A profound and powerful novel, winner of the Booker Prize Set in colonial India during the 1920s, Heat and Dust tells the story of Olivia, a beautiful woman suffocated by the propriety and social constraints of her position as the wife of an important English civil servant. Longing for passion and independence, Olivia is drawn into the spell of the Nawab, a minor Indian prince deeply involved in gang raids and criminal plots. She is intrigued by the Nawab's charm and aggressive courtship, and soon begins to spend most of her days in his company. But then she becomes pregnant, and unsure of the child's paternity, she is faced with a wrenching dilemma. Her reaction to the crisis humiliates her husband and outrages the British community, breeding a scandal that lives in collective memory long after her death.
The narrator arrives in Bombay and finds a room to rent in the compound of an Indian functionary. He feels embarrassed by her bohemian lack of furniture, and she writes in her journal, "It would have been easier for him if I had been like Olivia. She was everything I'm not." The idea that, although related, the two women are opposites in some fundamental way, shapes the book.
Olivia is the stereotypical sheltered British woman of a certain class who feels constrained by the strictures of "polite" society. An innocent in the ways of seduction and politics, she is soon caught up in both in the person of the local Nawab, a charismatic but impoverished Indian prince. As she is drawn more and more into his influence, like an "irresistible force of nature", Olivia realizes that she is no longer the person she was when she came to India.
She felt that now-out of pride, or to prove her innocence-she ought to be the one to hang back. She hesitated for a moment but found that she did not, after all, have enough pride (or innocence) for that. She followed him quite quickly to the car.
Olivia is the perpetual outsider. Longing to be accepted by the British ex-pats, yet feeling the pull of "the other side", Olivia floats through her days on an excess of emotion. She makes few decisions, and when she does, they seem an outcome of the moment, not of rational reflection.
I found Olivia's naiveté to be cloying after a while, as she remains ignorant of reality far longer than seems plausible. She never seems to get it, even when it is right in front of her.
The narrator, on the other hand, is proactive in her desire to become "one of them", and seeks out the exact same experiences which just seem to happen to Olivia. Uninhibited, worldly, and with a touch of youthful callousness, the narrator changes the lives of those around her. Yet, she too is not immune to the sensuality of the Other.
India always changes people, and I have been no exception. But this is not my story, it is Olivia's as far as I can follow it.
But Olivia's story is her story, and the two are mirror images reflecting back to each other the consequences of making choices and accepting them.
Heat and Dust reminded me of The Painted Veil in that both Olivia and Kitty are awakened to a more mature life through their experiences in an exotic setting. Kitty’s character and understanding develop throughout the book, and I was touched by the story’s ending. Olivia doesn’t seem to evolve in the same way. We are left assuming that she has been changed by her experiences, but unsure how. It is the presence of the narrator and her story that add the necessary complexity to make this a more thoughtful read. Although I failed to empathize fully with either Olivia or the narrator, I found myself rereading a few sections after finishing the book: always a sign to me that the author has managed to do more than simply write a good story.
The book is about an English woman, Anne, who goes to India to discover more about her grandfather's first wife, Olivia. Her grandfather and Olivia lived in Satipur in the 1920s shortly after their marriage. Olivia fell under the charm of the local Indian ruler, the Nawab. With not much to fill her days Olivia spends her time with the Nawab and an English man attached to the Nawab's household, Harry. When the hot season comes and the other English women go to the hill stations Olivia stays behind.
We learn all this in a series of flashbacks from letters that Olivia wrote at the time. In the present time Anne also falls under the charm of India and an Indian man. The narrator seems to be fated to duplicate Olivia's life but perhaps her life will be more successful than Olivia's.
The women's stories are the main thrust of the book but the background of India under imperial Britain and then under home rule is fascinating. Only 50 years have passed between the parallel stories but what a difference in a country. I thought this was at least as interesting as what Olivia and Anne experienced.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany to Polish parents in 1927, attending Jewish schools and moving to England in 1939. She married an Indian man in 1951, and relocated to New Delhi. There she began her literary career. Unlike many Europeans, she took instantly to India and celebrated the country through her writing. Since the mid-1970s, Jhabvala has been better known for her screenplays, having collaborated with Merchant Ivory on such wonderful films as Room with a View, Howards End, and Remains of the Day.
