Monday, March 19, 2018

Booker Book #9: Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust is an excellent follow-up to J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur. Siege is about the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In it, a British official, the Collector, is able to imprison the local Indian prince and his prime minister. In Heat and Dust, the British and Indian rulers seem to be on more equal footing, but their dance is delicate and easily thrown off balance.  

Heat and Dust’s double narrative is original and thought-provoking. The frame story is that of an unnamed contemporary woman researching her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, in the uneasy decades between the Rebellion and Indian Independence ninety years later. The narrator makes clear from the first sentence that Olivia “went away” with the Nawab, the prince of the region next to the one that her British husband manages. The dual mysteries are how an Englishwoman came to such an extreme, and whether her step-granddaughter will follow in her footsteps.

Jhabvala constructs artfully parallel lives for the two women, yet with striking contrasts due to their differing times. The narrator seems to actually care about the natives, performing acts of charity that repel her higher-caste Indian friends, while Olivia seems oblivious to all Indians but her prince. The narrator is able to evict the parasitic Englishman Chid from her house, while Olivia must put up with both her husband Douglas, and her lover’s hanger-on Harry. Both women take an Indian lover, but their reactions to their pregnancies are diametrically opposed. Both stay in India. The narrator seems to do so out of love for the country, but it is unclear what Olivia’s motivations are: is she simply too humiliated to return to England?

Olivia’s prince is a pathetic character: he wants to lead a life of adventure, as his ancestors did, but instead is spoiled and dependent upon English people, like Harry, and English things, such as his wife’s two pianos, which are both ruined by the tropical climate. And it is the narrator who takes the initiative with her own shy Indian lover. However, after the military and class conflict of Siege, in which India is treated solely as enemy and servant, it was a great relief to read this more nuanced tale of two women truly interacting with “the Other.”

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