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~A Tale of Two Women~
'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a tale of two women who each went to India - one trying to find out the secrets of the other who went 50 years earlier. Olivia was young, pretty and newly married to Douglas, a civil servant based in India. She joined him in India in 1923, a time when a British wife had high standards of behaviour to uphold. The second woman, who narrates the book but is never given a name is Douglas's granddaughter by his second marriage and is therefore a woman who might never have been born if Olivia hadn't done what she did and run off with the Nawab of Khtam, leaving Douglas free to marry Tessie when his divorce came through. We know from the very first pages that Olivia will go off with the Nawab, it's no secret - the book takes us slowly from her arrival in India up to the point when her desertion becomes inevitable.
The younger woman grew up wondering why nobody in the family would speak about Olivia and what she had done. Only after Douglas died could the family start to talk about what had happened. When an old friend of Olivia's - a man we later come to know as Harry - went to visit the narrator's grandmother Tessie and Great Aunt Beth, he told them about Olivia and her life after she left Douglas. He also passed on a collection of her letters he had come to possess many years later.
Armed with Olivia's letters and intrigued by an urge to uncover what happened to her, our narrator takes off to India to follow in her footsteps, tracking her grandfather - and of course Olivia - to the town of Satipur where they were based. Satipur is a real place not far north of Lucknow in what was then the United Provinces, now known as Uttar Pradesh. This would have been a relatively small-town posting and we soon realise that Olivia struggles for social company with just a few British couples of the right calibre for her to mix with. These people are dull, mostly older and rather set in their ways and Olivia's soon bored by them and reluctant to make much effort despite Douglas needing her support socially. When the older ladies ask her to join them in the hill station of Mussoorie to escape the summer heat, she refuses partly out of fear of being bored by the old girls, but also out of a suspicion that she can have more fun if she stays behind. It was common belief that European women just couldn't deal with an Indian summer without going crazy - a convenient excuse for Olivia's more extreme behaviour during the summer months. In short, Olivia is a rather a self-indulgent and flighty young woman who probably should have thought twice about marrying a man whose job committed them both to being in India.
~Torn Between Two Lovers~
The Nawab of Khtar is a local prince, a handsome good time boy with plenty of flair and a love of extravagance which soon turns Olivia's head. He also has a young Englishman in tow - the Harry I mentioned earlier - who soon starts to make visits to Olivia, sometimes with and sometimes without the Nawab in attendance. Harry lives at the palace as a sort of play-thing to the Nawab and is keen to go back to the UK to his aged and ailing mother but the Nawab won't let him go. He's as desperate for company as Olivia and soon sucks her into the Nawab's circle of friends of which she's the only woman. Without Douglas seeming to notice, Olivia spends every day with Harry and the Nawab, enjoying the luxuries of their lifestyle and the stylish distractions they offer. I find it impossible to imagine that Douglas would have failed to notice or to have heard from the servants or the other Brits in town that Olivia had 'gone native' to such a degree.
Meanwhile our narrator is hanging out in Satipur reading Olivia's letters and soaking up the atmosphere. She rents a room belonging to a local man who enjoys practising his English with her and introduces her to his wife and mother. She also befriends Chid, a white 'sadhu' who has - like many in the 1970s - gone to India in search of the meaning of life and found it in renouncing his name, background and possessions to wander around as a mendicant. In beautiful and probably entirely non-ironic style, the narrator can't quite deal with Chid's Midlands accent - she is in her own way, as snobby as her ancestors. Her landlord soon becomes a firm friend and the two take trips together as well as talking long and deeply about life, the universe and all that.
~She or I?~
Olivia's story is presented in the third person which is a little odd considering that it's based on her letters which would obviously have been in the first person. The 1970s story is narrated in the first person. On one hand this difference helps to keep the two stories clearly distinct from one another but on the other there's very little risk that the reader would confuse them. Perhaps in the 1970s these multi-character novels were less common than they are today but I found nothing very subtle about the style of delivery.
As the two stories progress it soon becomes very clear that the narrator is either trying to recreate things that happened to Olivia or is perhaps naively stumbling along and making the same mistakes. Despite the book's cover blurb suggestion that the narrator is there to somehow uncover what happened, there's no effort to investigate what happened to Olivia at all. And in fact there's no need to investigate as everything she needs to know is there in the letters Olivia wrote. I expected her to actively pursue 'the truth' in some way, to try to reveal the unknown or clarify the unclear but none of that happens. Olivia may have been the 'excuse' for her to go to India, but once there, she's overcome the urge to do anything about finding the 'truth' and is slipping into the sort of indolence that would have driven Olivia crazy.
