Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala [A Review]

In the footsteps on EM Forster and Paul Scott, Heat and Dust is a story of forbidden love, scandal and its aftermath in 1920’s colonial India. Told from the perspective of a visitor to India in the 1970’s, Heat and Dust won the 1975 Booker Prize.

Cover image of Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The unnamed narrator of Heat and Dust arrives in India in the early 1970’s to try and solve a family mystery. Her grandfather, Douglas, was once a civil servant in British India in the 1920’s. Her grandmother, Tessie, met Douglas in India when she went to visit her sister, Beth. Douglas was still married at the time, but by the time they met again in England, Douglas’ divorce had been finalised and he could marry Tessie.

Hardly a word was ever spoken in the family about Douglas’ first wife, Olivia. Not until Tessie and Beth were both old and widowed did they begin to speak about the forbidden topic; the woman who left Douglas to elope with an Indian Prince, the Nawab of Khatm. After Douglas’ death, Tessie and Beth were visited by an old friend from India, Harry, who brought with him some of Olivia’s letters which he shared with them. Armed with these letters, the narrator, granddaughter of Douglas and Tessie arrives in India to discover what became of Olivia and to try and make sense of what happened here two generations ago.

Much has changed in India since Olivia and Douglas’ time, but much has stayed the same as well. The town of Satipur, where Olivia and Douglas lived, is still an administrative hub. In fact, the man she rents a room from, Inder Lal, is a civil servant working out of the same buildings the British previously used. The narrator browses the neglected British cemetery, ventures inside the Nawab’s abandoned palace, visits the sites and shares some of the experiences she knows Olivia had. One new phenomenon is the appearance of young people from the West. Like her, they have come to India in search of answers, though of a different sort from the ones she seeks.

Heat and Dust is a short novel that can be easily read in an afternoon. The style of writing makes it easy to read as well, though, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has a wonderful ability to say much with an economy of words. So, while, as a reader I could probably have raced through this book very quickly, as a reviewer I was much slower than I normally am as I was consumed with writing notes.

Before I say much more about the novel, I must say that Jhabvala lived an extraordinary life. Born in Germany in 1927, she witnessed the rise of the Nazis in her childhood, her family being among the last refugees to flee Germany for England in 1939. She said that Dickens and Gone with the Wind kept her company during the blitz. After the war, during which much of her family died in the Holocaust, she married an Indian architect and lived in India for 24 years.

It was while she was living in India that she began writing and publishing novels and short story collections. She also began a collaboration with film director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant (who formed Merchant Ivory Productions). She wrote a number of screenplays for the company and won Academy Awards for her adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992) and a third nomination for an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1993). Her collaboration with Merchant Ivory also included the production of a film adaptation of Heat and Dust. She also won the 1975 Booker Prize for Heat and Dust and the full list of her accolades is extensive.

It has also been suggested that, perhaps because of her married name and the fact that she lived in India, she was mistaken for being an Indian writer and received praise for her writing on those terms. Until it was realised that she was not ‘really Indian’, after which her work was reinterpreted as full of ‘colonial attitudes’! Probably coloured by the fact that her own thoughts of India and her time there were mixed as well.

These are worth dwelling on after reading Heat and Dust. There are some passages where the narrator, whether telling her own story or Olivia’s, provides the reader with some of the ‘local colour’ (for lack of a better term) of their experiences. Some of these, such as a description of a bus ride, seem dated, cliché and unimaginative, but may be in keeping with the period. Others, which are even less endearing to India and Indians, may be in keeping with the characters and their attitudes and knowledge. The first-person narration provides a little distancing.

But it also worth remembering that the worst attitudes were held by the characters that are the real colonials; men and women who lived and worked during the British Raj and a missionary woman in the 70’s period, all of whom think little of the locals. Olivia and the narrator provide the contrast. Olivia, in particular, arrives in India ignorant of the customs of the British there; her open mind and questioning of the status quo presents a challenge that finds few allies among her own people.

A plot of the ‘forbidden’ relationship between a white woman and a non-white man is also somewhat dated and overused. Especially having been done, and done well, many times before. Most famously in an Indian context in EM Forster’s A Passage to India and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. In a more general sense, relations across divides is one of the oldest stories there is.

Heat and Dust differs in a couple of aspects from most others. In other stories, the plot revolves around allegations of sexual assault, which is not suspected here. Also, Jhabvala is effective in showing the strong and sincere love between Olivia and Douglas. How then does Olivia come to leave him for the charming but tempestuous Nawab? I think a lot of how the reader feels about this novel will hinge on how well they think she pulled this story off.

She was still looking at him straight but was weakened – not with fear but with love – by the way he was looking back at her. She had always loved his eyes. They were completely clear and unflinching – the eyes of a boy who read adventure stories and had dedicated himself to live up to their code of courage and honour.

It could be argued that a number of sub-themes make an appearance in the novel. There is the contrast of 1920’s British India with 1970’s independent India, where much has changed and much has stayed the same. There is the constant suspicion of the Nawab’s involvement with dacoits; robber gangs terrorising the region. There is small insight into a homeless Indian aristocratic class, displaced since the fall of the Raj and living in the West, barely able to afford the lifestyle they were accustomed to and may still feel entitled to. Their possessions and family treasures have been auctioned off, their Indian palaces abandoned – a loss not just to themselves but to India as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel was the character of Chid – a young Englishman who has come to India on a spiritual journey. To me, he represents the dying of Western counter-cultural fascination with India that reached a peak in the 60’s. It is easy, with many years of hindsight, to say that by the time this novel was written the hippie bubble had burst and was in decline but was it clear at the time? Jhabvala, having lived in India from the 50’s to the 70’s perhaps witnessed the arc Chid experiences unfold before her. Her critique of it, via Chid, was probably prescient for the time.

Chid has come back. He is so changed that at first I could not recognise him. He no longer wears his orange robe but has acquired a pair of khaki pants and a shirt and a pair of shoes. Beads and begging bowl have also gone and his shaved hair is beginning to grow back in tiny bristles. From a Hindu ascetic he has become what I can only describe as a Christian boy. […] He doesn’t want to talk about it.

The contrast between Chid and the narrator is interesting as well. She seems to think little of Chid at first but comes to take an interest in him and is curious about his transformation. She also seems to share some of his attitudes in her own way.

But what Inder Lal doesn’t understand is why I have come. He doesn’t think I was Indian in any previous birth, so why should I come in this one?

I try to find an explanation for him. I tell him that many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life. This explanation hurts him. He feels it to be a mockery.

As the stories of Olivia and the narrator progress, they begin to mirror each other. But, of course, the narrator knows most of Olivia’s story in advance. Is she consciously reliving Olivia’s story? Does she hold romantic, liberal notions – of sex, love, marriage and India – of her own?

The Merchant Ivory film of the novel, with a screenplay written by Jhabvala and starring Julie Christie as ‘Anne’, the narrator of the novel, was released in 1983. It stays true to most of the themes and events of the novel and in doing so it perhaps lacks the economy of the novel, coming at around two hours long. Although Julie Christie is the most recognisable name among the actors, the performances of Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi as the Nawab and Olivia respectively, are the highlight as they should be. Overall, the film, like the novel is good and interesting without being extraordinary.

It is impossible to know what to make of Heat and Dust’s winning of the 1975 Booker Prize. The judges that year named only one other nominee – Gossip from the Forrest by Thomas Keneally. It is the fourteenth winner I have read and it sits somewhere in the middle of the pack for me. It is well-written, beautiful even at times, but short and a little unfulfilling.

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