Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne to a Jewish family. In 1939 they fled the Nazis to England, where she studied English literature at Queen Mary College and began to speak and write in English. In 1951 she married Cyrus H. Jhabvala, an Indian architect. The couple moved to India and raised three daughters there. From 1975 until her death, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala lived in New York City.
Beginning in 1955, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote a dozen novels, many of them set in India. Two of them, The Householder and Heat and Dust, were adapted for the screen. Heat and Dust, Jhabvala's last book written in India, brought her the Booker Prize. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Jhabvala also had three short story collections published in addition to her novels.
Jhabvala was also an accomplished screenwriter, known for her many collaborations with director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. This working relationship began with the 1963 film adaptation of The Householder, followed two years later by an original screenplay for Shakespeare Wallah, a film now widely regarded as a classic. Jhabvala also adapted novels such as E. M. Forster's A Room with a View and Howard's End for the Merchant-Ivory team, winning Academy Awards for both.
In 1984 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala received a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 1994 she received the Writers Guild of America's Screen Laurel Award, which is the Guild's highest honor. She became a naturalized citizen of the United Kingdom in 1948, and of the United States in 1986.