The book is written in a very simple style, lacking the sophistication and humour of most of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's prose. I am a fan of hers and I've read books from her early period (I recently reviewed the excellent but little known 'Esmund in India' from the 1950s which was outstanding) as well as books from the 1990s and I have several of her 21st Century books. It's therefore fair to say I know how well she can write and I just don't understand what - for me at least - went wrong with 'Heat and Dust'. Many readers will tell you the dirt and heat of India sizzle off the page and they are transported there in their minds. I read this whilst I was in India and I wasn't transported anywhere at all by this book. I found it really very dull.
'Heat and Dust' won the 1975 Booker Prize which completely baffles me as it really doesn't seem to me to be a Booker-type book although if Wikipedia is to be believed only TWO books were short-listed that year. I have the other and on the basis of comparison I can understand why 'Heat and Dust ' won. What happened? Did all the writers go on strike or was everyone too stoned to write short-listable books?
One factor might have been that 1975 was less than three decades after Indian Independence and there were plenty of people who had lived in India or had relatives who had lived there and there was a widespread fascination with what happened after the Brits went home. This was a time when Britain was still in the process of giving up parts of the Empire. 1973 when the narrator goes to India was just five years after the Beatles flirted with Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh with their guru and it soon became fashionable for young Europeans with a year to spare and a sense of adventure to get an overland trip to India and go 'in search of themselves'. Consequently interest may have been high in a book that combined the 1920s 'Days of the Raj' and the 1970s 'hippy trail' and this must have ensured a large and diverse audience for the book. The Booker Prize has always been an award that has strong contenders from Indian writers and writers about India but for me, 'Heat and Dust' just doesn't cut the mustard as a Booker winner at all.
~Heat and Dust Irritated Me~
I found the book frustrating in many ways and I was deeply unable to relate to either of the two women but particularly to the narrator. Olivia ran off with the Nawab despite Douglas loving her deeply and even once she's in a position where it's clear she'll have to go, Douglas is still sweet and kind and still wanting to try for a baby. It's not as if Douglas was cruel or unkind, ignored her or mistreated her or ran off with other women - he was just very busy at work. Yes he's condescending about the locals and (justly) wary about the Nawab and his support for local bandits, but that's hardly a reason for Olivia to run off with him. Further frustration came from small things such as the narrator having no name and the laziness at the end of the book where the author sends her to a place called 'X' up in the mountains. Up to that stage all the locations mentioned were real places and I couldn't help wondering if RPJ had just forgotten to allocate a location, perhaps finishing the book in a bit of a rush and not realising she's not sent the two women to a proper place.
Despite no genetic connection between the two women, they share the same lax attitudes to sex. The narrator passively accepts Chid's sexual attention, not through any particular affection or lust but because he seems to expect it from her (and he's apparently the master of some prodigious erections and great staying power - which I REALLY didn't need to know). Similarly when she matches Olivia's seduction by the Nawab with a seduction of her own on a similar hot afternoon in the same location, I felt it was another act lacking in desire or emotion and driven by the need to copy Olivia. I know that sexual morality in the mid 1970s was very different from earlier times (and of course they'd not yet got AIDS to worry about) but even so I really missed any sense of passion or lust, the narrator replacing them with something much more 'functional'. I had expected that 'Heat and Dust' was a great love story, or possibly two great love stories, but found instead it was a book about the dangers or boredom more than anything else.
~Read the Book, Watch the Film~
Normally I try to read a book before seeing any film adaptation but in the case of 'Heat and Dust' I did things the other way round. I only decided to read the book after I'd watched the film and been left thinking "Did I miss something?" The film left me wondering if I might have popped out of the room to make a coffee just when something important had transpired. Having read the book, I now know that the film really was true to the book and was just as dull. I hadn't missed anything because there was nothing to miss.
I love books and films about India. I have read hundreds of books by Indian writers or set in India and this is one of the weakest so far. If I'd never been to India I might 'buy' the idea that this book sizzles with authenticity but I have - many times - and it makes no sense to me at all. Yes India is hot and dusty - tell us all something we don't know, why don't you? - but this doesn't vibrate with the smells and flavours of India. RPJ may have felt as a European married to an Indian that she had something insightful to say about mixed race relationships but whatever it was, I missed it.
~An Alternative Recommendation~
If you want a book about two generations of women going to India in which one really does uncover the mysteries of the other, I strongly recommend you skip this novel and get a copy of Rosie Thomas' 'The Kashmir Shawl' instead. I don't imagine Thomas will ever get short-listed for a literary award but 'The Kashmir Shawl' is the book that RPJ should have written but didn't.
