German-born novelist, short-story writer, and screenplay writer. She was educated in England and spent much of her adult life in India, the setting of some of her most widely acclaimed novels, including Heat and Dust (1975), which won the Booker Prize. Among her best-known screenplays are the E M Forster adaptations A Room with a View (1985) and Howard's End (1992), both of which won her Academy Awards.
Her novels written in Delhi were typically gently satirical accounts of middle-class Indians trying to come to terms with the clash between traditional Indian values and rapid Westernization. These include her first novel, To Whom She Will (1955), and The Nature of Passion (1956). A second, and for many critics more successful, theme was that of Westerners attempting to come to terms with Indian culture, as in Esmond in India (1958) and Heat and Dust. During this period she frequently wrote stories for the New Yorker and published several collections, including Like Birds, Like Fishes (1963) and How I Became a Holy Mother (1976). In the 1960s Jhabvala began a long collaboration with the filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, writing screenplays for films such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Heat and Dust (1983; based on her own novel), The Bostonians (1984; based on the novel by Henry James), and The Remains of the Day (1993).
She was born Ruth Prawer in Cologne, Germany; her father was Polish, her mother German. As the family were Jewish, in 1939 they fled to England to escape Nazi persecution. After graduating from Queen Mary College, University of London, in 1951, she married the Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and settled in India, where she lived for the next 24 years.
In 1975 she settled in New York, which provided the setting for her fiction in the novels In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) and Poet and Dancer (1993). Her final books, East Into Upper East (1998) and My Nine Lives (2004), move between the worlds of India and the USA.