This is a very odd, Booker-winning book. Even the title is provocative. The heat is procreation, the dust death (from whence we came). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s unnamed narrator, referring to her alter-ego and ex-great aunt, puts it this way:
The rest of the time Olivia was alone in her big house with all the doors and windows shut to keep out the heat and the dust. [p.17]
So what Olivia at first shunned – the crush of humanity in India – the narrator embraces from the start, being, you see, more modern. Let all the birthing and dying with all their human convulsions in!
This is the fifth book on India I have read this year, due to one of my current projects, and the most puzzling. Given that I have slummed around India myself and lived the ex-patriate experience for a decade or two in another enigmatic foreign behemoth, I should have appreciated Jhabvala’s insights on these themes, but didn’t really.
Oddly, the narrator’s first encounter upon arriving in India is with an unnamed missionary, presumably from England too, but already 30 years in India’s heat and dust, who counsels:
Oh but I’ve seen some terrible sights in India…And through it all I’ve learned this one thing: you can’t live in India without Jesus Christ. If He’s not with you every single moment of the day and night and you praying to Him with all your might and main – if that’s not there, then you become like that poor man with the monkey taking lice out of his hair. [p.11]
This is a cheap opening shot, for the rest of the narrative is set up to prove the missionary wrong.
And an interesting narrative it is: the narrator is on a quest to understand her grandfather’s first wife who, boring of her memsahib role as wife of a British Colonial administrator, elopes with a local Muslim Prince. The narrator is obviously taken by Olivia – who was subsequently a persona non grata to the family– so much so that, in an overused literary trick, Olivia and the narrator start to meld, having the same experiences and reactions. Overused, for instead of jarring us once with the overlap, we are subjected to a number of them before the inevitable divergence occurs. (The novel continuously jumps from “present” to “past” stories. While the analepses, or flashbacks, are written conventionally by the narrator doing her research and fictionalizing what she finds, the narrator’s story is told unrealistically in elaborate journal entries.)
What was scandalous in Olivia’s time – not only did she become pregnant by the Prince while still married, but chooses to abort, a worse crime in the ex-pat community – by the narrator’s era is almost banal. The narrator invites in another English wanderer, this one a bedraggled ascetic named Chid who, having renounced all earthly possessions takes possession of his host repeatedly:
But he has constant erections and goes to a tremendous size, so that I am reminded of the Lord Shiva whose huge member is worshiped by devout Hindu women. [p.55]
But that is not all. The narrator, a tall, strappling English woman who is jeered at as eunich-like by the neighborhood kids, seduces and beds her married landlord from downstairs, a struggling Indian whose wife is ill.
By this time I am completely in favor of the Colonial Raj’s moral code, including the closing of the shutters against the heat and dust, versus the narrator’s faux humanity – though, I suspect, this is not how Jhabvala intended me to feel.
Olivia’s tale ends in a kind of feminist auto-da-fé; after fleeing the hospital (recovering from the abortion’s after-shocks) and her marriage, she retires to the Himalayas where she lives alone in a house put up and kept by the Prince for the rest of her life.
The narrator ends up pilgrimaging to the same hill top village where she – well, we don’t know what she does. The divergence had already occurred: when the narrator’s pregancy is about to be aborted by Maji (the town’s sorceress/wise woman; John Fowles’ The Magus comes to mind), using truly evil spiritual powers, the narrator yells “No please stop!” The narrator’s one truly good act, to not abort, is done for mystic reasons (she claims Maji’s “supernatural powers” [p.132] had willed it). After this, she runs pregnant to the hills where, presumably, she has the baby Olivia never had, and from the looks of it goes native – living out the family life that Olivia couldn’t – in an ashram.
I couldn’t but think back to the ridiculed missionary woman from the book’s first pages. While she had exaggerated, saying “Because you see, dear, nothing human means anything here. Not a thing” (a straw woman if there every was one), I had to wonder if that bedraggled missionary, despite or perhaps because of her healthy distance from such an alien culture, would have done more good than a character like the narrator ever could.
Then again, I’m just a contrarian.
(Quotations from Heat and Dust, 1975; First Counterpoint paperback edition, 1999; paging from eBook.)