Firstly, many thanks to Sue (Catsholiday) for reviewing so beautifully and introducing me to this book. I have never visited India but the country and culture fascinate me - this book appealed to me because of the location and the intriguing story that it promised to tell. The title did not reveal much to me but it soon became obvious of it's relevance. I looked forward to immersing myself in this prize winning novel.
1923 and bored Olivia is living in the district of Satipur with her husband, Douglas, who is a civil servant. Blonde, attractive and desperate for entertainment Olivia finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to the neighbouring Nawar (Indian Prince). Dashingly handsome and quirky in nature the Nawar is enchanting to most who occupy his company - Olivia is no exception.
Fifty years later we join Olivia's great step granddaughter on her journey in India - which has striking similarities to Olivia's. She will not rest until she discovers the mystery behind the events that occurred all those years ago. Why did Olivia disappear in a cloud of scandal which embarrassed her husband and the English society within India?
LETS GET ALL HOT AND DUSTY
In 1923, Satipur, India we meet one of the main protagonists - Olivia. Written in the third person I found that I soon settled into the prose. Living in the lap of luxury, and attended by Indian servants, the beautiful young woman spends her days playing the piano and waiting for Douglas, her handsome husband, to return home from his work as a civil servant. The highlight of her day is conversation and, hopefully, affection from this important and busy guy. I warmed to Olivia sooner than I imagined I would. She is spoiled and apathetic occasionally but considering how she was expected to live - like a caged bird - it is not surprising that she may have a little sulk every now and then. Her life has no reason or structure - I found it easy to empathise with her when she became irritable and began grasping and searching for anything or anyone that would bring her some joy in life. Olivia was in love with Douglas - that was obvious and he with her but is that really enough? I contemplated the concept of existing alone in a house all day every day with nothing to do only play the piano and arrange pretty flowers? It would not suit me I am afraid. Olivia's character was developed realistically and her situation was believable - living in a foreign country, not fully understanding the politics and the only available friendships being rather serious minded mature women - it was of no surprise to me that this girl would become excitable and intoxicated by the enchanting and stunningly handsome Indian Prince who was known as Nawar.
Some fifty years later we meet the step great granddaughter of Olivia - this section of the prose is presented in the first person. I was immediately comfortable with the comprehension and the plot line flowed well - nestled in between the former. This young woman, the other main protagonist, was easier for me to identify with as she is nearer to my own generation. Intriguing letters that Olivia wrote have fallen into this young woman's possession and she makes it her mission to trace Olivia's tracks and discover the truth behind the scandal. There are some similarities in the experiences of both this woman and Olivia - Indian culture remains unchanged in the most part but the choices that this modern woman makes in comparison to Olivia are thought provoking - women have become stronger and have independence and a confidence that was lacking in Olivia. Indeed this young ladies traits were rather impressive. She had compassion and was not afraid to show it or take action because of it, which I really admired. She was selfless, tenacious, assertive and confident. As she settled into the unique environment that is Satipur she adapted to the dirt, clutter, poverty, poor hygiene and unusual sleeping habits as well as the colourful, spiritual culture that welcomed her and over time accepted her into their community. She became close friends with her landlord Inder Lal and spent increasing amounts of time with him and his family - there was something about this guy that she connected with and found appealing. Eventually this young girl would happen upon an experience that bears striking resemblance to Olivia's - what is interesting is the decision that each woman made! I reflected on this concept for a while - how things have changed since the 1920's in regard to how a woman is influenced when decision making, it really is incredible!
Throughout the book and within each of the ladies stories there are supporting characters - I found all of them to be interesting and well developed even though for the most part they remain two dimensional. I do have to give Harry a mention - off whom Olivia developed a strong friendship -even if at times her motives where a little selfish. Harry is a sensitive and fragile character who can be quite impulsive and seemingly unsure of what he wants in life - he is easily manipulated by the beguiling Nawar. The inclusion of this character was a stroke of genius in my opinion - he lit up the page with his flamboyant nature and larger than life personality, he made me smile!
