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Neither hot enough nor dusty enough for me
Heat and Dust - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Member Name: koshkha
Heat and Dust - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Date: 24/11/12, updated on 25/11/12 (55 review reads)
Advantages: It's short and written in a simple style
Disadvantages: I found the leading ladies largely unlikeable
'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.
Summary: Two women visit India five decades apart