Reprinted with permission of Moment Magazine. Visit momentmag.com.
India was the author’s home for over two decades and the setting of her many works, including Heat and Dust. Jhabvala’s collaboration as a screenwriter with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory earned her two Oscars for A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992). Her latest work, My Nine Lives (2005), a collection of short stories, has been warmly received by critics and called “the most autobiographical of her works”. Jhabvala, who turned 79 this year, spoke to Moment’s Nonna Gorilovskaya from her New York City home.
What does being Jewish mean to you? How has it shaped your work?
Well, to tell you the truth, I never think of it. I mean I am Jewish and that’s it. I really don’t know. I mean whatever has gone into my work is also my Jewishness. Of course, mixed in with a whole lot of things because I’ve moved around a lot. But there’s absolutely no question, I never have to think of it. If somebody asks me what are you, I know what I am. That’s it.
So when somebody asks you what you are, what do you say?
I say I’m Jewish. That’s the only certainty I have.
What do you remember most about Germany and fleeing it?
What I most remember is not wanting to remember it.
What was it like growing up as a Jewish teenager from Germany in London during World War II and afterwards?
Well, you know, once you left your own background, your own community and your own family — which was left behind, it was only us in England — you’d really lost any kind of social basis of your life. And even though, you may still go to a synagogue — my mother still went to a synagogue on High Holidays — it did not mean that much. It was not her community at all. So being Jewish wasn’t very much any more for us. You’ve lost your community, that’s it. And you came much more into English life. We went to university, my brother and I. We studied literature. We were integrated into a sort of English intellectual life.
In My Nine Lives, a lot of your characters are secular Jews. Was your family secular?
Oh yes. Actually, my grandfather was a cantor of a big Jewish synagogue in Cologne, but he was a very secular character at the same time. He used to have a lot of debates with Christian clergymen. He was close to the mayor of Cologne at that time, [Konrad] Adenauer, who became the chancellor. He was a man of the world, but he was a Jewish cleric also. Well, there is a cosmopolitan background and a very Jewish background, up to 1933. After then, I suppose everything must have changed. I don’t know; I was too young.
In My Nine Lives, is there a life that is closest to your own?
No, no, none of them are all that close. All of them are a bit close, none of them are very close.
What was it like living as a Jew in India? Or did you think of yourself more as a foreigner?
In India, nobody really knew what a Jew was. The question just never came up at all. They did not even know what it was. And there were so many religions, it was just one more. I remember some Americans came and they asked us: «Oh, is there anti-Semitism in India?» There just couldn’t have been.
A lot of Jews are intermarried, but few are married to Parsis. If you had to generalize, are there any similarities between the two groups?
Oh, absolutely. Parsis are known as the “Jews of India”. First of all, they are not really quite Indian, they are originally from Iran. They still look different, they live differently. They look Jewish actually. They often take me for a Parsi. It’s the closest thing that you can get, I think. They have the same sense of humor also, but then many Indians have, not only Parsis.
You’ve divided your life between three continents. Which one feels most like home?
Home is only where the people I want to be with are. And I only go to these three places: Delhi, where I have one daughter; England, where I have another daughter; and here in America, where I have a third daughter. So that’s it.