The essence of India is captured and portrayed beautifully within this composition - the title of the book 'heat and dust' is described in such a way that you can imagine how difficult it would be to tolerate extreme heat that exhausted you and brought with it flies and pests amid the dirty paths around the town - along with that is the dust that can be carried along on a wind and cover the surroundings with layers of dirt and dust. When reading the prose of the 1920's and 50 years later I found it easy to envisage the surroundings that are expressed. One favourite place that is visited by both Olivia and her step great granddaughter is appealing to me - Baba Firdau's grove. Hidden within the undergrowth is a shrine that draws many to it to make a wish on a special day in the year known as The Husbands Wedding Day. The walk to it in the heat and dust is unbearable and exhausting but on arrival the heat is kept at bay - the area is sheltered and a pleasant temperature, it is spiritual and special. I enjoyed reading this part of the book in particular as I did get a sense of how very beautiful and peaceful this area was.
The plot lines ran neatly along side each other and it was always obvious which year I was reading about. The themes were interesting and maintained my interest in the prose - they include passion, romance, betrayal, paternalism, spirituality, suffering, pain, cultural diversity, conflict and compassion. The prose moves at a nice pace throughout though I wouldn't say that I was turning the pages quickly - it wasn't that kind of a read as it was more thought provoking. Nearing the end of the prose, as I discovered what happened to cause the scandal regarding Olivia, I was really impressed by the subtle and sensitive way that the subject was covered and it was then that the similarity in experiences with her step great granddaughter became obvious. The emphasis here is on subtle - the outcome doesn't whack you in the face and it really works. It suits the whole mood and feel of the prose and does not disappoint, this is the first book that I have read with an ending in this style - in my opinion this is a clever piece of writing!
BITS AND BOBS
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IS IT RECOMMENDED TO GO INTO HEAT AND DUST?
A story that unfolds beautifully and introduces you to the spiritual and unique country that is India. You will become acquainted with Olivia - a young woman who is desperate for attention, entertainment, fun - a life! Though shallow, selfish and at times apathetic this lady also has compassion. I warmed to her rather quickly and hoped for a happy outcome to her quest. As she see's less of her husband due to his work load this encourages her to be more reckless and seek out the company of he who pays her great attention, he whose eyes do not leave her when she is in his company - the Nawar. Some 50 years later Olivia's step great granddaughter follows the scandal of Olivia's involvement with the Nawar - intrigued by the culture, spirituality and locals in Satipur she stays longer and longer as she follows the trail of Olivia's experiences - unbeknown to her she is heading for a similar encounter of her own! The main protagonists are well rounded and the traits are believable - I warmed to both women - especially the step great granddaughter whose compassion and kind heart was evident. The plot lines are complex and filled with themes such as conflict, passion and betrayal - always a page turner! The descriptive prose was beautiful and enabled me to imagine the surroundings, smells and sounds easily even though I have never visited India. The prose develops well and the ending is satisfactory - even though it is crafted with subtle sensitivity. A really enjoyable read! Recommended!
THANKS FOR THAT!
Thank you kindly for reading - hopefully you have found the review helpful. Also published on CIAO.
'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Published by John Murray
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS BOOK?
This was a book I picked up in one of those bookshops that have ends of line books. I was attracted to it firstly by the author's name which sounded Indian and I love books set in India and also by the beautiful picture on the front cover. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but there must be a reason why the publishers spend so long selecting the right images and in this case it worked for me. The picture shows an old style Indian exotic building with a street scene in front of it that couldn't be anywhere else except India. Anyway shallow I may be but I picked it up and bought it for £2.99
The author was actually born in Germany and her parents were Polish and after the age of twelve she was brought up in England. So bang goes my theory about her name being Indian! However she married an Indian architect and she lived in Delhi from 1951 to 1975. After 1975 they lived part of the time in delhi and part in England.
Ms Jhabvala has written film and TV scripts for 'A Room with a View' and 'Howard's End' which both won Academy awards. She won a Booker prize for this novel.
ABOT THE BOOK:
A young, beautiful, newly married Olivia is married to a fairly medium level civil servant and living in Satipur in the 1920s. She is bored as the only company she has are rather pompous and older wives until she meets a dashing Indian Prince.
The novel flits backwards and forwards between Olivia's story back in the early 20th century and that of her step- granddaughter who has gone to Satipur fifty years later to find out the truth about the rumours of Olivia's running off with the Nawab all those years before.
This is a love story with complications set in two different time periods but in the same town in India. The changes are not openly stated but we see how things have altered but not necessarily progressed. The 1920's is pre Independence and the civil servants and their families are on the edge of the unrest. The British are so terribly superior and even the Nawab or prince is considered less than the fairly lowly civil servants who are British.
Douglas had been talking to a group of 'Indians' in Hindustani and he comes back inside to Olivia who is "sitting at her sampler" (how very Jane Austen). He is smiling as he has enjoyed the banter but it's his superior attitude that says it all, "They think they are frightfully cunning but they're like children." This is just one of many such conversations that are examples of how the British saw their work in India at this time.
