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posted 4 January 2015

Remembering Ruth Jhabvala

The India International Centre recently hosted a symposium about the late Ruth Jhabvala, hosted by her daughter Renana, which moved me to offer a tribute to this brilliant and irreplaceable woman. In 1973, I was 15 years old and my father, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was appointed the United States ambassador to India and my family moved to New Delhi. Ruth and Cyrus Jhabvala were among the first friends we met in India, thus we joined The Wandering Company, that firmament of artists and storytellers, East and West, the creation of Ruth, Jhab, Jim Ivory and Ismail Merchant. I fell passionately in love with India, thus Ruth and Jhab became my mentors and guides, and a lifelong friend of my parents, two great Indophiles, Pat and Liz Moynihan.

In 1979 I spent three months living with Ruth and Jhab at their famous house on Flagstaff Road in Old Delhi. Ruth wrote every morning with a fierce discipline; if I glimpsed her at breakfast she instantly ran away, into her study, to write. Evenings with Ruth and Jhab were magical gatherings, where a stream of people from all continents flowed in and out; Urdu poets, English actors, Bollywood stars, students and young adventurers. Ruth said, “For years, people come to our house and tell me their stories. I don’t have to travel, one party can give you a full year of material.”

I read all Ruth novels, some two or three times. My favourites are Esmond in India the scene where Esmond’s chappals vanish at the Taj Mahal while he is conducting a history tour made me weep and A Backward Place where a theatre troupe produces the world’s first Hindi production of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Travellers described my life, the enchantment, obsession and confusion of the Western traveller colliding with India. Three Continents a dark tragedy kept me up for three nights in a row, reading till dawn, and left me numb with terror.

Ruth’s writing so deftly rendered the exquisite detail and texture of Indian life: pink and orange flowers that blossom in winter, prayers echoing from an unseen temple, pausing for hot samosas and jalebis in a crowded bazaar. She captured both the Western collision with India and the simple delights of middle class Indian families and of the poor. In her introduction to “Out of India” a dazzling collection of short stories, Ruth stated that she writes about “everyday, urban, suffering India that people in the West didn’t know about, people who worked on small salaries and worried.”

Ruth and Jhab’s home had a special collection of books, Ruth wisely never lent them, but allowed you to stay and read as long as you wished. I passed many hours in Ruth and Jhab’s library amid rare and marvellous volumes about Indian musicians, actors, dancers, gurus, fakirs, swamis and yogis. Jhab often took us on long walks and drives through Delhi Mughal pointing out a mandir or masjid, a bridge, a Lodi tomb. Jhab encouraged my mother Liz’s keen interest in Mughal gardens, which led her in 1978 to discover Babur’s Lotus Garden, the 1st Mughal site in India, buried for centuries near a tiny village in Dholpur.

Ruth and Jhab facilitated the fulfilment of my childhood dream; acting in a Hindi film. In 1979 Shashi Kapoor, a star of the Merchant Ivory family, was producing Junoon directed by Shyam Benegal, about the 1857 Mutiny in Lucknow, filmed on location. Thanks to Ruth, I was one of the ferungis in Delhi cast as an extra, and spent the week in Lucknow, with Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Jaffrey, Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor, Nafisa Ali, Tom Alter, and the sword master from Bombay, and played Holi with the cast and crew on the garden of the Clark Shiraz Hotel. Life has, henceforth, never been as exciting. Once you joined The Wandering Company, you were forever in its magical orbit. Ismail always conjured the financing for films, written by Ruth, directed by Jim. I once asked Ruth how Ismail did it, she laughed and replied “I have no idea and I’ve never asked. I just write the screenplay and hand it over.” Magic indeed. I had a small part in The Bostonians which was filmed near Claverack, Merchant Ivory’s country home. Every night Ismail cooked a feast for the cast and crew, with Vanessa Redgrave, Wallace Shawn and more great talents speaking Ruth’s exquisite dialogue.

Merchant Ivory gave us many treasures, nothing compares to Shakespeare Wallah but I have a special attachment to Bombay Talkie. This amused Ruth and pleased Ismail, he had conceived of the iconic Tiki Tiki Tap typewriter screen, and had a hilarious cameo as the Bollywood producer. Ruth encouraged my efforts to write about India, and when my short story collection “Yoga Hotel” was well received in India, another childhood dream was fulfilled. Ruth and Jhab always gave time and advice to actors, artists and writers, their flat in New York felt like the home in New Delhi, a fusion of East and West, two Oscars tucked on a shelf, and the Booker Prize hanging somewhere.

Ruth loved tales of fortune-tellers, palmists and card readers, which I collected on my travels. One afternoon in New York we spied a restaurant called the Gypsy Tea Kettle, where tea leaves were read. Ruth perused the other clients, imagining their lives, she had an uncanny gift for hearing the silent, secret things people say to themselves.

It is difficult for me to think of life without Ruth and Jhab and Ismail. Life will never be as joyous or exciting. I shall always feel blessed to have known and loved them, and to have been a part of Wandering Company, born in India, travelling the world, welcoming us into its magical orbit.

Maura Moynihan (AES Class of 1975) is a journalist based in New York who has reported extensively on India and Tibet.

