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INTERVIEW / Heat, dust and a woman with a New York view: Jonathan Freedland meets Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist, Oscar winner and exile

SHE SITS small, like a sparrow who's found a new perch. Her face is little, her features tiny, her arms and legs spindle thin. Tucked into a corner of a plain beige couch, she looks as if her clothes might be pale enough, and her hair grey enough, to fade away and disappear into the fabric. Not that it's a big couch. Like everything else in this apartment it is modest, neat and basic. Only the Oscar stands out.

This is the Manhattan home of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist, Oscar-winning screenwriter, and Queen of Indian letters. She's lived here since 1975, the year she left Delhi and bagged the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust. In these spartan rooms she made film scripts of A Room With A View (for which she earned the statuette) and Howards End (for which she won a second Oscar, still, apparently, at the engravers), and wrote Poet and Dancer (John Murray, pounds 14.99), her her first novel for six years.

You can see how the book felt at home here. It, too, is lean and spare. Adjectives are rationed, sentences are bald. 'Hugo was married but he never brought his wife. Usually she was somewhere far away, like Iran or India, or she was sick. He didn't speak of her much . . .'

It tells the story of a destructively dependent near-love affair between two female cousins, one a sort-of-poet, the other a sort-of-dancer. It is compelling, despite its bleak expression of a favourite Jhabvala theme: people's powerlessness to escape their fate or to deviate from their essential character. The book has muscle, and its focus is intense - which is why Jhabvala is convinced it could never be turned into a film. 'Films usually have a much broader base, a broader background,' she says quietly.

She has an accent that would confuse Henry Higgins. Born in Germany, of Polish-Jewish parents, educated in England, she spent 30 years in India, with her architect husband C S H Jhabvala, before becoming an American citizen - fittingly, one who lives just around the corner from the United Nations.

As the writing arm of the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film-making team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has a good idea of when and how literature can become cinema. She has written more than a dozen screenplays, all of them for Merchant Ivory - 'We've been together 32 years,' she says, like a wife speaking of her wedding anniversary. The trio, all of whom have apartments in this building, are currently at work on a film of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day.

Her knack, she claims, is irreverence toward the text, regardless of the author. 'Forster's dialogue is wonderful, as is Henry James's - but I can't use it as it is,' she says, almost whispering. I have to strip it down somehow, so that the actors can put in what is implicit on the page.' Any attempt to be directly faithful to the original is bound, she says, to result in a 'very literary film'.

She is happy to keep the two worlds separate, albeit with a foot in each. She admits to a much closer and more possessive attachment to her novels than to her screenplays, living and breathing their characters, feeling reluctant to let them go. 'I hate publishing, I hate it when the books come out,' she says. 'I like to keep them longer.' (Part of the explanation for the six-year time lag between Jhabvala's last novel and this one is that Poet and Dancer has been published two years after the author finished writing it.)

But fiction has its price. 'Novels are much, much harder' than movies, insists this woman who lists writing film scripts under 'hobbies' in her entry in Who's Who. 'You have to make the characters come alive, which the actors do for you in a film; you have to paint their background and see what they would wear, which the set designer or the costume designer does in a film. In a novel you do the whole lot.'

Like many of those involved in American letters, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is prone to worry if it's all worth the effort. 'No one reads new books,' she says. 'If anybody's together, even writers, all they talk about is films. No one talks about the latest novel.'

Her soft, melancholic tones combine with the economy of the apartment, which could be packed up and moved out in an afternoon, to give Jhabvala the faraway air of a woman in exile. She jokes that for years people assumed she was Indian - she looks as if she could be - but she has no alternative label to put in its place.

'I don't think I'm anything particularly,' she smiles. 'Born in one country, brought up in another, gone to live in a third and resettled in a fourth. I'm just like everybody else in New York: come from somewhere else and quite happily living here.'

For all that, it seems India remains at the heart of her identity, if only as a writer. The twisted relationship between the two protagonists of Poet and Dancer is mirrored by that between two brothers, members of an Indian family living in New York. These characters do not shed any peculiarly Indian light on the novel's narrative; they're there, she says, because she writes only about people she knows.

Perhaps she simply cannot get India out of her system. 'India has a strong effect on people. For many years it wiped out everything for me: I just wrote about India.' Her current, American surroundings, by contrast, seem barely to have made an impression. The Manhattan of the new book is misty and elusive, its buildings, streets and restaurants unnamed throughout. 'I really don't look much around me anymore,' she says. 'I don't really look at the present much. I live more in the past now, my own past memory or past history.'

Somehow a less frequently discussed aspect of the Jhabvala biography seems to hover above that comment. Her father's family were all murdered in the concentration camps of Poland - she estimates that 40 of them died - and her father took his own life three years after the war. Maybe hers is that familiar contribution to the literature of the refugee, dedicated to describing a society which she always knew as an alien. She seems comfortable enough with that. 'If you're a refugee once you can always move about,' she says. 'And I like being in exile.'

Hugo was not lonely. Many women took an interest in him, and avoiding the very high-strung ones his work tended to attract, he formed relationships with married women who were motherly and pampered him. His sister Helena was very happy to have him back again. She was proud of his fame and read his books - there were several by then - but if she tried to talk to him about them, he turned the subject aside, usually with a joke. When she wanted to join one of his groups, he told her to go to a weight-loss one instead. He had been startled by the change in her appearance, and in the beginning kept looking at her as though trying to pick out the former Helena from among the mass that now embedded her.

Angel, too, had read his books, and while she, too, was proud of his fame, the theory on which his work was based repelled her. Of course she never admitted this to anyone, not even to her mother, and when his books were mentioned, she always had some sentences of neutral praise, such as about his style. She was relieved that he himself never cared to discuss his work with his family. Once or twice he asked her about her poetry; she said she never wrote any. This was a lie, for she had started again, but in what was a neurotic secrecy. He said, 'That's a pity, you used to be good.' 'Yes, at five years old,' Angel smiled. He agreed that children were able to express themselves with a directness that was no longer possible for them as adults; although, he added, it could be induced again by means of certain exercises - well, he wouldn't go into any of that now. She knew these exercises were part of his method and was grateful he didn't urge them on her. She didn't know what they did for other people, but for herself she feared them: that is, for her poetry, insofar as she had any to write. Angel's room was now on the top storey. It was narrow and rectangular, nd on one wall were her books - not very many, for she discarded them once they had, as she put it to herself, entered her bloodstream. On the opposite wall was a bed and a reproduction of a dim, shy, mild Madonna she had liked and bought in a museum. Inside the window stood a table and chair from where she looked up at the surrounding apartment buildings. At night, points of light swarmed up their sides, like stars scattered over a range of dark mountains.

(Photograph omitted)