I have never been fortunate enough to go to India in the real world, it’s one of my ‘when I win the lottery’ destinations, but I am always fascinated by the life and culture it has both now and in its past. This is where fiction is a joy because at the turn of the page, with the right author, we can find ourselves transported into the lives of people we could never meet and the worlds we can’t simply pop on a train to. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s deceptively small novel ‘Heat and Dust’, as the title states rather effortlessly, transports the reader into India not once but twice, in two very different time periods.
There are two parallel stories running throughout ‘Heat and Dust’. In 1923 we have Olivia who, knewly married, moves to India when her husband Douglas gets a job there working for the British Government. Whilst there she meets the local ruling Nawab, a prince, which leads to (and this isn’t spoiling the story, we know this very quickly) an affair and her desertion. Fifty years later, after hearing of her grandfathers first wife who disappeared, we meet an unnamed woman who wants to find out more about this mysterious Olivia and just what happened to her after she seemingly vanished and starts to follow her trail.
What is so interesting about the book is how the events of both women start to mirror each other yet at the same time are completely polar experiences. They are both in the region of Khatm and yet, with the time between them, they seem like very separate worlds and ones that in each case Jhabvala sets the atmosphere incredibly. The world Olivia inhabits is one of lavishness, to the point of being spoiled, she has lots of money and often bored, verging on miserable, with either too much time on her hands of being forced into ‘socialising’ with other expat wives like the matronly Mrs Crawford and Mrs Minnies, women she doesn’t like and who don’t really like her. It is a world that bares almost no relation to the horrors her husband Douglas sees which the Nawab accepts which Jhabvala gives us occasional shocking glimpses of.
“It happened when Mr. Crawford was away on tour and Douglas on his own in charge of the district. A grain merchant had died and his widow had been forced by her relatives to burn herself with him on his funeral pyre.”
Her step-granddaughter (which seems an odd title as they never met) however inhabits the poorer, if slightly more developed, Satipur. There is the thrill of the new world and also the mystery of piecing this woman and her scandal together. It’s a world of community, the relationship between her, her landlord Inder Lal and his wife, who people believe is possessed by spirits when we could see she has epilepsy, Ritu, also adds a whole new dimension to the novel. This is the world of the ‘heat and dust’ that we are promised from the books title, it’s a foreign, exotic and occasionally scary world, yet she throws herself into the life that greets her, albeit after having to get somewhat accustomed to it.
“The family of the shop downstairs also sleep in this courtyard, and so does their little servant boy, and some others I haven’t been able to identify. So we’re quite a crowd. I no longer change into a nightie but sleep, like an Indian woman, in a sari.
It is amazing how still everything is. When Indians sleep, they really do sleep. Neither adults nor children have a regular bed-time – when they’re tired they just drop, fully clothed, onto their beds, or the ground if they have no beds, and don’t stir again till the next day begins.”
There is a lot of mystery and often some tragedy in ‘Heat and Dust’, yet there is also some bright humour there too, often Jhabvala mixes them at the same time, bittersweet moments or a laugh that casts a dark show. A section in the book where the unnamed narrator takes on an almost obligatory relationship with a fellow Englishman, Chid, who has converted and in doing so seems to have developed a rapacious sex drive had me laughing a lot. Jhabvala wants to add some lighter notes in a world where poverty and lepers are rife, after all for some this is the day to day and it has happy moments. In the case of Olivia’s story line we have her gossiping with the leech-like Harry, a man who has somehow got into the pocket of the Nawab which itself then adds a dark undertone to how manipilative this ruler can be and how controlling.
I thought ‘Heat and Dust’ was a marvellous book, I should add it won the Booker in 1975 – a controversial year. It is a book that is about a country at two very different points in time, the tale of failed marriage, the mysteries of people and love in the unlikeliest of places. Many writers would have needed to write a huge novel to tell this tale, instead what we have is a book you can get lost in for a single sitting and be rewarded beyond expectation. Its an epic distilled in a way, if thats not a cliche. That to me shows the power of Jhabvala’s wonderful prose. I thought it was marvellous. It shocked me it’s not been in print for some time, along with a lot of the authors other work (which I am keen to read), however it’s coming out through Abacus in October, I’d advise you get a copy.
Have you read this and if so what did you think? Have you read any of the authors other novels? I seem to be having a good run with more of the classic Booker novels like this and ‘Moon Tiger’ any others you would recommend?