Maura and class 1975
Class of 1975

Maura Moynihan (Class of 1975)

June 2005

What a weekend! As a member of the Class of 1975, a member fortunate enough to graduate from AIS (also known as Hindi High), the recent AIS/AES 2005 Reunion was technically my 30th. AIS/AESers get to see everyone from ’61 to ’04 and that is a special feature of our alumni association. As my classmate, Peter Ide said, the bond is so strong; and it lasts for life. Every AIS/AES gathering is precious because it validates my entire existence; it confirms why I loved that school so much; it renews my friendships; it revives memories of the Student Union, Kashmir Camp, Hauz Kauz tombs, Corbett Park, Prom Night, Boarding Unit, etc.

My personal high points of the reunion were: the AMAZING slide show/video clips, which showcased my own music videos, shot on location in Kathmandu and very much a James R. Pepperling Jr. product; Laura Hanratta’s scrap book with priceless photos of 10th grade; the boat trip; sharing a hotel room with Sue Stull ('73) - she dazzled me with her gorgeous Delhi glamour when we met in 1973 and she hasn’t changed; hanging out, Student Union-style, in the lobby with Cools, Thuermers, Riegers, Bairds, Ides, Kincaids, Marquises, Taka and camera; the Bonding of the Bands;; and last but not least, that my Friday morning pilgrimage to the bidi wallah on Avenue A in Manhattan proved worthy and meaningful; over 50 bidis were collectively smoked by Sunday morning.

Maura with Katy Gilmore Sheils
Maura, right, with classmate, Katy Gilmore Sheils, at the AIS/AES 2005 Reunion in Washington, DC

I decided it’s time for an active New York State Alumni Chapter, and I will do the needful. We will inaugurate the chapter with a dinner in early July at my Manhattan apartment. Everyone is welcome.

At every reunion I make new friends, I see old friends; and I lose that painful sense of isolation that haunts me in America, that sense that no one could ever understand me – because my AIS/AES friends, they understand, they know, and when we meet, I realize that nothing’s been lost, we are all still together, and this bond endures over decades. It never dies.

This Op-ed by Maura Moynihan (Class of 1975) appeared in the March 30, 2005 edition of Newsday

Diplomatically speaking, Bolton is no Moynihan

By Maura Moynihan

In recent days, a chorus of conservative voices, from Condoleezza Rice to Robert Novak, has likened John Bolton, the White House choice for the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to my late father, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In doing so, they have distorted our New York senator's views on diplomacy and international law. I am sure that Moynihan's constituents know better. Still, I am compelled to set the record straight.

Moynihan was both a fierce defender of American interests "with our great emphasis on law as the arbiter of relations" and a pragmatic internationalist. He was a hugely popular ambassador to India; a regular participant in international treaty negotiations, from SALT to NAFTA; and a well-traveled legislator and social scientist who understood the need for dialogue and diplomacy in a world loaded with weaponry and seething with ethnic conflict.

When right-wing commentators claim that Bolton's outspokenness makes him "the next Pat Moynihan," let us remember that Moynihan often said that in Washington toughness and ignorance are frequently confused.

Bolton has said that if the UN building in Manhattan "lost 10 stories it wouldn't make a bit of difference," and Robert Novak recently said, "No one had more contempt for the UN than Pat Moynihan." Nonsense. Moynihan said: "The UN was created by our country, and embodies our conception of international law ... these are the proclaimed standards of the nations of the world, to which they are bound by solemn covenant."

Moynihan sought to restore integrity to the UN, not to dismantle the institution created by the Allies after the defeat of Hitler and the Axis powers.

The senator frequently admonished his constituents that we'd be worse off without the UN, and was furious with the United States for not paying its UN dues, since it weakened our influence and stature.

Which brings us to international law. Bolton said in 1999: "It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interests to do so - because over the long term the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are [sic] those who want to constrict the United States."

In his 1990 book, "On the Law of Nations," Moynihan wrote: "A great many people seem to think of law as a kind of self-imposed restraint on America's ability to act decisively or with force in world affairs. This misstates what law is, and obscures the fact that international law can actually enhance the national security of the United States. ... Macho strategists, much to be found in Washington just now, let it be known that in their view the law is for sissies ... real men do not cite Grotius."

Bolton called reliance on the World Court "fuzzy-minded romanticism that is not just naive but dangerous." Whereas in a 1984 speech at Syracuse University College of Law, Moynihan said: "International law is a practical need, as much as domestic law is a practical need. Absent law, there would be no sanction for conduct that injures society." The senator repeatedly warned that there was an alternative to law, as he cited the poet Wordsworth: "The good old rule, the simple plan, that they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can."

Moynihan well understood what made America singularly powerful - a nation based on the rule of law at home, and adherence to jus gentium, the law of nations, abroad. Conversely, Bolton and his supporters voice contempt for law as they steer our nation on a perilous isolationist course with their disdain for treaties and their new doctrine of preemptive war.

It was two years ago last Saturday that my father passed away, just days after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Every day I wonder what he would say about America's conduct in this war. In the introduction to his 1976 memoir of his time at the UN, Moynihan wrote: "I learned in Washington what I had known as a child; that the world is a dangerous place, and learned also that not everyone knows this." Should Bolton become ambassador to the United Nations, I hope that he might study the words and teachings of his predecessor and consider the dangers of abandoning the laws and alliances that have sustained our nation so well for so long.

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.


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