Heat and Dust paints a vivid picture of India; the title alone evokes a common first impression of the country. I made a brief visit there on business two years ago, and of course I was struck by the heat and dust. I also found it difficult to witness the extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty. Jhabvala doesn't shrink from these images, either. There is a scene in the novel that concerns a beggar woman dying in the street. No one will help her for fear of contracting her disease. The hospitals are too full to accommodate cases where there is no hope. Anne and another woman can only help her find a peaceful place to spend her final hours.
As the novel progresses we learn more about Olivia, a naive young woman who is bored and lonely. She is drawn into the excitement of the Nawab's palace, and one can almost understand why she would leave her rather dull husband. The novel is less clear about the character of Anne. Like Olivia she develops a romantic relationship with an Indian man, but she is far more independent and self-sufficient (perhaps reflective of the time period). The novel ends rather abruptly and inconclusively. I liked this book, but honestly was not "wowed" in the way I expect of prizewinning novels.
In that one period of time, 1923, the scene is set very nicely. We get a detailed snapshot of an ex-pat's life in India. So for that I appreciated it. They parallel story of Olivia's descendant is clever and equally restrained. So all in all, nice, but not enough to sink my teeth into.
The story is about two ladies in different time spans and their adventures in India. Olivia Rivers is a young lady from London who has accompanied her husband Douglas to British colonial India. While Douglas keeps himself busy at his office , Olivia is left to tend to herself through the long Indian hours in their bungalow. However, the narrator of the story is the other lady in the novel who knows Olivia as the first wife of her grandfather Douglas. This narrator's name is never mentioned in the novel. The narrator has come to India in order to find out more about Olivia. Heat and Dust is as much Olivia's story as it is a journal of the narrator's first impressions of India. 'India always changes people, and I have been no exception' says the narrator in the beginning of the story. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way the heat and dust is demonstrated -- you can almost feel it. This hot, dusty countryside of Satipur converts the pretty, and doting Olivia into the harem lady of a corrupt and wasted Nawab. The narrator, two generations after Olivia, also readily absorbs the various 'characteristic odors of India', of 'spices, urine and betel'.
Whether the reality of India is portrayed accurately the novel is effective in its narrative of love and becoming part of India.
India's impact on these English is strong and not necessarily beneficial. The extremes of weather, exotic food, languages, religions, indeed the heat and the dust overwhelm. A particularly interesting character is 'Chidi', a young Englishman temporarily turned Hindu mystic.
Jhabvala is an enormously accomplished author and screenwriter with an intriguing background. Born to Polish parents in Germany, moved with them to ondon to escape Hitler, and married an Indian architect and lived in India from 1951 to 1975 and now resides part-time in NYC. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize (best book by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland in the English language)
Told in a gentle, open and endearing style.
Together with the synopsis on the back cover, that first chapter pretty much sums up the dramatic part of this story. All that is left is the journey the characters go on to get there. One strand of the plot follows Olivia, the bored wife of a local official in Colonial India, who runs off with an Indian prince. The second one follows her “step grand-daughter” (which felt like an odd term but I can’t think of a better one) who moves to India fifty years later. Of course, the more modern strand of the story takes place in the 1970s and is as much a slice of historical India to us now as the 1920s strand was then.
I liked the elegant simplicity of the writing, the concentration on what was important and the ignoring of what was not. For a short novel, it was well populated but all the characters were interesting and served their purpose. There were many parallels between the 1920s and 1970s sections of the story and a second reading would no doubt reveal more. I wish the author had named the grand-daughter though. It always annoys me when people are left unnamed, even in a novel as good as this one.
The book was read in a lovely way by Julie Christie. I would recommend the book just for the reading.
"His eyes often rested on her, and she let him study her while pretending not to notice. She liked it – as she had liked the way he had looked at her when she had first come in. His eyes had lit up – he checked himself immediately, but she had seen it and realised that here at last was one person in India to be interested in her the way she was used to."
After the first few pages, it is clear to us Olivia’s story will be intertwined with Nawab’s.
Fast forward fifty years, we have Olivia’s step-granddaughter, the narrator of the story whose name we never learn, visiting post-independence India to find out more about her ‘scandalous’ ancestor.
