For years, people who read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novels assumed she was born in India. She wrote about swamis, social climbers, duplicitous landlords and other characters from the Indian bourgeoisie who inevitably found themselves colliding with curious visitors from the West.
But Jhabvala was a Westerner herself: a German Jew displaced by war to England, who married an Indian man and settled in his country. She absorbed enough of subcontinental culture to portray it with clarity and comic sensibility in books that earned her comparisons to Jane Austen.
"What cheek, but that's what I did," she told an interviewer not long ago of the niche she created for herself in literature and later in film as the primary screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions.
Jhabvala, a prolific author who wrote the screenplays for "Howards End," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" and "The Remains of the Day," died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.
She had been in declining health for some time, said her daughter Firoza.
During an unusually long and fruitful four-decade partnership with Mumbai-born producer Ismail Merchant and his American partner and collaborator, James Ivory, Jhabvala wrote more than 20 screenplays and won Academy Awards for two of them: "A Room With a View" (1986) and "Howards End" (1992).
Although better known for her skillful screen adaptations of works by authors such as E.M. Forster, Henry James and Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhabvala (pronounced JOB-vah-lah) was the author of 19 novels and short-story collections set on the three continents where she spent her life.
Her 1975 novel "Heat and Dust," about a young Englishwoman's journey to India to uncover the truth about a family scandal, won the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award. Ivory directed the 1983 film version, which critic Vincent Canby called a "haunting, beautiful high-comedy."
Jhabvala often said that her gifts as a writer came from her chronic rootlessness. "I'm a born outsider," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
She was born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, Germany. Her father, Marcus Prawer (pronounced PRAH-ver), had immigrated there from Poland, where he had been a lawyer; in Germany he ran a clothing business. Her mother, Eleonora, came from one of Cologne's most prominent Jewish families. Both of her parents were briefly jailed during the Nazis' rise to power. Ruth was forced to attend a segregated school for Jews and witnessed the destruction of Jewish temples and businesses on Kristallnacht in 1938.
In 1939 she and her family were among the last Jews allowed to leave the country and arrived in England just ahead of the German blitzkrieg. She read "War and Peace" in a bomb shelter and started writing her own stories.
In 1948, her father, unable to bear the grief of having lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust, took his own life. "All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That's probably why," Jhabvala, who was 21 when he committed suicide, told the Guardian of London in 2005.
She studied English literature at Queen Mary College in London, graduating in 1951. That year she also married Persian Indian architect Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala and moved to Delhi. She spent the next 24 years in India.
"I only really woke up in India. It was my first experience of plenty, strangely enough, because everything in England was rationed," she said in the Guardian interview.
She is survived by her husband and three children, Renana, Ava and Firoza, and six grandchildren.
Her first novel, a comedy of manners called "Amrita," was published in 1955 and a few years later her short stories began appearing in the New Yorker. She wrote so authoritatively about the manners and habits of the Indian middle class that readers "might reasonably suppose … that Ruth Jhabvala is Indian," critic Anuradha Vittachi wrote in the New Internationalist.
Critics in the West reacted more favorably to her work than those in India, who, according to Jhabvala, dismissed her after learning of her Western roots. "In India," she told the London Independent in 1995, "people don't like foreigners writing about them .… I wrote these books; no one read them; no one cared."
She wrote "Heat and Dust" (1975), her eighth novel, amid dust storms and asthma attacks during what would be her last summer in India. After two decades she found her passion for India had worn thin, largely because she could no longer ignore the dire conditions all around her.
"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," she told the Guardian, "I saw it wasn't possible to accept it, and I also didn't want to."