Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Heat & Dust — Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 6, 2008

The “Raj Literature” has always held a fascination for me and there are reasons for that. Firstly, the British rule has been an important interlude in the long history of India and influenced the institutions, practices, approaches to many facets of Indian way of life. How would India have been if there had not been an interjection like this is an interesting question I sometimes surmise about. Secondly it gives a glimpse of a fascinating social setting and the ferment therein: alien rulers subjugating native populations and overwhelming them, the intermingling of different cultures, the osmosis on account of it and the quaint rules of engagement (It is indubitable that imperialism is unambiguously immoral and in the case of India extremely debilitating yet unwittingly it also may have left its traces of positive influences. There is a substantial amount of writing and legitimate anti podal positions with respect to this aspect. But from an angle of pure fiction or story telling that may or may not add or delete to my interest). Above all The “Raj Literature” evokes the smell and sounds of a bygone era which has touched the lives of people in generations that are and were known to me. The bits and pieces that I have heard from them also appear to have contributed to this interest

However, despite the fascination, my exposure to this genre/era of literature has been limited. The prominent writers that I have come across (not necessarily read) in this space are Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet) and most recently William Dalrymple (The Last Mughal and White Mughals). With the desire of initiating myself into this genre of literature I took up Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’sHeat & Dust“.

The first thought that struck me after I read this book is that for all its deceptively smallness, it is a complex piece of a narrative with 2 strands of stories running in parallel and touching upon various aspects of the lives of people in India pre and post British rule. The narrator whose name is kept anonymous throughout the book comes to India with the curiosity of tracing a piece of family history relating to the life and times of the first wife (Olivia) of her grandfather Douglas. Olivia is married to Douglas who is high up in the ranks of British officialdom and is incharge of the Khatm which is ruled by a Nawab. The Nawab is a typical ruler that we get to hear in Indian history of British era — given to all pleasures of life and located in a setting where the powers of ruling classes was increasingly constrained by the do’s and dont’s imposed by the British rule. To defray for his expenses the Nawab is in cahoots with a gang of dacoits who plunder the residents of Khatm. This turns out to be a headache for the key officials of the British setup of which Douglas is an important element. Given this Douglas keeps a distance from the Nawab. However, Olivia gradually gets attracted to the Nawab and their amorous relationship is also aided by Henry who is a friend of the Nawab. Henry is ill regarded by the British officaldom and treated as a hanger-on of the Nawab. Besides the financial problems the Nawab is also troubled by his own wife (nicknamed Sandy) who hails from the powerful clan of Cabobpur nawabs and is considered to be mentally ill. Living behind the purdah Sandy does impact the life of Nawab in lot many ways. Olivia gets pregnant on account of the Nawab but aborts the child with the abetment of Begum  – the Nawab’s mother. Towards the end Olivia decides to live with the Nawab and moves to Simla where the Nawab provides for her upkeep. The Nawab gets deeper and deeper into a financial mess and tries all that he can to get grants from the British but which are of no avail. Towards the end the Nawab dies in the arms of his mother who has relocated to New York for good. Olivia continues to stay in India and dies there after six years after the Nawab dies. A minority of the British officials who have been the dramatis personae during the unfolding of the event decide to stay back in India after India gets liberated

The other strand of the story is that of the narrator herself. Although she comes with the intention of finding more about Olivia she realises that some parts of the history are buried in the dunes of time forever. What the reader gets to read about Olivia is a careful reconstruction that the narrator manages to build from the letters that Olivia has written to her cousin and alterego Marcia who stays in Paris and bits and pieces of in person narration by Henry who relocates to London during the last stages of Nawab’s life.  The narrator herself gets involved with Inderlal the owner of her house and has a baby with him. As a reader what I found a little unusal is that the narrator treats this development as a matter of fact. Towards the end she says “I still don’t think there was anything special about Olivia; I mean, that she started off with any very special qualities. When she first came here, she may really have been what she seemed; a pretty young woman, rather vain, pleasure-seeking, a little petulant. Yet to have done what she did – and then to have stuck to it all life long – she couldn’t have remained the person she had been. But there is no record of what she became later, neither in our family nor anywhere else as far as I know. More and more I want to find out; but I suppose the only way I can do is to do the same she did – that is, stay on” — with this thought in mind she also decides to stay back in India and looks forward to a life in an ashram of Indian monks in Simla

Broadly this is the plot of “Heat and Dust” — so why is this book considered to be one of the finest pieces of Raj Literature? First and foremost is the brilliant job that Jhabvala does in the evocation of a bygone era. Whether it be the life and times of the Nawab or the British officials or the people of India, Jhabvala’s narration is like a eastman colour movie. Jhabvala takes the reader gently into a world that he has only heard of and will never be able to see again. It is a touching portrayal of an interaction of two different peoples coming from different cultures, worldviews, civilizations, motives and power structures

