Ruth Prawer Jhabvala‘s Heat and Dust tells the stories of two Englishwomen in India, one an unnamed narrator writing in the 1970s about the other–her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia, who ran off with an Indian prince in 1923. We never learn exactly why the narrator goes to India herself or why she decides to write Olivia’s story, though she tells us that her grandmother (her grandfather’s second wife) and great aunt “shied away from [Olivia’s] memory as from something dark and terrible,” even while her parents’ generation was eager to hear about her (2). All we know is that the narrator, a tall, resolute Englishwoman in her late twenties, has come to the same place–Satipur–and is cobbling together Olivia’s story from letters while she keeps a journal of her own experiences.
Both stories seem borne of each woman’s dissatisfaction with convention. Olivia adores her husband but chafes against a life in which she is expected to do little beyond socializing with other wives of British officials. Bored and put off by the bigoted attitudes of the British toward the Indians, she initially sees the attention of the charismatic, English-educated (if somewhat frivolous) Nawab as a simple respite from the tedium of her life. However, she soon finds herself as drawn to him as he is to her and finally finds herself unable to continue her life as it was.
Though the narrator is not Olivia’s granddaughter, she clearly inherits her point of view, finding herself in sympathy with the country and its people. As Olivia’s view contrasted that of the posted officials and their wives in the nineteenth century, the narrator’s stands in contrast to the Western tourists of the twentieth. She is neither disgusted by the country’s failure to live up to the romantic (or hygienic) expectations nor enamored enough to embrace the other extreme and “go native.”
Jhabvala, in fact, makes the two women’s stories neatly parallel each other. The narrator, like Olivia, undertakes an affair with a married Indian, though Inder Lal, her civil servant lover, is undoubtedly a pedestrian version of Olivia’s prince. Both women begin their affairs at the same shrine and end up pregnant by their married lovers. Both befriend English outcasts who, in the ways particular to their times, have gone native, but who ultimately return home. Both women end up disappearing into the mountains and making their commitment to India permanent.
Their stories chronicle a resistance to paternalism that cuts across cultures and time periods. That paternalism is at work in the familiar narrative of nineteenth-century colonial policy and gender relations. British officials, in even their most charitable moods and actions, treat Indians as children and savages who must be managed for their own good. British and Indian women are both, in essence, kept hidden from society—restricted in their movements and activities. We see this paternalism in its most extreme form in Indian tradition of suttee (widow burning), though it also informs British efforts to outlaw suttee.
While Jhabvala shows us that paternalism is inescapable, she also shows us considerable power wielded by women, mostly older and widowed, in their separate sphere, influencing and often controlling the lives of their families. The Nawab’s mother, the Begum, despite being hidden away, wields tremendous influence over her son, controlling both the movements and the very composition of the Nawab’s family and his retinue. This power finds its twentieth-century expression in Inder Lal’s mother, Maji, whose mission is to educate her meek daughter-in-law about her family responsibilities but who allows the narrator into her circle of friends–other widows who offer outings and a sort of counsel on independence. Both stories also feature midwives, whose skills in both terminating and sustaining pregnancy makes them crucial aides to the narrator and her not-quite ancestor in determining their own destinies.
While I found Olivia’s narrative compelling and her final disappearance a logical and mostly satisfying conclusion to her story, the idea that the narrator is destined to retread her path doesn’t fully work for me. The parallels that Jhabvala devises become a substitute for characterization if not plot. The narrator is ultimately a far less comprehendible character than Olivia, who was “prepared to follow the dictates of [her temperament] wherever they might lead [her]” (179). Jhabvala makes the connections between that temperament and the actions resulting from it clear. The narrator’s temperament on the other hand is hard to pin down and the decisions she makes seem to come out of nowhere, making sense only if we see them as echoes of Olivia’s actions. She seems less a character than a device designed both to tell Olivia’s story and then continue it, to make women’s lives visible and to exhibit the greater freedom that the twentieth century confers on those who part with convention.
The novel was entertaining enough but ultimately too neat for me. I’ve read other books that were more instructive on Indian culture and tradition and on the ways and means of the British Raj and its aftermath. Perhaps the focus on women was what grabbed the judges. I don’t know. This book was not one I would have awarded a prize to—particularly in a year when the judges saw fit to nominate only two books.
But I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.