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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and Dust

Jhabvala’s best-known novel has the familiar theme of Anglo-Indian relations and however much the English may love (or have loved India), they don’t really understand it – with, perhaps, one or two exceptions. The story is narrated by Anne, an Englishwoman of the period when the book was written (early 1970s), who is visiting India to track down what happened to her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia, who left her husband and went off with an Indian Nawab. Anne has Olivia’s letters, which reveal – gradually – her motives. Inevitably, we follow the two stories – Anne and Olivia – and also follow the parallels between them.

Olivia is living, in 1923, in Satipur, in India, with her husband, Douglas (Anne’s grandfather, who later remarried), who is a senior civil servant and spends much of his day dealing with local problems, such as Muslim-Hindu relations and suttee, which is still prevalent. Douglas’ days are long and he has little time for his wife, who soon becomes very bored. The other English ladies are older and stuffy and she has little to do but play the piano. However, the local Nawab, a Bollywood Indian prince, takes an interest in her and, aided by Harry, an Englishman who lives with the Nawab, they become friends and, eventually, lovers. When she becomes pregnant – unsure of who is the father – she has an abortion and then leaves Douglas. The Nawab settles her in a house in the hills – with a piano – and there she lives till her death, out of touch with England, except for the occasional letters. She is of course, despised by her English friends and relatives.

Anne, meanwhile, sets out to investigate. She rents a room in a house in Satipur and soon becomes immersed in Indian life. She takes up with Chid, a young man from the English Midlands, who shaves his head, wears orange robes and begs for his food. His views change once he contracts amoebic dysentery. She then has an affair with her landlord, Inder Lal, an Indian civil servant whose wife has serious mental problems. She becomes pregnant and, as with Olivia, it is not clear whether Inder or Chid is the father. She almost has an abortion but backs away at the last minute and, at the end of the book, she is headed for an ashram hear Olivia’s old house to have the baby.

Much of the book is about attitudes of the English to the Indians (and, to some degree, vice versa). The value of life or, more particular, lives, men-women relations, religion, even food are all topics that Jhabvala looks at with a critical though not certainly not jaundiced eye. She herself, of course, married an Indian and obviously made the adaptation and, for her, Anne, clearly is the hope for improving Anglo-Indian relations though, in a telling scene near the end, we see the Nawab’s descendents, who live in England and have become very Western. Jhabvala tells a fascinating story and she tells it very well.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by John Murray