A second aspect that I was deeply impressed was Jhabvala’s ability to observe the minutae in the setting, understand and portray in a very vivid way — an ability which resides in a writer with an extremely special affinity for the subject on hand. Consider a few of her observations: Here is one where she introduces Inderlal’s mother into the book:”All the time she was studying me. She has a shrewd appraising glance – and I can imagine how she must have gone around looking over girls as possible wives for her sons before finally deciding on Ritu. Quite instinctively she was adding my points as well, and alas I could guess what her sum came to”  or

The portrait of a few rich peasants who have come to appeal to Douglas: They would sit on the verandah with their offerings which were baskets of sweetmeats and pistachio nuts. The rich men all seemed to look the same: they were all fat, and wore spotless loose white muslin clothes and shone in oil and jewellery. When Douglas went out to greet them, they simpered and joined together and seemed to overcome with the honour he was doing them that they could hardly stammer their appreciation of it. Olivia listened to them talking out there. Douglas’ voice firm and manly, rose above the rest. When he spoke the others confined themselves to murmurs of agreement. He must have made some jokes because everynow and again they all laughed in polite unison. Sometimes he seem to speak rather more sternly, and then the murmurs became very low and submissive till he made another joke whereupon they dissolved in relieved laughter. It was almost as if Douglas were playing a musical instrument of which he had entirely mastered the stops or

The narrator meets a missionary when she lands in Bombay, who  goes onto say “Oh! but I’ve seen some terrible sights in India. I’ve lived through a Hindu-Muslim riot, and a smallpox epidemic, and several famines, and I think I may rightly say I’ve seen everything that you can see on earth…..because you see dear nothing here means anything here. Not a thing”  or the view of Hindustani as a language

I just told them, in a roundabout way, that they were a pack of rogues”
“And they like being told that
If you say it in Hindustani, yes”
I must Learn !”
“Yes you must,” he said without enthusiasm.”It’s the only language in which you can deliver deadly insults with the most flowery courtesy

But what I think is the highest achievement in this book is Jhabvala’s portrayal of the the impact of India on the thinking of the British in particular extended to Europe in general. Consider the following where the narrator talks about the monograph written by Major Minnies on this subject: Later, during his retirement in Ooty, he had a lot more time to think about the question, and he even published… a monograph on the influence of India on the European consciousness and character … he said that one has to be very determined to withstand — to stand upto — India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for — the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music and indeed the physical beauty of the men and women — but all, said the Major are dangerous for the European who allows himself to love too much. India always, he said, finds out the weak spots and presses on it. Both Dr.Saunders and Major Minnies spoke of the weak spot. But whereas for Dr. Saunders it is something, or someone, rotten, for the Major this weak spot is to be found in the most sensitive, often the finest people — and, moreover, in their finest feelings. It is there that India seeks them out and pulls them over into what the Major called the other dimension. He also referred to it as the another element, one in which the European is not accustomed to live so that by immersion in it he becomes debilitated, or even (like Olivia) destroyed. Yes, concluded the Major, it is all very well to love and admire India — intellectually, aesthetically, he did not mention sexually but he must have been aware of that factor too – but always with a virile, measured, European feeling. One should never he warned, allow oneself to become softened (like Indians) by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens — the moment one exceeds one’s measure – one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side. That seems to be the last word of Major Minnies had to say on the subject and his final conclusion.  He who loved India so much, knew her so well, chose to spend the end of his days here! But she always remained for him an opponent, even sometimes an enemy, to be guarded and if necessary fought against from without and, especially, from within: from within one’s own being

In totality what I felt after reading “Heat & Dust” is something I find easy to explain in analogous terms and here it is: Imagine that you are invited to a dinner with a huge promise and as a conscientious guest you have gone there with a sharpened appetite. Instead of a normal course meal your host keeps offering a variety of dishes to taste and then expects you to order for a full course. However, the quantum of tasting itself is so large that you are satiated even before you begin on the main course. How do you feel? I for one would have been dissatisfied, frustrated but grateful to my host for having invited me. This is exactly how I felt after reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’sHeat and Dust“. It is a book that touches upon multitude of themes in a complex setting of a completely bygone era and that in itself lies the strongest appeal of this wonderful book. Does it surprise anyone that Jhabvala won a Booker in 1975 for this book?

An afterthought: On the topic of the negative impacts on Indian civilzation and the manifestations thereof in recent times, I think, V.S.Naipaul’s three books viz. An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India – A Million Mutinies Now may be worth exploring


2 Responses to “Heat & Dust — Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — A Book Review”

  1. ashmita said

    wow…some details there!!I liked your post and loved the book myself. I am an Indian myself, so it was good to see how a foreigner would react to the Indian experience….I left a detailed review at http://www.book-review-circle.com/heat-and-dust-ruth-prawer-jhabvala.html

    ps-mine is not so extensive 🙂

  2. sandyi said

    Wonderful post. Loved the way you articulate your reasons to like Raj Literature

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