Heat and Dust
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
First sentence: Shortly after Olivia went away with the Nawab, Beth Crawford returned from Simla.
Reflections: Winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, this novel tells the parallel stories of two young English women, living in India at different time periods. Anne visits the country in the 1970s, well after Indian independence in 1947, but long before India became the economic power it is today. Anne is there to learn more about her grandfather's first wife, Olivia, who lived there in the 1920s, during British colonial rule. Olivia ran off with the Nawab (a Muslim prince), bringing scandal down upon the family. The novel alternates between the two time periods and points of view. Anne deciphers Olivia's story from her letters, written primarily to her sister. She visits places Olivia used to live. Houses have become places of business; only the British cemeteries are left standing as a memorial to earlier times.
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. ( )
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