The Householder is one of Mrs. Jhabvala’s major novels. Here she portrays the life of a lower middle-class individual in urban setting. And this she does with fine insight and her portrayal has a credibility that is commendable.
Prem is the householder in the novel. He is an imperfectly educated teacher drawing a poor salary of Rs.175 in the Khanna Private College in Delhi. He pays a rent of Rs.45 which, Prem himself tells us, is more than 25% of his salary. His landlord Mr. Seigals who along with his family lives a happy-go-lucky sort of life. Prem is a second class B.A. from Ankhpur College, a mofussil college which produces graduates who can fill in clerk’s posts in government offices, as his friend Raj has done, or who can become inefficient teachers like Prem. Thus, Prem is an object of great sympathy of the author. In fact he is the hero of the novel.
He cannot perform his duties and fulfil his obligations because of a meagre salary and he has a household in which he often has strained relations with his pregnant wife, Indu. Prem is a sensitive man and till the other day when he was unmarried he was not fettered with the duties and responsibilities of a low middle-class householder. He often looks back lingeringly to his recent past when he was happy, being the only son of his father who as principal of Ankhpur College was an important man in his own house as well as in his social class in the village of Ankhpur.
Prem’s position in that of an underpaid, inefficient teacher is an insecure position in a private college whose owner is an educational racketeer. Mr. Khanna, his employer, threatens that he can dismiss him any time he likes. Such a nihilistic view of his life Prem doesn’t normally hold. He wants to forge relationships with all characters in the novel. But that can never happen as human’s nature of conflict is one of the very basic traits. So one morning Prem has bitter quarrel with his colleague, Mr. Chaddah, at the Khanna Private College as a result of which Mr. Chaddah complains to Mr. Khanna against Prem’s inefficiency as a teacher due to which Mr. Chaddah’s class often get disturbed. Mr. Khanna gives Prem a severe dressing-down and threatens him with dismissal without any further warning if he does not improve as a teacher. Thus, Prem’s entire destiny as a householder hangs by a slender thread. If Mr. Khanna dismisses him, the very thought of which sends a shiver of chill down Prem’s spine. He is made aware of his stark existential situation.