britain and the United States. East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi, published in 1998, led to her comment that in the pickled cucumbers of West Side delicatessens, she found a memory that evoked the pre-war German childhood she had lost as a refugee in England in 1939. "Once a refugee, always a refugee…I can't ever remember not being all right wherever I was.”  

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala spends most of the year in Manhattan with Cyrus, or "Jhab", who is retired from his architectural practice in Delhi. Feeling a "terrible hunger of homesickness" for Europe, she says, "you try to reclaim what's yours, to recapture your past - even the past you haven't had". In 1975, with the proceeds of the Booker, she purchased an apartment in New York, a "very European city", but one she saw as innocent of Europe's history. Her three daughters and six grandchildren live on three continents.  

In "Myself in India", an essay from the 1970s, Jhabvala wrote: "My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year." Later she wrote of a struggle "to keep my own personality and not become immersed, drowned in India". She says: "First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India. People said the poverty was biblical, and I'm afraid 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."  

Her 2005 book, My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, illustrated by her husband, is her most autobiographical fiction to date. So called autobiographical fiction is not my cup of tea. As if sensing the potential illogic, she writes in her Apologia, “These chapters are potentially autobiographical: even when something didn’t actually happen to me, it might have done so.  

Many novelists and short story writers are inevitably influenced by their own and experiences. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will not attempt a memoir. "Novelists' autobiographies are so boring. You empty yourself out in your fiction; I don't give much away directly, but everything away indirectly."  



The Elder Justice Coalition has sent a letter to President Obama asking him to issue a proclamation and hold a signing ceremony for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD), held every year on June 15. 

On May 1, 2011, the federal government retired paper Social Security checks and switched to electronic deposits for new benefit applicants. They are no longer an option for anyone applying for new federal benefits, whether through Social Security or other programs. Applicants must arrange for direct deposit to a checking or savings account. New applicants for benefits should have bank account information available. People who are already receiving benefits have until March 1, 2013 to switch. For help:, or toll-free helpline at 1-800-333-1795. 

New York City’s Council of Senior Centers and Services is gearing up for its May 11th City Hall Advocacy Day. It will bring 300 seniors to City Hall for an 11:00 A.M. press conference and meetings with City Councilmembers. Seniors will speak on their own behalf as they oppose 38 million dollars in cuts to senior services funded through the Department for the Aging. And on May 5, a Brooklyn Fights Elder Abuse forum was held. 

In 2009 (the year for which data are available), 33,991 new long term care Ombudsman Program cases were opened in California, and 835 state/local volunteers were certified. (In the U.S. and D.C. 159,334 cases were opened.) 

To subscribe to the wonderful newsletter, Engaging Aging (UC,B Resource Center on Aging), email to with “subscribe newsletter” on the subject line. 


MARK YOUR CALENDAR: It’s always wise to call ahead to confirm date, time, place. 

Monday, May 9, 1 P.M. North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst, Corner MLK. Town Hall meeting with Kelly Wallace, Manager of Aging Services. (510) 981-5190. 

Wednesday, May 11, 10 A.M. Emeryville Commission on Aging, at the Senior Center. Be sure to confirm by contacting Cindy Montero, Committee Secretary at (510) 596-3770. 

Thursday, May 12, 6 P.M. South Berkeley Pubic Library. Lawyers in the Library. Free. Information: (510)981-6100. 

Fridays, starting May13, 20, 27; June 3. 1-4 P.M. Free. LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender] Senior Survival School with Open House. Learn more about community resources, your rights, and advocacy. Castro Community Meeting Room, 501 Castro at 18th in San Francisco (in the Bank of America building) LGBT seniors and people with disabilities are especially encouraged to attend, but all are welcome. Snacks. To register, contact Sarah Jarmon (415)703-0188 x 302, or Fairley Parson (415)296-8995 x 1. 

Friday, May 13- Sunday, May 15, 2011. San Francisco: Legacy Film Festival on Aging 

The Legacy Film Festival on Aging, On Saturday and Sunday films begin at 1:00 p.m. and continue 

through the day. The Festival showcases the best films from around the world that elebrate older adulthood, and deal with the challenges and triumphs of aging. At the Viz Cinema at the New People Building, 1746 Post Street (near Webster) in San Francisco. To see the full program: Contact

Sunday, May 15, noon, free admission. Hertz Concert Hall, UC, B Dept. of Music. (510) 642-4864. The winners of the Eisner Prize and other performance awards perform in a recital followed by the Department of Music commencement ceremony at 1:30 P.M. 

Monday, May 16, 12 noon. South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis, Corner Ashby. Town Hall meeting with Kelly Wallace, Manager of Aging Services. (510) 981-5170. 

Wednesday, May 18,7-8 PM. Albany Branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. Adult Evening Book Group: The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. For information: (510) 526-3720 x16. 

Wednesday, May 18, 1:30 P.M. Berkeley Commission on Aging, South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis Street. Be sure to check Community Calendar and or (510) 981-5178 to confirm. 

May 20, 27 and 30: City of Berkeley Senior Centers closed. 

Saturday, May 21, 11 A.M. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free. Landlord/Tenant Counseling. Information: (510)981-6100. 

Monday, May 23, 10:30 A.M. West Berkeley Senior Center Advisory Council meeting. 1900 6 St @ Hearst. (510) 981-5180. 

Thursday, May 26,6 P.M. West Berkeley Pubic Library. Free. Lawyers in the Library. Free. Information: (510)981-6100. 

Friday, June 3, 12:30 P.M. Downtown Oakland Senior Center, 2000 Grand Avenue. Movie-Lecture Series continues with Sanity and Secrets in Suddenly, Last Summer. Center Director Jennifer D. King will present this controversial 1959 classic and lead a discussion of the themes explored in this movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn. Free but you must RSVP by calling (510) 238-3284 or signing up at the Reception Desk. Refreshments. 

Wednesday, June 15 World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.  

Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at Please, no email attachments or phone calls.