I don’t believe the story of Heat and Dust will stay with me for long. After all the plot is not much to rave of. However, I found Ruth Jhabvala’s writing to be dazzling. Her depictions of India read like a love letter, and through the eyes of two foreign women belonging to two generations who come to fall in love with India, despite their reservations, she paints us, her India.
"‘Yes it [Himalayas] is climbing up into heaven. There is cool air and breezes, clouds, birds, and trees. Then there is only snow, everything is white and sun also is shining white."
She reminds us there is more to India than people living in small huts squatting by the side of roads, that there’s something serene and simple amidst its bustling cities. But not even Elizabeth Gilbert who went to India on a spiritual journey to find herself in Eat, Pray, Love captures its incredible dimensions the way Ruth Jhabvala does.
"I have not yet traveled on a bus in India that has not been packed to bursting-point, with people inside and luggage on top; and they are always so old that they shake up every bone in the human body and every screw in their own. If the buses are always the same, so is the landscape through which they travel. Once a town is left behind, there is nothing till the next one expect flat land, broiling sky, distances and dust."
Ruth Jhabvala, the only person ever to have won both the Man Booker and Academy awards, was married to an Indian architect and lived in Delhi for over a twenty years. Event though as we read the novel we feel a hint of nostalgia, in her writing Ruth Jhabvala is not pretentious. She doesn’t shy away from ancient customs such as Suttee that got outlawed in 1829, where faithful widows jump into the fires that burn their dead husbands’ bodies, which most people would call barbaric, or claim Indian curries a gastronomical experience no one should miss!
"He accompanied them to the place of execution and joined them in their last prayers. He watched the noose being placed around their necks and stayed till the very last moment. At that last moment, one of them – Tikku Ram, a man of very high caste – suddenly turned to the hangman and began to ask ‘Are you a—?’ but could not finish because the hangman had slipped the hood over his face. The missing word was probably ‘chamar‘ – he was worried about the caste of the hangman who was performing this last intimate function for him. It was apparently his only worry at that moment of departure."
Instead, her observations delivered in humorous prose grow in us, making us see past the imperfections of India and fall for everything – from its vibrant hues and cacophony of sounds to the overwhelming chaos – it has to offer.
In 1923 Olivia is married to Douglas, a local government official in Satipur. She loves Douglas, but she is bored and they seem unable to conceive a child. She is flattered and entertained by the attentions of the Nawab, a local Muslim prince and begins to sound all her time with him. We know from the opening sentence that she runs off with him.
In the 1970s Douglas' granddaughter travels to India to discover more about Olivia, aided by letter she wrote to her sister. The granddaughter, who appears to be independently wealthy, is not named.
I found this compelling, but various things remained unexplained:
Did Olivia have the abortion intending to tell both Douglas and the Nawab that she had miscarried and planning to continue her life as before? Surely her life in the mountains turned out to be far less satisfactory than the one she had been living with Douglas... Why did the granddaughter feel it was OK to sleep with her landlord? How was it acceptable to the local community for Chid to live with her? What happened to Chid?
In many of the tributes written about Jhabvala on her death in April 2013, she was described as a "cold-eyed observer of people and places" and a writer whose status as a non-native inhabitant meant she could view the country with unemotional detachment.
Detached and unemotional are indeed good descriptions for this tale of the cultural divide between colonisers and the natives they govern and of those who try to break free from conventions and restrictions.
The story is that of an un-named woman who travels to India in an attempt to unravel the mystery of her step grandmother Olivia during the rule of the British in the 1920s. She deciphers the story mainly from letters Olivia wrote to her sister and by visiting places where her grandmother lived. Gradually we learn that Olivia's story is one of disgrace and scandal Feeling smothered by the restrictions of the British way of life in India, she fell under the spell of a Nawab (an Indian prince) for whom she abandoned her husband . Fifty years later her grand-daughter, though more independent and less naive than Olivia similarly becomes seduced by India. She too crosses the divide.
The novel has none of the tension found in Scott's novel nor does it have the subtleties of A Passage to India. It doesn't so much end as simply peters out inconclusively leaving me feeling decidedly underwhelmed. It's not what I look for in a prize-winning novel.