They change for dinner into their inappropriate suits etc and the men have cigars and drinks after the meal while the 'little ladies' are sent off to powder their noses. All so pretentious and boring I am not surprised Olivia got fed up and depressed. I would have crawled up the wall and round the bend, no wonder she found the Nawab and his English companion Harry so much more entertaining.
We are given little peaks into the world of the Nawab who has a very domineering mother who rules the other ladies in the palace and has considerable influence over her son too. It is a real insight into life of both the State rulers in India and their life style at the same time we also see how minor district officials in colonial India lived.
The other story is of the step granddaughter who is the daughter of Olivier's ex husband, Douglas who she left to run off with the Nawab. You can just imagine the scandal this must have caused in the stuffy colonial society of India at the time of the Raj and pre -independence. After Olivier ran off, Douglas was so humiliated that he returned to England where he married again. The step granddaughter was so intrigued by the story that she returns to India in the 1970s when India had become the place to go and 'find' yourself for young people.
Interestingly although the stories are set fifty years apart they are very similar in that they both have an Anglo India relationship with a similar result though what happens to each of the women is quite different because of the different times.
I particularly like the way that India was not cleaned up, streets were described with all the activity and grime that life on an Indian street has. The people that the granddaughter/narrator meets are very real and the descriptions of the places evoke pictures of places in India I have seen.
"I lay looking up at the roof which was a sheet of tin, and at the mud walls blackened from her cooking fire. Now with the only aperture closed, it was quite dark inside and all sorts of smells were sealed in - of dampness, the cowdung used as fuel, and the lentils she had cooked; also of the Maji herself. Her only change of clothes hung on the wall, unwashed."
Descriptions like this drop me straight in the hut; you can almost smell the atmosphere.
I found all the characters to be very believable, even the minor character such as Chid who is a young English boy discovering himself in India in the 70's. He decides to become a sadhu, and then becomes really ill. He then moves in with the narrator and ... "is always hungry, and not only for food. He also needs sex very badly and seems to take it for granted that I will give it to him the same way as I give him food."
I found the book really fascinating and loved both stories. The chapters alternated between the two stories and the parallels between the two became more evident as the novel progressed. I loved the way the two stories wove together and yet the descriptions and style of conversation are so different in the two stories.
As I was reading the book I had vague recollections of a film or TV production I had seen years ago. The book was first published in 1975 but looking up on the internet I find that there was a film made by Merchant Ivory in 1983. Apparently Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has worked with Merchant Ivory on a number of films, this being one. Having read the book I think I will now seek out the film and see how it compares. I did really enjoy 'A Room with a View' and 'Howard's End' so I am hopeful that this one will be good too. Ms Jhabvala won both the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Screenplay and also the London Critics Circle Film Awards for Screenwriter of the Year of both for the screen play of " Heat and Dust" in 1984 so it sounds very promising.
WHAT OTHER MORE LITERARY PEOPLE HAVE SAID
"A superb book. A complex story line, handled with dazzling assurance ... moving and profound. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has not only written a love story, she has also exposed the soul and nerve ends of a fascinating and compelling country. This is a book of cool, controlled brilliance. It is a jewel to be treasured" from The Times
"A writer of genius ... a writer of world class - a master storyteller" from the Sunday Times
"Coolly assured novel ... Written with seek elegance, this book delves into the heart of an unmistakably seductive country" from The Good Book Guide
"Her tussle with India is one of the richest treats of contemporary literature" from the Guardian
"Coolly assured novel ... Written with seek elegance, this book delves into the heart of an unmistakably seductive country" from The Good Book Guide
This is a brilliant novel that fills the senses in more ways than one. As I read I was drawn into the two stories which are a mixture of mystery and an old fashioned love story set in the fascinating backdrop of India during pre colonial times and in the 1970s. I enjoyed the descriptions in the more modern story as there was an element of humour in the character of Chid and indeed the narrator's observations of other people she came across in her daily life. This is never done in a malicious way nor is it condescending as she is merely observing but in a caring way. She is almost laughing at herself and the situation she finds herself in. At other times scenes are quite shocking such as when she finds a beggar woman dying and no one seems to care so she cares for this dying, smelly beggar from the street herself.
This novel has all I want from a novel. It has interesting characters and although not a lot actually happens the descriptions are so vivid that you feel you are there. I do hope when I finally get to see the film that it captures all I got from the book.
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